Our columnist believes the medals the U.S. team earned in Mexico had a lot to do with a new feeling of unity.
My wife Beezie Madden and I have just returned from Guadalajara, and as I reflect back on the week at the Pan American Games, I think I am most pleased with our team spirit. Team spirit is such an intangible thing and hard to create or define, but I think the net effect shows clearly in our team’s results.
Our team and Chef d’Equipe George Morris have come under fire lately, especially after this summer’s Nations Cup tour. With the pressure of the Olympics hanging over everyone, I expected a tense mood among our team at these Games.
But I was impressed by the attitude and atmosphere among riders, grooms, owners and the support staff, including U.S. Equestrian Federation Director of High Performance Show Jumping Lizzy Chesson, veterinarian Dr. Tim Ober, farrier Todd Meister, veterinarian Dr. Peter Donaldson and even our friends from the State Department. I could say their names, but that might be a security breach. The support and feeling of camaraderie was strong all week and continued into the individual finals.
The Big Difference
What was different about this team than all the other teams this year? Comparing the team at the Pan Americans with the teams we were on for the Nations Cups this summer, the feeling was totally different. I can’t help but think the team spirit is partially tied to results.
The USA brought the best materials available to Mexico. Our best horses and riders combined with very proper preparation, and the results speak for themselves. Team gold and individual gold and silver medals show that the USA’s results this summer were the anomaly, and our level of horsemanship and quality of horses in this country are still strong enough to make us a major contender.
We may need more depth in horses and riders, which I think will come from shows in North America continuing to improve and giving our horses and riders quality mileage, but our best are still on par or better than the best anywhere else in the world.
It was most impressive to see the owners of these five great horses make qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games in London a priority. It was a huge endeavor and created a significant period of time that these horses had to be in preparation, which severely limited show options this fall. The owners should be commended for placing such importance in our team having a shot at the Olympics in 2012.
The riders and their staffs were supportive and helpful to each other, and I was especially awed with the attitude that Mario Deslauriers brought to the Games. He was one of the best alternates you could expect, treating the position seriously, and I think this is part of what sparked our entire team spirit this trip. Mario was as much a part of the team as any other rider, participating in every daily aspect, with the exception of actually riding in the competitions.
His horse was prepared to be ready at the drop of a hat, should it be needed, and Mario looked at this as a chance to learn and a chance to review his system. He was able to analyze his preparation and compare and contrast with his teammates. He was able to be an asset to our team.
The Focus We Needed
It’s hard with our sport. It’s so individualized, yet we come together for these important events and try to create the connections that a football or a baseball team would have whole seasons to create.
By virtue of the overwhelming goal of qualifying for the Olympics, we walked into Guadalajara all on the same page. So many times at a Nations Cup, each rider has multiple horses, multiple goals and too many separate focuses to be solely committed to the team’s goal. This isn’t a criticism; this is life for a rider, a juggling act of managing staff, horses, sponsors, owners and students.
Perhaps our issues at the Nations Cups weren’t skill based or lack of good horses but were partially caused by a lack of focus. I think it’s commonplace for U.S. riders to wear a few more hats than our European competitors, who are able to create successful businesses without needing to spread into multiple facets in the industry.
By spending several days at U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., before heading to Mexico, we prepared properly for this competition. Clearly the reality of rider schedules makes this a near impossibility for each team event.
On the same vein, by virtue of the safety concerns in Guadalajara, we spent more time together than normal. This resulted in more communication and more sharing of ideas than normal, unifying our team to not only have one goal (the Olympics) but also have one shared system and philosophy on defeating the courses.
I was very impressed with the venue and management at the Games. The footing was a wood chips-sand mix that held up well. While this was a good choice for footing in Mexico, it’s not a common footing, and that in itself sparked a conversation among our grooms and riders on what the best choice of studs would be: not necessarily a problem, but a question to be answered that gave our team the chance to work together.
The stabling was efficient and safe for the horses. The barns were not elegant, but the set up was well done, and our horses were very happy. The jumps were colorful, and the courses were well designed. The venue was as good as any show. The management and our federation worked together to keep safety as the No. 1 goal all week, and we never had a concern while there.
While we never had an issue with safety, the event organizer and the USEF did stress that we not wander from the hotel and that we stay together. With these instructions, our team found itself spending more together time than usual. The forced closeness of meals together, morning coffee together, and traveling together, seemed to create a stronger team spirit.
Better And Better
Years ago the USA may have attended the Pan American Games with an automatic feeling of self-confidence. It was satisfying to not have that extreme confidence and to see such a strong level of competition from all the countries represented at the Games.
The countries in our hemisphere are clearly placing importance on our sport, and the quality of riders, horses and horse preparation, and management is improving rapidly. While this raises the stakes for the U.S. team at competitions, it’s a good thing for us and for the horses. I think we want everyone to do the best they can and us to do just a little bit better.
When it came down to the very end of the competition between Christine McCrea and Beezie, they both wanted the best for each other. I am so pleased that it was down to two U.S. riders at the end. Did both of them try to beat each other? Of course! When Coral Reef Via Volo crossed the timers with a time fault, there is no one Beezie wanted ahead of her more than a fellow U.S. rider. Competitive nature didn’t erase the team spirit. Our riders were able to compete against each other, yet keep the spirit present.
While something as intangible as team spirit certainly can’t be the only key to creating winning teams, I think this week in Mexico proved that it’s a piece of the puzzle that perhaps the U.S. team hasn’t quite mastered with consistency.
I’m the first to say that the key to winning consistently is to consistently do things properly. I’ve said before that people may win a little bit by not doing things properly, but consistently following the proper plan yields the best results. Maybe the “proper plan” needs to include a focus on team unity.
John Madden, Cazenovia, N.Y., is married to international grand prix rider Beezie Madden. Together, they operate John Madden Sales Inc., where they train horses and riders. The horse business has encompassed John’s entire life, and in addition to his business he was the Organizing Committee Chairman for the Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.) and is on the U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance Show Jumping Computer List Task Force. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2008.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Team Spirit And Good Materials Bring Results” ran in the November 14, 2011, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.