In honor of double Olympic gold medalist Salinero, whose death at age 28 was announced this week by his rider Anky van Grunsven, we’re looking back at this report from the 2004 Athens Olympics, where the Hanoverian won his first Olympic medal. This story originally was published Sept. 13, 2004.
The Olympic dressage was a contest between the old and the new. It was a contest between Rusty—a member of every German team since 1997, holder of five individual medals and in the sunset of his career with Ulla Salzgeber—and Salinero, the rapidly ascending contender who’d never been on a Dutch championship team before but was victorious in the FEI World Cup Final last April.
And even after he claimed the gold medal, with a freestyle test that scored 85.82%, the newcomer still needed the aid of his elder. Salinero, 10, spooked and spun violently as Anky van Grunsven attempted to start her post-medal ceremony honor lap after gingerly remounting, showing the only sign of the broken leg that sidelined her for five months in 2003. So Rusty, 16, had to lead his frightened conqueror to the A end of the packed and rocking dressage stadium as Athens’ Markopoulo Equestrian Center erupted on Aug. 25.
“As you can see, he’s no hero outside of the ring, but in the ring he wants to do it for me,” said van Grunsven with a smile after accepting her second individual gold medal in a row.
But he hadn’t looked too willing or eager in the Grand Prix, when he spooked at the judge’s box at E while circling the ring and tried to whirl his way back out of the stadium. So clearly anxious was he that, when the bell rang, van Grunsven implored, “Quiet, please,” to anyone who could hear her in the stands.
And then Salinero showed resistance in his first two piaffes, spun his way through both canter pirouettes, and jumped out of the final but otherwise good piaffe.
Much to the surprise of many observers, including the U.S. team, van Grunsven scored 74.20%, good enough for second place and enough to keep her in touch with Salzgeber, who got all the points she could (all 8s and 9s) from Rusty’s extended trots, half-passes at the trot and canter, and passage.
And since the piaffe showed only a hint of its notorious hitch in the right hind leg, she scored a hefty 78.20 to take a 4-point lead over her Dutch rival and keep the German team’s 28-year gold-medal streak alive, holding Spain and the United States safe.
Cloudless sunshine and 90-degree heat surrounded the two days of Grand Prix, but Grand Prix Special day dawned cooler, with the wind blowing steadily at 15 to 20 mph and making the three dozen flags circling the stadium stand straight out. It was a change that some horses relished and others couldn’t handle.
Rusty was one of the latter because the wind kept blowing over the letters around the warm-up arenas. “So we were fighting with the wind from the beginning, and it was clear there would be a problem in the ring. We made too many mistakes,” was Salzgeber’s no-nonsense analysis of Rusty’s performance.
He shied at the letter before his first trot half-pass, at the letter at the end of his second trot half-pass, and then spun out of passage when he spooked at M, crowned by a TV microphone encased in a fuzzy cover that was rippling in the wind.
“He was waiting for little monsters to come out of the letters,” said Salzgeber.
Those little monsters let Salinero best Rusty in the Special by 2.96%, narrowing the gap between them to 1.04%. The freestyle—at which van Grunsven is an artist and Salzgeber no slouch—would decide the gold.
Salzgeber, 46, wasn’t inclined to predict whether she or van Grunsven would prevail, though. “It is always possible that somebody comes from behind, and that used to be my thing,” said Salzgeber, who won the bronze in 2000, even though her CD malfunctioned halfway through her freestyle. “So the person in front will not necessarily win, but anyone who knows me knows that I will try to fight.”
Howling And Shaking
They were the last two to go, before an almost-full stadium of 8,000 people, many of whom (including van Grunsven’s orange-clad Dutch fans) were cheering as if it were a rock concert.
Van Grunsven, 36, used French music, which perfectly matched Salinero’s canter and seemed to put him in the most relaxed and attentive mood he’d shown all week. And he didn’t make a single mistake. The choreography wasn’t overly demanding, but the pair looked like dancers as they flowed from a long extended trot into canter or from one-tempi changes to medium canter to a double pirouette. She burst into tears of joy after the salute.
Watch their 2004 Athens Olympic freestyle:
With the wind still howling and the stadium nearly shaking, Salzgeber and Rusty began their final warm-up. But Rusty’s attention was focused this time on nothing but his rider, who, with her jaw set, didn’t seem to notice the commotion at all. She was clearly there, as she said, to fight.
Salzgeber has used the same stirring, evocative “Carmina Burana” music for five years now since it fits the power that is Rusty so perfectly. And he began with a gigantic extended trot as the music built, continuing with a series of top-notch piaffe half-pirouettes, passage half-passes and trot half-passes. But the energetic trot work had put Salzgeber slightly ahead of her music, so she made the walk transition ahead of the musical cue and got a decidedly tense walk. The section of tempi changes punctuated by 1 1/2-revolution canter pirouettes went perfectly, but Rusty dragged his hind end through the last set of piaffes and stopped briefly in the final piaffe half-pirouette—and it was enough to make the difference.
For each–the two biggest stars in dressage–the aqua, green and orange medal podium was a truly emotional place. Van Grunsven broke her leg falling off another horse last year and couldn’t ride for five months, then had to prepare a fiery youngster who’d never seen competition like this until last winter.
“He is a very hot horse and is always willing to go, that is for sure, but he really fits me like that,” she said of Salinero (Salieri—St. Pr. Luna, Lungau), a Hanoverian gelding. “I just hope that when he gets a little older, he gets a little wiser. I hope.”
She’d insisted after the Special that winning a second straight gold medal wasn’t a do-or-die goal. “I’m not defending my gold medal in my mind because that was Bonfire and this is a new horse,” she said, adding after the freestyle, “It’s all happened so fast—unbelievable.”
Clearly, Salzgeber had been wounded by the uproar surrounding her disqualification as the 2003 FEI World Cup Final winner because Rusty tested positive for a high level of testosterone as a result of medication for a skin problem. She claimed to not be disappointed about missing Olympic individual gold. Perhaps not, but she still looked, as the Klingons say in Star Trek, as if she felt that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
“If you go through so much, it takes a little bit away from you,” she said.
In fact, she’d thought about not even trying out for the German team, but her family, friends and team officials convinced her that Rusty deserved the chance to erase all doubts about his greatness by winning his sixth team gold medal.
“I’m not any more the fighter I was before, but the people behind me pushed me to be here, and I’m glad they did, because now I have two medals I didn’t think I’d want, and I am happy,” she said, her eyes moistening.
She wouldn’t say for sure that the Olympics would be the last championship for Rusty. But she was 100-percent sure that it was the last time he’d perform to “Carmina Burana.”
“It has become a work of art on its own in these last five years, and I don’t think I can do it again,” she said.
Despite their gold medal, the most remarkable thing about this Olympic dressage was that it wasn’t just a German walkover. Salzgeber and Hubertus Schmidt were the only Germans to finish in the top six as six other teams seriously contended for the silver and bronze medals. And those medals came down to the fourth riders on each team before Spain edged the United States by 1.4%, with the Netherlands just 0.24% behind.
For the U.S. squad, Athens was a case of raised expectations leaving a sense of mild disappointment.
The quartet of Debbie McDonald, Robert Dover, Guenter Seidel and Lisa Wilcox had hoped for a repeat of their 2002 World Championship silver medal. They’d also hoped to truly challenge the Germans for the gold, and for McDonald and the marvelous Brentina to become the first Americans since Col. Hiram Tuttle in 1932 to win an Olympic individual dressage medal.
But the Germans were just too deep, as all four scored above 71% in the Grand Prix. And in the freestyle Brentina made mistakes in two of her three sets of one-tempi changes and settled for fourth, still the best U.S. finish since Hilda Gurney and Keen claimed fourth in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Wilcox, 38, and Relevant, 13, had the misfortune of being the first pair in the ring for the Grand Prix, and their score of 68.79% was 3 to 4 points lower than what the team needed.
“I can only hope the judges are feeling good this morning,” she said when she dismounted, before her score was announced. But they weren’t.
Considering the Olympics were only Relevant’s second show since February, it was a remarkable performance. It had only one mistake (on the two-tempi changes) and was correct and deadly steady, but with an air of cautiousness.
“I got a little noisy with my seat and pushed too much” on the two-tempi changes, she said, but “he gave me all he could give today.”
Wilcox decided not to continue showing at the winter indoor shows because the chestnut stallion was getting anxious at them, and then in May he injured his right front tendon sheath. Then, to prove Relevant was fit and ready, she had to have a top test at Lingen (Germany) two weeks before the Olympics. She said the pressure of her first Olympics was nothing compared to the pressure at Lingen.
She added that her low score “puts a lot of pressure on my teammates, and that bums me out.” And it would mean Wilcox and Relevant, the individual silver medalists at the 2003 Open European Championships, wouldn’t make the cut-off for the Special.
When Seidel, riding in his third Olympics, and the promising but relatively inexperienced Aragon scored almost 1 point higher, it was clear the team wouldn’t be pushing Germany and was going to need outstanding tests from McDonald and Dover the next day to stand on the podium.
Like Wilcox, Seidel’s only real downfall was a bit of cautiousness. Aragon, 13, displayed his splendid piaffes and passage, but his extensions could have been bigger, and he swapped leads in front at the end of the extended canter, then lost impulsion in the first canter pirouette.
“Overall, I thought it was very good, especially since half a year ago I wouldn’t have been sure he would stay in a ring like this,” said Seidel. “I didn’t have a mistake-free test, so I wouldn’t expect a super-super score.”
With her team precariously close to not earning a medal at all, McDonald and Brentina entered the ring as the second pair to start on Day 2, and the heroes of the 2002 World Championships produced a controversial effort. Presenting her air of soft and never-changing collection, Brentina’s transitions, especially in and out of the piaffe and passage, were seamless and her two sets of changes perfectly balanced.
The only mistake was changing leads behind for one stride at the end of the first canter pirouette, although the two extended trots were less than full out, and her trot half-passes could have been more fluid.
But the score, announced as McDonald was leaving the ring, was only 73.37%. The judges at E and B (Dieter Schuele of Germany and Francis Verbeek van Rooy of the Netherlands) placed her third, while the judges at H and M (Vincenzo Truppa of Italy and Mariette Withages of Belgium) placed her ninth.
Fumed Robert Dover, “It was the ride of her life, and it’s sad that some of the judges didn’t see it that way.”
McDonald, too, admitted to being disappointed with the score. “Other than the first pirouette, it felt very good to me. I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” she said. “Having had only one show since March,” because of Brentina’s tendon sheath injury, “this was great,” she added.
The judges gave Brentina straight 7s on her first extended trot and four 7s and an 8 on the second, and the first pirouette received two 5s, two 6s and a 7. Her best marks came in the piaffe-passage transitions, where she got all 8s and 9s.
Explained Withages, “Brentina is one of the best and most correctly ridden horses, but sometimes it misses the power and sparkle of the others.”
With the United States now battling Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and the surprisingly strong British for the silver and bronze medals, Dover cantered down the centerline, looking for a test well into the 70s. And he got it, scoring 71.63%, the ninth best individually.
While showing fluid lateral work, dynamic extensions and rhythmic piaffe, Kennedy did commit two errors. The first came on the second piaffe, when he half-jumped, half-slipped out of it near the end of the 15 steps. The second came when he started doing one-tempi changes at the end of the two-tempi line.
This time, Dover didn’t question the score. “I maybe pushed him a little too much” in the two-tempi changes, he said. In the piaffe, “I think he thought he was on his way to passage again.”
Dover, who’s now ridden in six Olympics and three World Championships since 1984, was philosophic that he and his teammates had fallen short of repeating the silver medal McDonald, Wilcox, Seidel and Sue Blinks had won two years ago. If they’d won the silver, it would have been only the second time a U.S. dressage team had ever surpassed bronze in the Olympics. (The first time was the silver medal in 1948.)
“It’s kind of like watching a play unfold in front of you,” said Dover about the dynamics of team competition. “It’s either a smash hit from the beginning and you just ride the wave, or it’s not.”
In his evaluation, Wilcox and Seidel had gotten far better scores for similar rides in the past. And he still thought McDonald and Brentina deserved better. “I saw that test as among the best tests I’ve ever seen, and I don’t see how the scores could not have reflected that,” he said.
Still, “We’re always happy with any medal because it shows we’re one of the top three in the sport,” said Dover, who went on to finish sixth, by far his best Olympic finish ever.
“He moved and flew and was just so much fun to ride,” said a beaming Dover after his freestyle, which scored 78.47%, leaving him just 0.17% behind fifth-placed Schmidt.
McDonald cranked Brentina up in the Special but still got all 7s and one 8 on the two extended trots. The 1.4 % improvement in her score came largely on the two pirouettes (like the Grand Prix, they have a coefficient of 2, and one judge gave her a 9 on the second pirouette, to the left) and on the second set of one-tempi changes (nine of them, between the two pirouettes). There, Brentina scored a 7, three 8s and a 9.
But, then, riding mostly to “Who Could Ask For Anything More?” in the freestyle, McDonald scored 78.82% for her highly demanding choreography. The second canter pirouette in Brentina’s opening sequence was a bit too large, and the chestnut mare missed a sequence in two different lines of one-tempi changes.
“There were simply too many mistakes,” said judge Wojciech Markowski of Poland.
Said McDonald, “I’m not happy with myself, but I am pleased with my horse. It was out of my control—just one of those times when the body doesn’t work with the brain.”
The woman and her team who prevented McDonald and her team from placing higher were Beatriz Ferrer-Salat and her Spanish compatriots. They followed up their 2002 bronze medal (and the silver medal at the 2003 European Championships) by wearing silver this time as Ferrer-Salat, the individual silver medalist in 2002, claimed bronze with a consistently high level of performance on Beauvalais.
For the Spanish, the silver was the climax of a program they began nine years ago, when their federation hired Jean Bemelmans of Germany to turn their team of Spanish-bred horses (except for Ferrer-Salat’s horses) into an internationally competitive group.
“The first medal [in 2002] was very exciting—I kept crying and crying,” said Ferrer-Salat, remembering the moment in Jerez, Spain. “The first one is more important, but this one is very special.”
Said Rafael Soto, who’s been on every Spanish championship team since 1995 and delivered his team’s second-best score in Athens (72.79%), “This one is very deep in our heart, especially because Beatriz and I both lost our fathers this year.”
For much of the year, it looked as if Ferrer-Salat might have lost Beauvalais, 17, to competition. She said that the Hanoverian gelding developed a shoeing problem late last winter, which prevented her from showing him at all until she won the Grand Prix at Bern (Switzerland), just two weeks before the Olympics.
“I was worried,” she admitted, “but I think he was so brilliant here that there was no question” of his scores.
Now, with Spain, the United States and the Netherlands each achieving average scores above 71%, their riders, coaches and fans are beginning to think that the German juggernaut may not be quite as impervious as it once was. Germany has won team gold at the eight Olympics since 1976, at the eight World Championships since 1974, and at the 20 European Championships since 1965.
The only nation to beat them in the last four decades was the Soviet Union in 1970 and ’72—a nation that doesn’t exist anymore. Some had thought the breakthrough might come this year, as the Germans were looking unusually vulnerable. But no one has given up hope.
“They knew they had work to do, and, by god, they did it. But that’s the German way,” said Wilcox, who has lived in Germany for a decade.
“They are very strong because they’re very good. It’s why we all go to Germany to train,” said Ferrer-Salat, who spends four to five months per year training in Germany. “If you want to fight against them, you have to be there. I think it will be very difficult to beat them.”
Dover, ever the optimist, especially now that he’s healed the aching back that had apparently forced his retirement four years ago with yoga instead of surgery, believes that the day will come.
“Yes, absolutely. It’s just hard to say when that day will be. It’s their national sport—or one of two or three of them—and an enormous amount of energy and money is spent there. But, yes, it will happen,” he said.
Invasor: Three-Time Olympian And More
By virtue of his international performance over the last eight years, the Andalusian Invasor has made dressage fans believers in Spanish-bred horses. The gray stallion has now competed in three Olympics, three World Championships and four European Championships. And he contributed important scores to Spain’s team medals at those championships in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Athens, said, rider Rafael Soto, was the last championship for Invasor, 15, who was such a natural at piaffe and passage that he began performing at Grand Prix when he was only 5. He competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at age 7, scoring 61% as the Spanish team finished seventh.
“This was the best Grand Prix I ever felt with him,” said Soto after kicking off the Spanish medal quest with a score of 72.79%. “I was very proud, because some were thinking he is a little bit too old now, but it was a very nice feeling to show everyone that Invasor was in the best form of his life.”
Invasor started out in the daily shows at the Real Escuela Andaluza, where Soto is a trainer. But Soto said Invasor didn’t excel at the airs above the ground and was considered a good enough mover to be internationally competitive.
Invasor does, however, do the Spanish walk, which Soto will often ask him to do in awards ceremonies and which he started to do, instead of passage, at one point in the Grand Prix Special. The Special was Invasor’s one subpar test in Athens, scoring 70.89%. Soto said that Invasor had developed an inflammation in his throat and a cough after the Grand Prix, so “he felt uncomfortable.”
But he rebounded for the freestyle, scoring 79.02% to claim fourth place in the test and move up to eighth place overall. “He is an artist in the freestyle,” proclaimed Soto.
“He is a wonderful horse—he’s very, very relaxed and confident but very clever too,” said Soto. “His best quality is inside his head.”
Dressage Is A Relative Sport
Dutch rider Imke Schellekens-Bartels, 27, followed in her mother’s footsteps by competing in the dressage at Athens. She’s the daughter of Tineke Bartels, who was on the silver-medal teams in Atlanta in 1996 and Barcelona in 1992 and also rode in 1984 and 1988.
Imke made the Dutch team after Edward Gal’s Gestion Lingh was injured just before the Olympics started. After delivering the Dutch team’s third-best Grand Prix score, Imke and Lancet scored 74.85% in the freestyle to finish 11th individually in her first Olympics.
Dutch teammate Sven Rothenberger took part in his second Olympic Games, but this time he didn’t have a family connection. In Atlanta, he stood on the podium to receive the team silver medal alongside his wife Gonnelien, who didn’t try to make the team this year. Sven earned his team’s second-best score in the Grand Prix on Barclay II (69.83%), but mistakes in the Grand Prix Special prevented them from making the 15-horse cut-off for the freestyle.
The Dutch family connection continued with Marlies van Baalen, 24, who was riding in her first Olympic Games on Idocus, who previously showed in the United States with Lendon Gray and Courtney King. Van Baalen’s mother, Coby, was a member of the silver-medal team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
The youngest rider in the equestrian events was 18-year-old Austrian dressage rider Victoria Max-Theurer, the daughter of Sissy Max-Theurer, winner of the individual gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Sissy also finished 11th in Los Angeles in 1984 and eighth at Barcelona in 1992.
Riding Falcao, Victoria earned the eighth-placed Austrian team’s best score in the Grand Prix (68.66%), which moved her forward to the 25-horse Special. There, she scored 68.84% to place 19th and fall short of the 15-horse limit for the freestyle.