The high performance end of the sport overcame some challenges in 2017 and is poised to take advantage of the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.
Another year has flown by in the World of Eventing. The adage, “Time flies while you’re having fun” isn’t exactly how I’d characterize 2017. There’s no glossing over the fact that it was a very challenging year indeed for the U.S. Eventing High Performance Program. I would also say that it was always going to be such.
There were several fairly significant “course corrections” that had to be made to the program to give it the chance to flourish. By year’s end, however, the hard work put in by many allowed the program to come off of life support, and indeed there was a new sense of vitality and optimism in the ranks.
The beginning of the year started with U.S. Equestrian Federation staff, coaches and riders trying to put a gut-wrenchingly disappointing team result and the resulting fallout from the Rio Olympic Games behind them. In a genuine and earnest effort, Coach David O’Connor led those feeling the need for a fresh start. Many new initiatives were built into his attempt to right the ship, and for a brief time leading up to Rolex Kentucky it looked like things were getting back on track, that the team was heading down the right path together again.
It wasn’t meant to be, however. By the end of an uneven spring competition season results-wise, David saw that his talents and expertise in many facets of the sport were calling him elsewhere. In what was certainly a difficult decision, he stepped down from his post in May. Almost overnight, the U.S. program found itself in a genuine place of uncertainty.
Every individual committed to the high-performance program rallied together to keep it on the rails and moving forward in the right direction, despite the challenges at hand.
In fact, late spring brought some welcome international results with U.S. riders finishing three in the top 10 at Tattersalls CCI*** (Ireland) and two in the top 10 at Luhmühlen CCI**** (Germany). By mid-summer, spirits were cautiously but steadily rising with a morale-boosting win at the FEI Nations Cup at Great Meadow (Virginia). While the victory by our athletes on the field of play was a welcome one, just as satisfying was the cohesive performance executed by the “extended team” of USEF staff (led by the indispensable Joanie Morris), veterinarians, farriers, owners, grooms and fans. By the end of the weekend, there was a feeling that the program had at least inched its way back to the 50-yard line.
Late summer saw several encouraging results from Team USA in the United Kingdom. At the Burghley CCI****, three Americans finished in the top 12, followed the next weekend by Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border’s well-deserved and popular win at the Blenheim CCI***. These results, along with several others in the United States and Europe, reminded our riders that they could compete anywhere in the world and succeed. The only thing that can happen faster than gaining confidence after a few solid performances is losing it after one poor one. Hard work, commitment and sober belief in oneself will lead to more successes than failures for our athletes in 2018.
Late summer also saw the search for David’s replacement shifting into high gear. The Search Committee spent this period interviewing several impressive candidates for the post. Erik Duvander, the successful former coach of Team New Zealand, accepted a contract with the USEF, and this was a very popular decision among the riders.
Erik wasted no time getting to work, spending the late autumn traveling to riders’ farms to familiarize himself with not only the training list athletes and their horses, but also their overall training programs and business operations. By the U.S. Eventing Association Annual Meeting in December, the overall mood was one of high spirits and positivity as our new performance director presented his short- and long-range vision for the program.
What lessons can the high-performance program take away from 2017 that will hold it in good stead going forward?
First, no one person can or should be put in a position where any successes or failures are theirs alone; we rise and fall together. (Let’s plan on more of the former than latter!) We all must continually strive to do everything we can to set our athletes up for success; I believe the program does a very good job of this currently. We all have to do a better job at looking out for and supporting one another; there is no room for factions—all energies must go toward a one-team effort. We all must be good listeners; no one person has all the right answers. Finally (though I realize this list is bound to be woefully incomplete), we must not let negative forces undermine the daily, good faith and hard-fought efforts that go into producing a winning U.S. Eventing Team.
Alas it is now 2018, and the real work has begun. The World Equestrian Games are coming to the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina in September. It’ll be an exciting time full of opportunity for anyone involved in equestrian sport.
From an eventing/grassroots perspective, this competition presents a huge opportunity. Growth of sport here at home has been stagnant over the past several years, so the WEG provides the USEA an opportunity to capture a new generation of enthusiasts eager to leave the starting box at recognized events around the country. An expanding base can only help strengthen the sport as a whole. I believe the USEA is poised to do just this, with CEO Rob Burk settling into this role and just hitting his stride.
In a broader context, the WEG provides the USEF an opportunity to bring its entire membership—not just high performance but all 29 breeds and disciplines—together. This effort was put into practice during the 2010 WEG in Lexington, Kentucky, and I think the USEF will do an even better job this time around at seizing this unique opportunity to unify its membership. Every member of the USEF—eventer or roadster, show jumper or saddle seat, para-equestrian or reiner—pays for the international disciplines and therefore has a genuine stake in this effort. We all must appreciate what the other has to offer for the federation, not just in a WEG year, to stay vibrant and viable.
It’s the second time in eight years our U.S. WEG teams will have the perceived edge of competing with the home field advantage. I’m no expert in this area, but I’m not entirely confident the U.S. team did everything to maximize this advantage in 2010, at least from an eventing standpoint. We need to take what we learned from the last WEG on U.S. soil and put it to good use in September. Will Connell, USEF director of sport programs, will serve as chef de mission for the U.S. teams. No one has had more experience in this role than Will, who served many winning British teams well for more than a decade. We’re lucky to have him on our side.
Ready For 2018
While, naturally, the focus this year will be on the WEG, more time and resources than ever are being put into our Eventing 25 and Eventing 18 development programs. Leslie Law is doing an excellent job with these future team candidates. It’s been a long time in the works, but I believe we can say with conviction that the U.S. has created a pipeline program that is consistent, successful and sustainable in this area. Improvements will be made annually I’m sure, but a strong foundation now exists.
It’s a daunting but very exciting time for U.S. eventing. Expectations are understandably high. With Erik taking the reins and bringing along his fresh outlook, the riders are taking a strong look at every detail of their programs, addressing what they need to change and improve to give themselves the best shot at WEG glory.
Like all sports, eventing is always changing, and the reality is you have to change and grow along with it. We see that the skill level at the very top is forever improving, and I firmly believe many of our riders in this country have proven they are on par with the best and have the skills to contribute to a winning performance.
Olympic qualification (top-six team finish at WEG) is priority No. 1, but there isn’t a rider vying for a team spot who isn’t confident that a medal is a fair and realistic goal. Every individual—rider, owner, groom, manager, coach, selector, veterinarian, farrier, physio—has a job to do. Everyone has to be at the very top of their game to produce the result we all know the U.S. is capable of (and I would say deserves) and what our community of eventing enthusiasts are hungry and hopeful for.
Robert Costello has been an active participant in all things eventing since his early days growing up in the tall shadows of the sport’s greats in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He has represented the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (eighth) and the 2003 Pan American Games (team gold), along with securing multiple top finishes at Fair Hill (Maryland), Kentucky and Burghley (England). He has chaired the USEF Eventing Active Athlete Committee and Eventing High Performance Committees, and he currently serves as chairman of the USEF Eventing Selection Committee. Robert runs his business ROC Equestrian out of Winter Book Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina.