Sunday, May. 19, 2024

U.S. Olympic Show Jumping Team Good As Gold

And North America celebrates as Canada takes team silver, Eric Lamaze earns individual gold, and Beezie Madden adds individual bronze to the tally.

McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut and Will Simpson basked in the moment as they stood atop the podium to accept their team show jumping gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games. Kraut and Madden inspected their medals, Ward pumped his fist and Simpson simply smiled. U.S. flags rippled in the audience, cheers echoed and a few tears fell.
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And North America celebrates as Canada takes team silver, Eric Lamaze earns individual gold, and Beezie Madden adds individual bronze to the tally.

McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut and Will Simpson basked in the moment as they stood atop the podium to accept their team show jumping gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games. Kraut and Madden inspected their medals, Ward pumped his fist and Simpson simply smiled. U.S. flags rippled in the audience, cheers echoed and a few tears fell.

Four years ago, the U.S. Olympic team—which included Madden and Ward—didn’t quite get that moment in Athens. They accepted their gold medals in a quiet ceremony six months later, in the aftermath of the doping scandal that stripped the gold from the German team and moved the U.S. team up from silver.

This year, at the Sha Tin venue in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 15-21, they defended that gold emphatically in a thrilling jump-off against Canada.

“We didn’t win [the 2004 gold medal] by default; someone was caught not playing by the rules, and we’ve lived [with the idea that the medal wasn’t earned] for four years,” said Ward adamantly.

“There was nothing that was default about that medal,” added Ward. “Not only was [this win] an exclamation point for the United States, but also for North America, maybe the best day in our sport for North America.”

North American riders also dominated the Europeans in the individual competition, where Canadian Eric Lamaze claimed a dramatic gold medal on Hickstead. Madden added individual bronze to her team gold, and Swedish rider Rolf-Göran Bengtsson took the silver.

A determined Canadian team fought hard despite losing their fourth team member, Mac Cone, after the first day of competition when his horse, Ole, was sore. Ian Millar had prophetic words after Round 1 put Canada into a tie for fourth place. “I guarantee they’ll clean it up, and Eric [Lamaze] and I won’t miss, and
we’ll see you on the podium,” he said.

Brilliant performances from Jill Henselwood, Lamaze and Millar in Round 2 showed Millar’s word was good, and even though the jump-off results meant they’d collect silver, there wasn’t much disappointment in the Canadian camp. It was the first Olympic team show jumping medal for Canada since they won gold in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

And it was the first Olympic medal for Millar, 61, who has competed on nine Olympic teams and been the pillar of the Canadian team for decades.

“A lot of good things have happened, but the Olympics have never quite gone my way. This is remarkable for me. I can’t say enough about our great team and horses and chef d’equipe [Torchy Millar] and all the people in Canada behind us,” Millar said.

The only Canadian other than Lamaze to have won an individual show jumping medal was Michel Vaillancourt, who won silver in 1976. “It’s an honor to be mentioned with him,” said Lamaze.

An Odd Start

Day 1 of the team competition put the U.S. riders into a tie for the lead right away, despite an uncharacteristic mistake from team anchor Madden on Authentic.

Ward led off with a faultless round aboard Sapphire, while Kraut had a heartbreaking rail at the last fence with Cedric. Simpson’s horse had a foot in the water and a rail.

Olympic Show Jumping Tidbits

•    Camila Benedicto of Brazil was the reserve rider with Bonito Z but ended up starting when Alvaro Mirando Neto’s Ad Picolien didn’t pass the first horse inspection. She thought her Olympic experience was over after the team competition, but after the drug infractions (p. 27) eliminated several starters in the individual final, she found out just 4 hours before competition started that she would be riding in the final. She posted a perfect round over the first course, but two rails knocked her out of medal contention in the second round. “I didn’t have any pressure, and I could ride more relaxed,” she said. “For me, even coming to the Olympics was a big surprise.”

•    Although he came back from 44th place to win the gold medal in 1992, Germany’s Ludger Beerbaum entered the individual final in Hong Kong in 33rd place and couldn’t quite pull himself up into the medals.

•    Canadian Ian Millar said his horse’s jumping abilities aren’t the only important element: “When the fences are this square, sometimes it’s difficult for the horse to get his eye on the back rail. It takes a horse with a sharp eye to see this stuff. When I’m looking at horses, I will design an eye test, even over a small jump. At the end of the day, if they can’t see where they’re going, there’s little hope.”

•    Jos Lansink won the individual gold at the 2006 World Equestrian Games (Germany) on Cumano and represented Belgium as an individual at the Olympic Games. Favorites to win—even though Cumano had significant time off for injury—they hadn’t had a rail before the individual final. They jumped clean in Round 1, but Cumano faded in Round 2 and pulled two rails. Lansink said Cumano had just had too much jumping in the heat, and Lansink was relieved his horse wouldn’t have to jump off. “I think two rounds [in one night] in this weather is a little much for Cumano for now,” he said.

A clean round from Madden would have put the United States well in the lead, but as she turned out of a corner to approach the triple combination, Authentic began shaking his head furiously and ran past the jump. “Something was bothering him with his ears,” said Madden. “He landed and started shaking his head like crazy. He didn’t even see [the triple combination]. When he did jump it, he was still shaking his head and had it down. I’m shocked.”

Madden’s 11 faults were dropped, leaving the United States in a tie for first with Switzerland, whose riders had 4 faults each.

Cone had started the Canadian effort with three rails, and Henselwood and Special Ed put up an 18-fault score with two rails and a refusal. Lamaze turned things around with an inspired clear on Hickstead.
“He’s such a competitor, a great show horse. I can really count on him,” Lamaze said of Hickstead. “The first two riders [on our team] had trouble, so there was no room for mistakes. It was nerve-wracking, but he’s the right horse for that situation.”

Millar backed him up with just 4 faults on In Style. “We were unlucky to have two bad goes in one round. But these riders are never more dangerous than when they get a working over,” Millar promised.

The German team, considered the favorites for team gold, had a disastrous first day with nary a clean round among them. Christian Ahlmann led off with two rails on Cöster, and Marco Kutscher had three rails and a time fault on Coronet Obolensky.

“Normally we’re quite confident,” Kutscher said. “We all jumped well at our last shows; we should be doing better. But when you have a bad start and are running through the whole course, when it’s technical like this, it’s easy to have three down.”

Ludger Beerbaum and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum completed the trend with 8 and 4 faults, respectively. Germany finished Round 1 tied for eighth with Australia.

Dangerous Water Ahead

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Course designers Steve Stephens and Leopoldo Palacios built a big and technical course for Round 2 of the team competition with a tough water line that started with a one-stride oxer-to-vertical combination
of liverpools at fence 6AB, followed by seven or eight strides on a bending line to the open water, then six strides to a tight one-stride double of verticals.

“The water is a real weapon for course designers,” said Ward. “It’s an easy way to get faults without being dangerous.”

German fate only worsened, as Kutscher and Beerbaum’s horses stopped at the combination after the water. The team would finish an uncharacteristic fifth.

Sapphire’s only fault occurred at the water jump when she stepped on the tape. “The horse didn’t make a mistake, I did,” Ward said. “I was slow to the water—I couldn’t decide if I wanted seven or eight [strides] until the last moment, and she lost momentum.”

Kraut and Cedric chose the perfect time to jump a lovely clear round. “I have to give him a big kiss because he decided to peak at the right moment,” she said. “It’s shocking! I’m so excited. He’s such a great horse, and he knows it.”

Simpson and Carlsson vom Dach also fell victim to the water and added a rail at the last fence for 8 faults, putting the United States on a 16-fault score.

The Swiss team had dropped out of the running when Christina Liebherr led off with 20 faults, and no one else could put a clear round on the scoreboard. But the Canadian team was creeping up the standings relentlessly even after losing Cone.

Henselwood redeemed herself with a clear round on Special Ed to get them going. “You can imagine what I dreamt about, what I woke up talking about,” she said.

Lamaze and Hickstead had their only rail of the competition, the back rail of an oxer in a combination. “It was so short [two strides] in the middle of the oxers, and I was thinking that the front rail was more of a risk and protected that [and had the back down],” he said.

Millar is no stranger to putting in a clinch ride to anchor the team, and this day was no different, as
he guided In Style to a faultless round to help Canada finish on 20 faults.

“The odds were not good [without a fourth rider], but you’ve got to try. Jill sure inspired us with her ride and set the standard for us to stay with, and that’s what we did,” he said.

It was all up to Madden—a clean round would win it, and 4 faults would tie them with Canada.

She’d left off Authentic’s ear bonnet for Round 2, hypothesizing that sweat might have dripped down into his ear in Round 1, causing the head shaking. They were well on their way to a clean round when Authentic also touched a heel to the tape at the water.

There would be a jump-off for gold.

A True Team Effort

All team riders returned to jump off. Henselwood went first and opened the door for the United States by pulling a block at the wall.

Lamaze followed with a clean round and the fastest of the night, but when Ward, Kraut and Simpson all jumped clean for the United States, the gold was secured.

The U.S. team’s medals reflected a true team effort.

“We just kept chipping away one round at a time,” said Ward. “We’ve been building up to this for over a year now, and we’ve all sacrificed a lot of things, both personally and in competition. This is not a one-man show—we all have owners and support staff of vets, blacksmiths and the team. And my father—I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Ward and Madden have been stalwarts of the U.S. team, with 2004 Olympic team gold and 2006 World Equestrian Games silver to their credit with Sapphire and Authentic.

But Kraut, a member of the 2000 Sydney Olympic team, hadn’t been sure Cedric, 10, was ready for the Olympic Games.

“Even though I won the [U.S. selection] trials, I was skeptical about coming here,” she said. “I’m still
in shock at how he handled this whole week. It’s not hard for him, and that gives me the confidence
to go anywhere now. He’s smart, and I think he’s learning to conserve himself.”

Kraut also found out a little bit more about Cedric, whose breeding has previously been listed as unknown. She discovered he’s by Chambertin, out of Carolus I.

Simpson, 48, made his Olympic debut with the U.S. team.

“It’s been a long, great ride [in his career], and to have a horse ready to do it, I feel so lucky. They’re rare and so special. It’s a thrill to get up in the morning and be here. I learned more in the last six months since I started this trip than I have in the last 35 years—there’s such an intensity, and we help each other every step of the way,” he said.

Battle For Individual Bronze

For the individual final, held Aug. 21, two nights after the team final, the top 35 riders in the standings returned with a clean slate to jump two rounds, so the individual medals were up for grabs.

Ten competitors jumped clean in Round 1, including Madden and Authentic. Ward and Sapphire had a rail in a combination and Cedric and Kraut picked up 8 faults.

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Only the clears and four-faulters returned for Round 2, so Kraut was out. “He didn’t quite feel like he had the energy or excitement tonight,” she said. “I wasn’t as pumped up; I knew it would be hard for him. He barely had the water, and I got him too deep to the skinny. But my total focus coming here was the team; I hadn’t even considered the individual, and that’s when it becomes a grueling test.”

Round 2 was massive, but Ward and Sapphire jumped clean yet again to finish with 4 faults for the two rounds.

“It was very difficult, which is what we were hoping for to let us try to climb back in,” Ward said. “My horse was spectacular in both rounds. I can’t fault her; she had one fence down all week.”

Madden and Authentic pulled a rail to join Ward in the seven-horse jump-off for bronze.

Lamaze and Bengtsson were the only two to jump both rounds clear and jumped off for the gold medal.
In the jump-off for bronze, Ward found an unusual route for one rollback, jumping a decorative clump of bushes. It looked as if Ward was on target to take the lead, but the speed caught up with him at the last fence, a vertical wall that Sapphire toppled.

“I wanted to win a medal, and we tried our very, very hardest,” said Ward. “I tried to leave [a stride] out at the last, but we ended up too far away. I had to try. We gave it everything we had.”

Madden followed Ward’s example, jumping the bushes on Authentic, and they slithered over the last
wall clean. “Some horses, when they leave the ground, that’s the jump you have, but he can do a lot of things in midair to miss fences,” she said.

The electronic timers had malfunctioned, so when Madden looked to the scoreboard, no time appeared. But a few moments later, the announcer declared her the fastest, .12 seconds quicker than Michaels-Beerbaum on Shutterfly, and the bronze medalist.

“McLain paved the way for jumping the bush, and when it worked for him, he showed me where to go. My horse is so handy and brave,” she said. “It ended up being kind of fun, jumping over the bush. It was a good risk to take.

“The whole week, we’ve had a fantastic team, and I feel like they’re a part of this individual medal as well,” noted Madden.

Golden Redemption

The stage was set for a duel between Lamaze and Bengtsson for gold.

Bengtsson set off at a quick clip on the nimble, little chestnut gelding Ninja. But the crowd groaned as Ninja’s front foot nudged a block off the wall at the last.

“Eric was behind me with a super careful, fast horse, and I had to try. [My horse] got too strong to the wall, and I couldn’t get him relaxed. But I am super satisfied [with the silver],” Bengtsson said.

Lamaze rode a bit conservatively on the leggy stallion Hickstead until he’d jumped all but the last clean. He picked up the pace to the last wall. “I basically went as fast as I could and hoped that even if I knocked it we’d be faster,” he said.

Hickstead powered over the wall and landed clean, and the timers stopped showing exactly the same time as Bengtsson’s—38.39 seconds. Lamaze galloped around the ring, pumping his fist and pointing to Hickstead.

The Olympic Games seemed in jeopardy for Hickstead after colic surgery took him out of action in October 2007. The Dutch Warmblood started showing again in February.

“He’s a really careful horse, and when you need to count on him, he’s going to give 100 percent effort. I have all the confidence in the world in him, and he makes my job very easy,” Lamaze said of the 13-year-old by Hamlet—Jomara.

“I’m on Cloud 9—after everything that’s happened, this is amazing. [Hickstead] showed size doesn’t
matter—it’s what they have in their heart,” Lamaze said.

Though Lamaze has been a top rider for years and has represented Canada on three WEG teams, this was his first Olympic Games appearance. He was left off the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams after he failed drug tests, and twice he was banned from the sport for life, though he later successfully appealed the decisions.
“I’m proud of the people who supported me. It took a lot of support from a lot of people—owners, friends and family—who believed in me and made it impossible for me not to try,” said Lamaze.

”There were days where this was only a dream, and now it’s reality, and the past is past. If this doesn’t make people forgive and not talk about it, I don’t know what will,” declared Lamaze.

Bengtsson might not be the flashiest of riders, but in his own quiet way he’s made his mark. He competed for Sweden at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 WEG.

Bengtsson, 46, started his riding career as an amateur, working as an auto mechanic to support himself. In recent years, he’s become a professional rider and trainer and is based out of Breitenburg, Germany.

Ninja, a 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood, is by Guidam, the same sire as Madden’s Authentic.

“My horse is very brave, although he is not so big,” Bengtsson said. “If I attempt a fence, he will
attempt it and try to jump clear. He’s very sweet, and I really enjoy every minute of riding a horse like that.”

Madden noticed that the horses of all three individual medalists were smaller Dutch Warmbloods. “They’re full of energy and are little, class horses,” she said. “I came here to defend our gold medal, and we did that,” Madden continued. “I wanted an individual medal, and I did that. Hats off to Eric—that’s great for North America.” 

Molly Sorge and Beth Rasin

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