Friday, Apr. 19, 2024

We Showed Perseverance And Pony Power At The Pan Am Games



The Pan Am Games was probably the most difficult trip that the United States equestrian teams have taken in the past decades, from a logistics point of view. Many times over the past nine months we had to decide whether this competition was worth it, and the welfare of our athletes and horses was always the determining factor.
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The Pan Am Games was probably the most difficult trip that the United States equestrian teams have taken in the past decades, from a logistics point of view. Many times over the past nine months we had to decide whether this competition was worth it, and the welfare of our athletes and horses was always the determining factor.

Shipping was very difficult and not just for the horses. Political tensions between the United States and Brazil affected the ease of negotiating the process of shipping horses to Rio de Janeiro, a destination not used to taking animals.

The Games themselves were run very well, the horses were in well-accommodated stables, and the facilities as a whole were good for the horses. The rings, cross-country course and general site was developed to a very high level (see Pan Am Games results, Aug. 3 and Aug. 10).

The United States showed its strength at the Games by sending many of our top athletes. All of the event horses on the team were proven four-star athletes with top riders on their backs. The clean sweep we garnered in eventing medals was really inevitable, but the competition showed at times that hard work is the only way to win at this level.

Until the last day, this competition was not a cakewalk for the U.S. team; even with ample experience, the riders had to be on their top game in order to come away with the gold.

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These medals were just what our team needed, however. Over the past few years, as I’ve written before, the United States has been on an upswing again, and our eventers should be at the forefront of the world for the next few years.

For me, the most important aspect of this trip was on a bigger scale than how our teams performed on the field of play, however. This event showed the critical role that the United States must take on the international stage, especially in our hemisphere. It’s our job to be a leader in this part of the world in equestrian sports.

We’re lucky to have a very developed sport here in the United States. We have the resources to send teams around the world and play pretty much wherever we want. Many other countries do not have that luxury.
Some people have said that since we were qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games that the Pan Ams weren’t important to us and we shouldn’t have sent a team. I totally disagree.

We have the responsibility of supporting other countries because we do have the luxury of a worldwide presence. If we want the sport to spread around the world—and guarantee our place in future Olympic Games—then we have to create and support the developmental side of our sport on this side of the world.
In Rio, we fulfilled this leadership role by showing up when technically we didn’t have to. Though the United States didn’t use this as a developmental trip for the eventers, it still had the bonus of providing future riders with the experience of a Games, which is so different from competing in individual competitions.

Also, the Pan Am Games were created 40 years ago to provide athletes a place to show their talents at other competitions besides the Olympic Games and to foster international relations using sport on this side of the Atlantic.

The U.S. Olympic Committee takes the Pan Ams seriously for many different reasons, and since eventing is a sport within the USOC, I believe we must act like a major sport within the Olympic family. Sport takes us to a place where we can become bigger than ourselves by celebrating excellence. If we want eventing to be considered a major sport then should we not act like other major sports?

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Another great experience at the Games is much more personal—the continuing phenomenon created by the success of my wife Karen O’Connor and the pony Theodore O’Connor. Karen’s performance was foot
perfect; we’re watching a real partnership between a rider and her mount.

Because this is an unusual story—a true pony in a non-pony world—it’s created a ton of interest. This reaction shows again and again that star power creates fans, and fans are the backbone of sports in general.

We as fans want to celebrate greatness, and this is a great story. This story transcends who we are: the profes-sional who realizes the amazing partnership or an amateur who just enjoys the story. This pony has captivated the horse world, and he may eventually be one of those rare links to the non-horse world.

We all need heroes, and we’re on the constant lookout for them. This story has taken the world by storm—for instance, a color photo and article in The Washington Post sports section (July 23) and Karen’s appearance on NBC’s Today Show on Aug. 8—and the equestrian world as a whole will be the
better for it.

This is a lesson to all of us of the power of a personality, equine or human, that can make us believe that greatness is achievable. This is a perfect example of how we promote horse sports through our stars. I hope we can enjoy the spotlight for a long time.

Good things happened this summer for our sport. As we prepare for the Olympic Games next year in Hong Kong, we look forward to the road that we’ll travel, and we’ll all watch our athletes extend themselves in that pursuit of excellence. What a fun road to travel.

David O’Connor

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