It was a fight to the finish but the USA fought their way to a silver medal on Saturday, August 7 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games for the final Team USA equestrian competition with Sweden winning the gold and Belgium the bronze.
In the first round Team USA lead with Laura Kraut and Baloutinue, who really raised the hopes for Team USA when they put in a strong clear round over an extremely difficult course. After that first round Sweden rider Henrik von Eckermann also went clear for Sweden, with France not far behind with only one time fault for Simon Delestre and Berlux Z. Belgium wasn’t far behind with four faults negotiated by Pieter Devos and Claire Z.
When the second rider’s scores were added to those of the first rider, France continued to dominate when Mathieu Billot aboard Quel Filou 13 added only one time for a team total at this point of 2.
It was then Jessica Springsteen and Don Juan Van De Donkhoeve who entered the arena next, and although they added four faults to the Team USA score her ride was strong and gave them a total of 4 faults, which continued to keep them in a medal position.
Belgium continued to stay at the top when Jerome Guery and Quel Homme de Hus helped the team stay in medal contention when they had a clear round and a two round total of four faults.
Sweden, who had been dominating every round so far, had their first four faulter when Malin Baryard-Johnsson and Indiana dropped their first rail, but with only a total of four faults they were also still in medal contention.
For the final round the orders were adjusted based on the new placements. Which put the teams in reverse order based on their present scores. That put France in the final spot with Sweden next to last as time separated the four faulters. Then came Team USA and Belgium.
After Ward negotiated a 4 fault round, Sweden added four more faults, Belgium added 8 which put them out of contention for the top three medals, it was all up to France. A clear would have given them the Gold, Sweden the Silver based on a slightly faster time than the US, and then Team USA would have had to settle for Bronze.
But as the saying goes – it ain’t over until it’s over because that’s when the gold was taken away from France after final rider Penelope Leprevost and Vancouver de Lanlore would no longer be able to defend their title when they negotiated an in and out combination, taking down a rail at the first element and then a pull up at the second. In an effort to still reclaim a spot Leprevost came back to attempt to jump the combination but Vancouver was having no part of it and refused, which eliminated France and opened the door for USA and Sweden to have a jump off for Silver and Gold. And you already know how that turned out. Team USA was looking like this would be a Bronze medal victory but ended up sweet silver just missing the gold because the Swedish team were slightly faster.
“We did what was expected of us so it gives us even more satisfaction,” commented Guery in the press conference.
Qualifying for the Team Finals
The qualifying round for show jumping finals took place on August 6th at the Baji Koen Equestrian Park. A starting field of 17 countries was narrowed down to the top ten to challenge each other and the clock for the top three medals on the following night.
The qualifying course was long and testing. There were two falls and a handful of refusals, but also some brilliant performances.
When Ireland’s Shane Sweetman entered the arena on Alejandro, his horse was clearly trying hard to jump the fences, especially at fence #8 where he tried extra hard to clear the fence after being a bit too far on the take-off. He took rails down in the process and was unable to get it together to jump the next fence and it was no surprise when he crashed through fence #9 rather than jump it. Sweetnam was tossed in the process but was unharmed, but the fall meant they were eliminated.
A little bit later in the course, Teddy Vlock and Amsterdam 27, representing Israel, had a similar fate. Things were going well until they too arrived at fence #8 and his horse tried his best to clear the fence from a distance that was just too far. His fall was a bit more dramatic as medical teams raced out to ensure he was alright. Minutes later he was up and walking again, but the fall meant elimination.
After his fall, the course had to be put back together again. At fence #9 the poles were replaced incorrectly. Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward was watching from the sidelines when he saw the mistake and immediately alerted the course designer, who corrected the problem and thanked Ward with a thumbs up.
Most of the riders who had refusals were able to jump the fence in their second attempt. However, Eugenio Garza Perez and Armani SL Z from Mexico, who followed Vlock, had two refusals at the wall jump and was eliminated.
Halfway through the course only two riders had produced clear rounds. Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and King Edward, who had placed fourth in the individual finals, was the first. The other rider was Marton Modolo Zanotelli riding Edgar M from Brazil. However, when the class was over the remaining Swedish riders joined Eckermann with clear rounds. Malin Baryard-Jahnsson on Indiana, who were fifth individually, and Peder Fredricson on All In, who garnered the individual silver medal. Switzerland’s Bryan Balsiger on Twentytwo Des Biches also added his name to the list.
It was clear that the course designer Santiago Varela had designed an Olympic level course that tested the skill of both the horses and riders, but our Team USA may have had some rails down but their horses were jumping brilliantly. Since it was only a matter of being in the top ten, their priority was achieving that goal even if some rails fell. In the end Laura Kraut and Baloutinue, Jessica Springsteen and Don Juan Van De Donkhoeve and McLain Ward and Contagious each had one rail for four faults and McLain also added 1 time fault but there total team score of 13 put them in fifth in the team order. First place was Sweden with 0 faults. Next was Belgium with 4 faults. Third was Germany also with four faults but a slower time. And in fourth just ahead of Team USA was Switzerland with 10 faults.
In the end it came down to Fredricson and All In putting in such a fast round that they took the gold over the US. Afterwards he responded, “I saw McLain’s round and I also didn’t have too much time so I wanted to stay calm. As I got a silver medal in the individual I was wanted to take the time and I was lucky that the poles stayed up.”
Despite the fact that Team USA took the silver, McLain does not support the new format, noting that not having a drop score puts too much pressure on the horses and riders. “What an incredible battle. What great sport and what a great battle. I take my hat off to them. They were unbelievable. It was great sport tonight but not about the format but about the horses,” he concluded.
Laura added, “I think the best team won tonight.”
As the first Olympics for Jessica she was overjoyed about her horse’s performance. “I was just trying to keep my horse fresh. I was just happy it’s so easy for him.”
Team USA Shows Strength and Power
First to go on the course for Team USA was Olympic veteran Laura Kraut. After negotiating about five fences clear a huge noise came from outside the arena. It sounded like a motorcycle was started up and revved around the outside of the arena loud and clear. While she continued to negotiate a great round she did drop that one rail going down the final line.
Kraut was pleased with her horse noting, “He felt great. He jumped beautifully. Apart from that jump he didn’t touch a jump and he did everything I asked of him. So, I’m really really happy. The time allowed is very short, because I didn’t feel that I wasted time anywhere. The objective today is to get into tomorrow. We’ll do enough today and then pull out all the stops then.”
Jessica echoed similar sentiments about her round. She had a rail down on the last line and explained, “I thought my horse jumped beautifully. I was thinking about the time. … my horse has a really big stride. I did the 5 strides to the plank, but I needed to slow it down a little bit more.”
McLain was last to go and was also pleased, feeling they put in a good qualifying round. “We’ve been on ice for the better part of four weeks now and his last show was over a month ago. And to come in and jump at this level was a real challenge. I had a lot of anxiety over it to be frank, but he was right there for me. I turned for home and I didn’t fight as much as I usually do for an oxer, but I wanted to make sure there wasn’t going to be a major blunder.”
The Americans had a plan to get into the finals and that’s where they were going to show what they really had.