Jim Wofford: USET, Call Me Maybe?

Jim Wofford looks at the up side to our disappointing results in Olympic eventing.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic movement more than a century ago, would hardly recognize the 2012 version. Beginning as a sporting contest that was amateurish in every aspect, the Olympics have grown to become a global phenomenon. For two weeks every Olympic quadrennial, the entire world sits down in front of a TV and watches athletes from around the globe compete. For most of us here in the United States, the notes of John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare” mean another late night captivated by dazzling feats of athleticism. Usually our conversation the next morning consists of saying, “Did you see ? ?” in reference to some new world record or definition of excellence.

Germany’s Michael Jung has produced an outstanding record of success over the past few years with Sam. They won individual gold at the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the 2011 European Championships and added Olympic gold in London. The basis of Michael’s success is the excellence of his technical skills. If form follows function, then gold medals follow form. Even under Olympic pressure, Michael’s rock-solid lower-leg position provides the platform from which he can apply his aids with the cool precision of a surgeon. Germany’s results at the London Olympics are a testimonial to its dedication to classical equitation in all three disciplines. If the United States ever hopes to have a chance to produce competitive international teams, we must find a way to reproduce the Germans’ attitude here. ©Pierre Costabadie/www.arnd.nl

Every Olympics, we promise ourselves that this time we are not going to spend two weeks glued to the boob tube, but once again, there we are ? hooked. For technologically savvy fans, there are many ways of watching the Games, from live streaming to a smart phone to recording and playing favorite events on a wall-mounted TV that could handle a life-size photo of Sasquatch. The little I have learned about it suggests that every possible means of modern technology was used to view the 2012 Olympic Games, including several unusual and possibly even legal means. The story goes that you bright bulbs in the United States hacked into foreign servers and bootlegged programs that played live when you wanted to see the competition. This confounded the suits in New York, who thought they had decided you would watch glimpses of your favorite sports and athletes between commercials. Don’t you just love technology?

Seeing the Face of Eventing’s Future
Thanks to live streaming, I had the best seat in the house and watched the entire four days of eventing competition. While a lot of story lines caught my attention, the first thing we need to discuss is ? how about that Michael Jung? Even New Zealand’s legendary Mark Todd has never dominated the eventing scene the way Germany’s Jung has, winning World, European and Olympic gold in three successive years and all on the same horse. What a story!

And talking about story lines, when two-time individual gold medalist Mark Todd was leaving the dressage arena in London, he looked up at the scoreboard to see if his halo was firmly in place with this particular ground jury. No one ?begrudges Toddie any success these days, but his score was somewhat inflated. A slight wolfish smile went over his face, and I thought, “Uh-oh, he smells blood in the water. He knows he has a real chance at yet another gold medal.” It was not to be: After placing third in the dressage and finishing cross country with only a couple of time faults, Toddie ran out of horse in the stadium jumping before he ran out of jumps?but we got a glimpse of real competitive fire from the greatest horseman we have ever seen ? until now.

After Michael won the gold medal by leading wire-to-wire at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, I went on record saying that he had shown us the future of eventing: It’s an era in which competitors will ride at an international level in all three disciplines. At an international event in Germany earlier this year, I commented on how well Michael and his horses looked. A professional show jumper who was standing with me said, “Oh yeah, Michael Jung. He’s that kid who has been coming to our big show-jumping classes and kicking our backsides.”

While it is not unusual to ride well in more than one discipline, it has gone out of style recently. The last instance I can remember is?again?Mark Todd. He won his second individual eventing gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he also placed well as a member of his country’s show-jumping team. U.S. Army Gen. Frank Henry won medals in both eventing and Grand Prix dressage at the 1948 London Olympics. My guess is that it will not be long before Michael Jung joins this elite club. I have always maintained that eventing riders need to study each of the Olympic equestrian disciplines. It just had not occurred to me that my prediction would be so remarkably fulfilled, and so soon.

Based on their form coming into the London Olympics, both Sara Algotsson Ostholt, the silver-medal winner from Sweden, and German bronze medalist Sandra Auffarth deserved to be on the individual-medal podium with Michael. Sara, who was one fence away from an individual gold medal, will be replaying her approach to that last fence for the rest of her life, trying desperately to leave it up this time.

U.S. Eventing History and 2012

The team placings?Germany, first; Great Britain, second; and New Zealand, third?were no surprise. All three teams featured a mix of household names in the sport and eager newcomers to Olympic competition with horses who were on form and obviously in peak condition. Unfortunately for the United States, we were never really in contention after cross country and faded to seventh place once our show-jumping jinx showed up again. I was probably the only person on the planet more surprised than Phillip Dutton when Mystery Whisper stopped in the show jumping. When this happened to Karen O’Connor at WEG two years ago, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence; now it looks like a bad habit for the U.S team.

New Zealand’s Mark Todd and ?Campino were one of the most interesting combinations at the London Olympics. Mark, already one of only two riders to ever win two individual Olympic gold medals, nearly produced an unprecedented third. It would have been an unheard-of feat, but Mark has made a habit of pulling off unheard-of achievements. Mark is in the sweetest-possible position on 10-year-old “Kinky,” who is showing his lack of experience here over the water jump. It is a further testimonial to Mark’s skills that Kinky made a field of some of the best riderss we have ever seen extremely nervous thinking that Toddie was up to his tricks again. A third gold medal was not to be; Kinky got a bit tired as the competition progressed. But Mark’s performance at the games provides one of those “might have beens” that fascinate fans of the sport. ©Pierre Costabadie/www.arnd.nl

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that our international eventing results over the past several years have been buoyed by fabulous individual efforts?most notably Amy Tryon at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen and Gina Miles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, the glow of their accomplishments has obscured the fact that our teams have been gradually falling behind the eventing curve. We now begin a new Olympic quadrennial with major changes in our technical personnel, and new U.S. eventing team coach David O’Connor will have a blank slate on which to write a new chapter of excellence for our team.

Opportunities for 2016
It is obvious that successful teams have solid and consistent training programs. This consistency, which technical trainers Christopher Bartle and Hans Melzer have provided for the German team for the past few quadrennials, starts at the top. Yogi Breisner’s training personnel in England have, for the most part, been together since at least the 2004 Athens Olympics. In fact, Tracie Robinson was appointed dressage trainer to the very successful British team in 2001, and she coached its riders in this phase through these Games. Erik Duvander, the coach of the New Zealand team, has been with them for two quadrennials now.

By contrast, our teams have lacked consistent technical preparation these last few years. Although Mark Phillips and our senior staff have been in place for quite some time, over the past 20 years our eventers have been trained by an endless succession of show-jumping and dressage gurus. All have shown promise, but all have been shown the door before they can fully implement their programs. Any system beats no system, and we will soon find out if our new coach has a system that provides the continuity and consistency needed to produce winners.

I take my encouragement where I can find it, and our present low state of affairs has a bright spot. My clinics and teaching take me all over the United States, and I have a pretty good idea of the riders who are available for further training. We have some bright stars in the making, but the U.S. Equestrian Team needs to call on them. The U.S. swim team released a fun video just before the Olympics with the entire team lip-synching to a hit song. It was their theme song for the 2012 Games, but it might also serve as a theme song for our young riders around the country during the coming quadrennial as they sing to the USET ? “Call me maybe.”

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