July 31, 2012 -- Who is the greatest eventer on earth? There is only one answer to that: Michael Jung of Germany. Today he became the first person ever to hold the titles of world champion, European champion and Olympic champion simultaneously.
He also was the only person in the competition, which started with 74 riders, to finish on his dressage score. Sam, the horse who was nearly lost in a battle with his former owner last year, behaved like his usual marvelous self today, soaring over a course that stumped some other big-name combinations. At the time of the ownership dispute, Sam was said to be worth $1 million. What do you think he's worth now?
When I asked Michael what it was like, being the person who holds three major titles, he had only a one word answer: "Awesome." Michael seems like an incredibly nice guy. My first experience with him was at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where he took the world honors, but my impression was the same then. Despite his great ability and golden glory that rains down on him, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously.
I wondered what other goals he could possibly have; he now has won all the majors in the championship category. But he gave me a great answer, with a chuckle: "I don't know. I like to ride the horses, to train with the young horses and that's the reason I'm a rider, not just to win everything and stop riding."
This has been an incredible eventing match, with as many twists and turns as Sue Benson's cross-country route. And today was no exception, coming down to the last fence in the final round. The fashionable (she always looks so cute!) Sara Algotsson-Ostholt of Sweden was tied for the overnight lead on 39.3 penalties with Ingrid Klimke of Germany. But Ingrid had 9 penalties in today's first round of jumping, for the team medals, and decided there was no point in putting her horse, Butts Abraxas, through another round. She had thought another German could take her place, but that didn't work out; it was against the rules.
Sara, however, was fault-free in the first round on her homebred gray mare, Wega, (can you imagine taking a homebred to the Olympics? Well, we all can dream). Michael also was clear, leading up to a showdown in the second round, which was for the individual title. (Remember I told you that the International Olympic Committee does not allow two medals to be presented for one competition anymore, the way it used to be done. And remember I said I thought that was stupid? I'll bet Michael doesn't think so...).
He was fault-free again in round two, and all that was left was to watch Sara go. She was having a beautiful trip until the last fence, where she found herself in a bit of an argument with her mare, who had gotten strong. The result was that in the last second of the last competition, a rail came down and Michael, who had been behind by 1.3 penalties, became the winner. As I predicted yesterday, if you'll recall. His score was 40.6 penalties, to 43.3 for Sara and 44.8 for the up-and-coming German rider, Sandra Auffarth, who took the bronze.
Michael also led Germany to the team title, which it had won in the 2008 Olympics as well, but without him. Two gold medals meant a very happy 30th birthday for Germany's top rider; talk about the stars being lined up at the right time. The Brits, who desperately had wanted to take the gold for the first time since 1972 while riding in their home nation, settled for silver with 138.2 penalties to Germany's 133.7, but were very gracious about it, and the crowd loved them. The stands were a sea of waving Union Jacks; there is no question this country loves its riders.
"Although it wasn't the gold, it was still worth it," said team member Zara Phillips.
Another Olympic story was Miner's Frolic, ridden by Christina Gifford Cook to clinch the medal, with just one time penalty. The horse, her 2008 Olympic double bronze medal mount, had suffered from colitis last year and it wasn't clear that he could ever be ridden again, let alone live. What a marvelous comeback he made.
It was very cool to see Princess Anne, who rode in the 1976 Olympics, congratulate her daughter, Zara, on the podium. I feel sorry for Zara, she gets so much media attention. The place was swarming with photographers, but one of the photo bosses here said that the London papers will clear out for the most part after today, because they are only interested in Zara and her royal connections. Good. It will be less crowded. I wasn't allowed to go out and take shots of the medal presentations because only a limited number of photogs could be accommodated and as an American photographer, I was told I had to shoot from the sidelines because, "The U.S. isn't on the podium." That's an understatement.
New Zealand, third on 144.4 penalties, edged Sweden by 4 penalties. Sweden will continue to be a force in the sport in the future; it has the talent and the horses. That tough New Zealand campaigner, Andrew Nicholson, put in two clear rounds today on Nereo and wound up fourth on 49 penalties.