August 5, 2012--I'm sure you've seen TV shows that are done as flashbacks; I can remember "Seinfeld" was among those using the genre more than once.
Because I want to deliver good news first for a change, that's the way I'm going to start my postcard, with McLain Ward leaving the grandstand this afternoon and telling me as I passed him, "We needed that."
He was referring to the fact that a few minutes earlier, Rich Fellers had just delivered a perfect trip--the only one produced by the U.S. squad today in the first team competition. It insured the U.S. will have a spot in tomorrow's final team round. Just eight of 15 nations qualified, so it was no sure thing--can you believe Germany, France and Belgium didn't make it?
Rich, the World Cup winner and his steady mount, Flexible, are continuing on the roll they have enjoyed for most of this season. They looked beautiful over the fences, but what struck a chord with me was the way Rich lovingly touched the stallion in appreciation after his round. It was more like a caress than even a gentle pat. The two seemed to be communicating in a bubble, blocking out the applause from the crowd of 20,000, as they offered a message to each other.
Rich is tied with 11 other riders for first place, less than half the 32 who were in that position yesterday. Today's course was more difficult, with several options and a number of eye-catching fixtures; I loved using Big Ben as one of the standards, but the point of having a triple combination marking the Great London Fire left me puzzled.
In the previous U.S. round: Reed Kessler, eager to avoid the time penalty she incurred yesterday, pushed Cylana a bit harder and wound up with two rails down.
"I was desperate not to have a time fault today," the 18-year-old conceded, and she didn't. But she also didn't get the scope she sought at "B" of the triple combination and got flat to the vertical at the next numbered obstacle.
"I really wanted to be the first American to bring home a clean round," she said. No question she was under pressure.
Which brings us to what happened before that: Beezie Madden, who had been eliminated from the individual qualifying round yesterday after problems at a double with Via Volo, got around with only 4 faults for a knockdown at the initial element of the first combination, something she attributed to over-riding that made the mare a little flat. Normally the team's anchor, she had been moved to the less vulnerable second position, with Rich appropriately taking over as last to go. It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of coach George Morris, giving Beezie more of a comfort zone and the team a cushion for safety.
Starting out the U.S. effort was McLain on Antares, looking strong as usual, but with a foot in the water that McLain blamed on himself for getting too close to it on take-off. That insured the competition would be a nailbiter for U.S. supporters until each rider had gone.
"I think a little bit in the back of my mind, I was forcing things a little bit, just thinking I needed to log a solid score," McLain said of his failure to clear the water fault-free, noting perhaps it would be better "to let things happen a little more."
Okay, that's probably enough of the flashback technique, but I thought it was a good way for you to get the picture of what happened with the U.S. riders on this day of surprises. So are you ready for one more? If you haven't been watching the action on TV or your computer, would you like to guess what country is in the lead?
How about Saudi Arabia?
Yes, the Kingdom's riders have only a 1 penalty total, after being able to drop a 4-fault knockdown score from world championships silver medalist Abdullah Sharbatly on Sultan. He was one of two Saudi riders (the other isn't here) who had their eight-month suspensions for a controlled medication positive in their mounts commuted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which enabled Sharbatly to become an Olympian. The Saudis have tremendous horses and have medaled in the past, so it's not as much of a shock to see them heading the list as one might think.
The day started with rain that was, as they say in these parts, bucketing down. Great Britain's Nick Skelton, the favorite for top honors with Big Star, was totally soaked when he entered the ring, but that didn't prevent him from turning in a clean round as he continues on his quest for Olympic individual gold.
Though Nick normally tends to be rather unemotional, he spoke in glowing superlatives about his mount.
"There are no negatives with this horse; he is the perfect animal," Nick said.
Ben Maher also was fault-free with Tripple X, (love that spelling) enabling Britain to drop the eight penalty total of Peter Charles, the team's weak link with Vindicat, so only the 4-fault score of Scott Brash (Hello Sanctos) counted. It is tied for second with the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland on that mark.
As McLain said, "We need zeroes," which is the key to success in the Nations' Cup format. One person can run up a big score, but that can be dropped if the others are fault-free; if everyone has just 4 faults, however, it adds up and it's fatal to medal chances.