The Olympic show jumping team practically picked itself, following observation events at four shows across the U.S. and Canada.
Rich Fellers, who in April became the first American in 25 years to win the World Cup finals, followed that up aboard his longtime partner, Flexible, with victories in the California and Spruce Meadows observation events. No surprise that he was ranked number one on the U.S. list of nominated entries for the Games, and considered a hot prospect for the individual gold medal.
Beezie Madden is second in the team rankings with Coral Reef Via Volo, her top mount who missed a lot of the Florida circuit with a swollen leg. She impressed when she turned in back-to-back clean rounds at Devon. Beezie also is ranked sixth with another mount, Simon.
When she won the selection trials with Cylana, Reed Kessler proved that being 17 is no barrier to jumping clean. She wound up third-ranked on her mare, and seventh on Mika. Despite her lack of experience, Reed has demonstrated coolness under fire and a natural ability honed by one of the best in the business, trainer Katie Monahan Prudent.
McLain Ward made a marvelous return to the highest level of jumping by winning the grand prix at Devon on Antares F. After shattering his left patella in January, he only started jumping in competition again in May. The Devon show was fraught with emotion for him. The grand prix was held on the day of the funeral for Dr. Craig Ferrell, the U.S. equestrian team physician. He had helped McLain through the darkest days of his recuperation, and his loss hit McLain hard.
Then moments before the class, he gave a heartfelt speech as his two-time Olympic gold medal mount, Sapphire, was retired to become a broodmare.
But he put all that aside to show both his mettle and talent for his seventh Devon grand prix win. He had a rail down in the next three observation classes, at Devon and Spruce Meadows, but still wound up fourth in the team rankings. He's a guy you want on your side when you're going for a medal.
Charlie Jayne was the winner of one observation event at Devon with Chill RZ and did well at Spruce Meadows, too. Although Chill missed the March selection trials and thus originally was ranked in a four-way tie for 35th, he's in the alternate spot with Charlie, who was the second Olympic alternate in 2008.
A third team gold for the American jumping squad is not a given. The hat trick will be difficult. Remember, the U.S. was dropped from the FEI Nations' Cup League after a season of subpar performances last year. And then there was the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on home turf in Kentucky during 2010, where the U.S. finished 10th and had to go to the Pan Ams to qualify for the Olympics.
America has some depth, and if the right horses and riders stay sound and on target, that third gold could be within reach. McLain, Beezie and Rich certainly already have risen to the occasion, and Reed has shown her pluck.
The Games will be the swan song of coach George Morris, as he wraps up his great career. So you can bet he'll be inspiring his team to try extra hard as he prepares to hand over his post to Olympic veteran, course designer, show manager and technical delegate Robert Ridland, who stood in for him at the observation events while he recovered from a cancer operation.
Award-winning photojournalist and author Nancy Jaffer is covering her ninth Olympic Games. One of the most respected writers on the Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing, she has attended all the World Equestrian Games ever held, as well as numerous major competitions around the world. A lifelong rider, she keeps busy with her own horses when she's not working.