August 6, 2016 -- Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt feels especially lucky to be competing at the Rio Olympic Games. The British rider made no secret of his recent recovery from a traumatic brain injury, speaking at length to reporters after he took the lead on day one of dressage aboard Chili Morning at Deodoro Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The first day of equestrian competition at the Rio Olympics began with Jessica Phoenix of Canada riding down the centerline promptly at 10 a.m. Sixty-five riders from 13 nations will be seen over two days of CIC dressage, before the cross-country phase gets underway on Monday, August 8th. Friday’s rides count towards team as well as individual standings, and after Day One, Germany leads the way, with Australia and Great Britain lying in 2nd and 3rd.
Fox-Pitt's ride time fell in the mid-afternoon, when temperatures climbed into the 90s and the spectators scattered among the exposed seating scrambled to find patches of shade. But one of Great Britain’s most consistent competitors and his horse, a German bred, 16-year old stallion by Phantomic, were undaunted by the heat and rode a smooth, accurate test that Fox-Pitt credited to his confidence in his longtime mount.
“He’s capable of a very good test, he’s done lots of good tests, so I just didn’t want to let him down,” Fox-Pitt commented. “He felt lovely and calm, and on the job, and of course there are lots of good horses to come, but it’s a good start anyway.”
Fox-Pitt spoke openly about his quick recovery from a fall last October at the World Young Horse Championships that left him in a coma for two weeks. Throughout his recovery, he maintained riding at the Rio Olympics as a goal, and was grateful to be in Rio today, not to mention earning the best score after day one.
“I’m very lucky to be here. In November I thought I had loads of time, but you suddenly realize that it’s around the corner and it’s right there.” Fox-Pitt said. He has dealt with dizziness and double vision, as well as a severe loss in fitness since waking up from a coma last fall. “I’ve had loads of help from my physical and mental therapists and gotten support from U.K. funding to get back on track. I’ve seen more experts and I’m very lucky and very happy to be here.”
Despite his TBI and an ongoing recovery that is still fresh in his mind, Fox-Pitt adamantly stood by his decision to not trade his top hat for a certified helmet during the dressage phase of eventing. His tall top hat has long been a calling card for the rider, and Fox-Pitt put tradition first as his reason to continue shunning a helmet.
“I’ve always worn a top hat for dressage; I’ve been eventing for 33 years and it’s part of the dress,” he stated. “Of course I will wear a crash hat when they force us to, which sadly they will one day.”
Hot on Fox-Pitt’s heels lies Australia’s Christopher Burton with Santano II. They scored 37.60% to Fox-Pitt’s 37.00%. And lying in 3rd place is Michel Jung of Germany with his own veteran mount Sam FBW. The pair is back as defending Olympic Champions, and their more recent accomplishments in the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing make them the obvious favorites to medal this week.
But a mistake in the counter canter that Jung chalked up to a miscommunication resulted in a higher than usual score for the pair, who now sit in 3rd place.
“It was not because he was nervous or because he was looking at something, he was just thinking about whether he was to do a flying change or not,” Jung explained. “At the moment Sam is in very wonderful form, but we have to concentrate that we do not have more mistakes this week.”
The United States’ Clark Montgomery stands in 10th place with Loughan Glen after a test that left him feeling downcast, but hopeful for the week ahead.
“This is this horse’s time to shine in the dressage and he was a little disappointing,” Montgomery said. “He started out really well and I don’t really know what happened, but he sucked behind my leg and I squeezed every point I could out of it, and now it’s time to focus on the cross country.”
Across the board, riders are calling the cross-country track a technical, challenging course that is worthy of an Olympic four-star (the Olympics are rated as a CIC***). Lots of angled questions and narrow fences come up quickly on the colorful, sloping track designed by Pierre Michelet of Brazil.
Boyd Martin of the USA, who rode Blackfoot Mystery to 47.70 penalty points—he currently stands in 17th place—noted that his horse is still green to this level, and much like Montgomery, plans to make up points out on cross country.
“I couldn’t have asked for much more. He’s still on the inexperienced side of things. He did get a little excited with the cheering, but he kept his cool and did a pretty good job.” Martin said. The assembled crowd cheered enthusiastically for their favorite riders, and had to be gently reminded several times by announcers to hold their applause. “I was trying to work out if [the cheering] would play in my favor. But he got a little bit nervous and anxious in the walk, which is usually our biggest scoring movement.”
Stray Bullet Fired into Media Tent
Riders had nothing but compliments for the Deodoro venue, proving untrue fears that the venue would not be ready in time for the start of competition. The arena footing rode well, the warm up arenas are well thought out, and the stabling blocks are roomy, creating a comfortable, laid back atmosphere for the horses.
However, at this early stage in the Rio Olympics, the heavy military presence in Deodoro and around the entire city of Rio de Janeiro is impossible to miss; heavily armed soldiers stand in groups on highways, roads and in and around the Olympic areas. Security and police forces are also prevalent throughout the Olympic areas.
Yet, on Friday afternoon a bullet was fired into the top of the media tent at Deodoro, landing inside the tent alongside journalists who were working away during the lunchtime hour. No one was hurt and there was no immediate explanation for who might have been responsible for the shot.
Until then, and with very minor delays in transportation and security screenings, Rio de Janeiro was beginning to feel safe, and well prepared for the influx of visitors to the city during the two-week Olympic period. The stray bullet, which was speculated to have come from a weapon discharged inadvertently by nearby military, was a reminder as to how volatile the situation in Rio actually is, even within the protection of the state of the art Deodoro Olympic venue.
Dressage competition continues on Saturday, August 7th beginning at 10 a.m. local time.