Van Grunsven Nabs Individual Dressage Gold

Anky van Grunsven captured the individual dressage gold medal Wednesday after winning the musical freestyle. The USA's Debbie McDonald finished fourth.
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Anky van Grunsven captured the individual dressage gold medal Wednesday after winning the musical freestyle. The USA's Debbie McDonald finished fourth.
Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven with Salinero. | © 2004 by Nancy Jaffer

Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven with Salinero. | © 2004 by Nancy Jaffer

Markopoulo, Greece, August 25, 2004 -- Fourth again.

Debbie McDonald found herself outside looking in at the individual dressage medals today at the Olympics, just as she did at the World Equestrian Games two years ago.

Her musical freestyle, to George Gershwin tunes that led off with "I've Got Rhythm," is more evolved than it was in Jerez, but the odds were against her. Brentina turned in a beautiful performance, for the most part, with just a little stickiness on a pirouette and a mistake in the one-tempi lead changes that didn't help her cause. She was marked at 78.825 percent for her freestyle, bringing her total for the Olympics to 75.653, only a little more than 1 percent from a medal.

Debbie admits she wasn't at her best, though.

"There was a lot of hype," explained the woman who was mentioned many times as a possible individual medalist. "I tried not to let it get to me, but to some extent, it did."

On the plus side her ride included some real highlights, such as the piaffe-passage tour, which made her supporters proud. But Debbie figured that even with a perfect effort, she wouldn't have gotten past Spain's Beatriz Ferrer-Salat who won the bronze on Beauvalais (and was one of my picks in the Practical Horseman preview) with a 79.575 in the freestyle and 76.667 percent overall.

It seemed apparent even before the Games that the battle for the gold would be between Aachen winner Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands on Salinero and Ulla Salzgeber of Germany with Rusty.

Despite his power and presence, Rusty could not overcome the mistakes in his performance, starting with stepping back a step at the first halt. He received a mark of 83.450, and a total of 78.833. Ulla said it was the last time he will dance to "Carmina Burana" for the judges. Rusty will not show anymore at this point, and Ulla isn't sure if she will either. She's got a bunch of Olympic medals, including the team gold here, and she might just like to train horses and sell them "to the Dutch."

Meanwhile Salinero, whose Grand Prix wasn't his best effort, bounced back and won the freestyle with 85.825 percent. He too, has power, but better piaffes and pirouettes than Rusty and a more elegant air that serves him well. His total of 79.278 put Anky first for the Games.

Technically, Anky successfully defended the gold medal she won in 2000 on Bonfire, but she sees this as a different ballgame. Though Bonfire and Salinero have similar personalities, she is writing a whole new chapter in her career with the animated Hanoverian.

The effervescent Anky noted that last year, when she was recovering from a broken leg after a fall from another horse, she couldn't even dream about going to the Olympics. And then when she got here she said, "I thought whatever medal I caught is what I want. It's unbelievable to get a gold medal again. I never thought it could happen like that again."

Debbie McDonald and Brentina in the freestyle. | © 2004 by Nancy Jaffer

Debbie McDonald and Brentina in the freestyle. | © 2004 by Nancy Jaffer

I didn't feel quite the drama that I did at the last Olympics when Bonfire faced off with his long-time rival, another German horse, Isabell Werth's Gigolo. Theirs was an even match, and Anky and Isabell were opponents who seemed made for each other. There was no such relationship between Anky and Ulla or Salinero and Rusty, but still the freestyle provided plenty of excitement even if it there were no sparks.

So the Olympic dressage has ended for another four years. Next time I'll bet an American has an individual medal. Who knows, it might even be Debbie. She wasn't thinking about that last night when she celebrated her 50th birthday two days early with friends from the U.S. Equestrian Federation. After she blew out the candles on her whipped cream-topped cake, I asked her what she wished for.

"Health and happiness," she told me.

"Not a gold medal?" I asked.

"It's a little late for that," she replied with a good-natured smile. Not that she's fretting about how things turned out.

"I still can hold my head up, being fourth in the Olympics," she said. "Three months ago, I didn't even think I'd be here."

That was after Brentina suffered a strained tendon at the Dortmund show prior to the World Cup, causing her to miss that competition. Debbie and everyone else from the USEF were concerned whether Brentina would even be able to make the Games. So it was very satisfying for her to win the bronze here with the team.

"I'm still happy coming here and having an Olympic experience. I might not ever get that opportunity again, riding in the ring three times and being the highest-placed American," Debbie told me.

As the final lyrics put it in "I've Got Rhythm," "Who could ask for anything more?"

I should mention our other two freestyle entries, Guenter Seidel, who finished 14th on Aragon, and Robert Dover, 6th on Kennedy.

I love Guenter's freestyle to the powerful music from "Backdraft." Aragon, he said, is still developing.

"We're a year early," he conceded, "but the judges know him and think he's a good horse. He has another good four years." So we'll probably be seeing him in Beijing in 2008.

I think Robert put in the ride of his life on the chestnut gelding that came to him late in his career. The music, "Kennedy's Melodies," includes a lot of big band-type numbers, most prominently "Steam Heat," that really suit the horse's way of going. His test required a high degree of skill, involving movements like the two-tempi changes on a circle.

"There's nothing not difficult in my piece," he said.

Tomorrow's an off day, but I'll give you some of my thoughts on the Games and my life here, as well as looking ahead to the show jumping individual medals on Friday.

You know the U.S. has Chris Kappler, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward going for the gold (or silver or bronze). Though Beezie was first on Authentic after the three rounds of jumping so far at the Games, everyone starts with zero faults. Her only advantage is going last in the first leg of the competition. No, wait. She has lots of other advantages, including her unflappable attitude and the marvelous Authentic.

She was having ice cream while we chatted about what's coming up Friday, and she was as cool as the stuff in the cup. We might easily have been discussing an appointment with the hairdresser instead of what could well be her date with destiny.

So check in with me Thursday as we count down to the end of the Games together.