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Hong Kong, August 12, 2008 -- The persistent cloud that has hung over the U.S. eventing squad at the Olympics turned out literally to have a silver lining tonight, as team member Gina Miles claimed a medal of that metal with McKinlaigh in the individual competition.
German oral surgeon Hinrich Romeike earned the individual gold on Marius after his nation took the team honors, while the bronze went to a member of the third-place British team, Kristina Cook riding Miner's Frolic.
Gina, a bubbly Californian and mother of two who got her start riding backyard horses, moved up from fifth place after cross-country on the Irish-bred McKinlaigh, and stood fourth following the first round of eventing's show jumping phase. She was one of only six competitors to be fault-free in both rounds.
Earning the medal dazzled the understandably emotional Miles.
"To me, it's just a culmination of all the dreams and hard work and the ups and the downs that come along with the sport of horses and life," she said, emphasizing the importance of "staying focused and staying on track and coming back at it for another day."
Her goal for her first appearance in the Olympics was to qualify for the individual final involving the top 25 riders and help her team get a medal. But the latter ambition remained unfulfilled. The U.S. squad, seventh after a disastrous cross-country day, remained there on a whopping 250 penalties following the show jumping before an enthusiastic capacity crowd of 18,000 at the Sha Tin venue.
Germany, which moved into the lead over Australia with a brilliant cross-country effort, refused to yield though the margin of victory was small, 166.1 penalties to 171.2.
Great Britain easily continued to hold its third-place spot from cross-country, with a total of 185.7 to 230.5 for fourth-place Italy.
The USA stood third after dressage, then fizzled. The dismal performance reflected how thin the top ranks of the sport are in this country. Horse injuries and the death of super pony Theodore O'Connor in a stable accident last spring contributed to the unhappy circumstances in which the cobbled-together American squad found itself.
U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) President David O'Connor, the 2000 individual Olympic eventing medalist, believes it's time for a re-think of the program.
The bitter last straw for the U.S. came after the medal ceremonies, when officials weighed the hind boots of team member Phillip Dutton's mount, Connaught. It was found that each was more than 200 grams heavier than the 500 grams allowed under a rule instituted in February by the FEI (international equestrian federation) that was geared to equine welfare.
Phillip, who had finished tied for 12th individually after a fault-free final round, was disqualified, though his 8-penalty trip in the team fray was allowed to stand, at least for the moment. The FEI is still looking into the matter.
Jim Wolf, the USEF's director of sports programs, shouldered the blame for the situation.
"I should have known the rule," he said, explaining it was published on the FEI's website but never came across his desk.
"I think the federation owes Phillip an apology," Jim continued, explaining that no rider wants to have a disqualification on his record.
While geared to Grand Prix show jumping, the regulation also applies to eventing, but no one at the USEF's show jumping department had mentioned anything of that nature, Jim said, and Phillip was completely unaware of it. USEF officials are investigating how this ball got dropped. At the same time, Jim noted that a rule is a rule, and it had to be enforced.
The situation was rich with irony dating back to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Germany also won the team and individual gold medals. But France, Britain and the U.S., the teams finishing behind the Germans, protested and got the victory overturned because German rider Bettina Hoy had gone through the start line twice, which is not allowed. While some argued that disqualifying her was quibbling, the allies stuck to their "a rule is a rule" stance. Germany was dropped from the medals, and Bettina lost the gold. The team that won today was the same with the exception of Bettina, whose horse was injured, prompting her replacement with Peter Thomsen.
The individual final was a nail-biter, with the top seven less than one knockdown away from each other. Hinrich toppled a single rail in the first round with his spectacular gray Holsteiner, Marius, lessening the margin he had over his rivals.
Of the knockdown, he said, "It's not his fault, it's my fault. The horse never makes any mistakes."
In the second round, he left all the poles up, giving him the title. But he gave credit where credit was due.
"I would be nothing without this horse," said Hinrich, displaying genuine modesty.
Course designer Steve Stephens showed me a photo he took of a rail that Marius hit in the second round. It was perched precariously on the edge of the jump cup, but luck was with the personable Hinrich, and it didn't come down.
An amateur in a sea of professionals, Hinrich said he rides for pleasure. But he is no ordinary hobbyist; he was just out of the medals individually in Athens four years ago, and in the same spot, fifth, in the 2006 World Equestrian Games. This time, he hit the bull's-eye with a precision that makes me think I'd trust my teeth to him.
Seventh in dressage, he took the lead after cross-country and never relinquished it.
The dentist lived through the ups and downs of the 2004 drama to get to his gold, but he was philosophical about all that happened when I asked how he felt about the team coming back to gold after the four-year hiatus.
"Life's a roller-coaster, and you've just got to ride it," he said.
The individual medalists appeared genuinely delighted and surprised; none had been touted by the experts for the positions they went on to gain. Kristina was the reserve rider for the 2000 Sydney Games and was simply thrilled to have another chance.
Looking at the three of them together on the podium, it was a good feeling to know that dreams can come true, especially for such a nice trio.
Gina, 10th in dressage and fifth after cross-country, finished on her cross-country score of 56.1 penalties, just 1.9 behind Hinrich.
I asked Gina if she had any thoughts for all the young people out there who have the same dream as she did, competing at the Olympics. This is what she told me.
Before I move on from eventing, I want one final word. I really don't like the format for deciding the individual medals, which is only used in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a rule that two medals cannot be given for one performance, which is the way it is handled at the World Equestrian Games. The horses have done enough work through the phases of an Olympic event. It's a shame that the top 25 have to do so much more. And from the standpoint of the audience, why bring back the top 25? The odds are against all but the top 10 or 12. This current methodology in some ways is better than having a completely separate individual event, as was done expensively at the 1996 and 2000 Games. I just wish the IOC could soften its stance for what is a very unusual sport. Okay, I've gotten that off my chest.
I'm ready to take a deep breath and get on with Grand Prix dressage, which starts tomorrow night. Meanwhile, choi keen.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
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