July 28th, 2012 -- "Look at the horse, not at the view," I had to keep telling myself, as I photographed the first day of eventing dressage, set against a tableau of the London skyline and the Queen's House at Greenwich Park.
The Queen's House, lest you assume otherwise, is not where Queen Elizabeth II lives; it was built in 1616 for Queen Anne, the wife of James I. It now houses an art collection for the National Maritime Museum (which is where the press room is located).
I don't think I've ever seen such an impressive setting for an equestrian competition, which is why I was finding that my eyes tended to wander. But I was still focused enough to watch the key riders, especially those from the U.S.
I felt for Boyd Martin, slated to go first, in his first Olympics. But you know Boyd, he's tough, and rode Otis Barbotiere as if he were schooling at home.
"When you're in the moment of competition, I've learned to switch that off a little bit," Boyd told me a few hours after his test, relaxing in the sunshine (yes, no rain since I've been here!)
"When you look back on it later, that you'll think, `Wow, that was wonderful. At the time, you're thinking about your horse's balance and the centerline and how long you've got until you can get in the ring. Maybe when you're walking out of the ring and everyone was clapping and you had a good look around at all the people in the stands, that was a fulfilling moment."
He was marked at 50.7; toward the end of his test, Otis got a little long (as dressage coach Linda Zang put it) and didn't have the best flying changes. But you could see the power that Otis has at the ready, and that's going to serve him well on cross-country, with Boyd as the pathfinder for the team.
While Phillip Dutton felt his friend "paid the price for going first" in terms of his score, Boyd wasn't complaining.
"I thought my horse did a great test and I was thrilled with him," Boyd said. "You always look back on moments like this and wish you could have done this or that, but I'm actually pretty comfortable. I think I gave my best performance on the day."
Boyd stands 13th, while Karen O'Connor is ninth (48.2) after an otherwise outstanding effort with Mr. Medicott that missed the optimum because of bouncy problems at the start and the finish.
"I think I had it, except for the centerline," she said with cheery resignation.
"He has so much power. We changed from the snaffle to the double bridle this morning and I was grateful that we did so that I could have a little bit more leverage to be able to keep pushing. That was what saved the test."
Everyone expected a knock-your-socks-off effort from Tiana Coudray, the least experienced rider on the team, and the ethereal gray, Ringwood Magister who has a rep for good dressage, but it didn't work out that way; she has 52 penalties to stand 18th.
While she was glad her horse was relaxed in the arena, which brims with atmosphere, sometimes there's too much relaxation for a test to be scored high.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't forward enough to get the big marks," said Tiana, who also had some mistakes.
I asked about her excitement level now that she made the big leap to the Olympic team.
"It's one of those things you dream about when you're a little kid, and I sort of always thought, `That would be cool, but it's never going to happen.'
"Then when I got the horse, I sort of thought, `Hey, you know, if everything went perfect in seven years, I could be there, but that's never going to happen.' I'm still kind of in shock that we're here."
Leading at the moment are two Germans, Ingrid Klimke (Butts Abraxxas) with 39.3 penalties and Dirk Schrade (King Artus) 39.8. The crowd's favorite (they were waving Union Jacks everywhere), Mary King of Great Britain, had a poem of a test to wind up third with Imperial Cavalier on 40.9.
With a little quick math, I can tell you where the teams stand at the moment, but it's early days yet, as the Brits say, and not everything figures into this equation. While Australia leads, with three riders in the top eight, Germany is second and the U.S. third. But here's why it's only a bare indicator at the moment--top riders for most of the teams (Michael Jung for Germany, Phillip Dutton for the U.S., William Fox-Pitt for Britain, Andrew Nicholson for New Zealand) won't go until tomorrow. On top of that, only the three best of the five team members' scores count. And today, both Britain and New Zealand had only two team members ride. So take the standings as you will, but not too seriously yet.
And don't forget those two trips up the hill on Monday's cross-country. Care to make a bet on whether anyone will come home without time faults? Maybe Andrew Nicholson, the original speed demon. Maybe.
So we know that Germany, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and hopefully, the U.S. are the main medal contenders, but my eyes popped open (no mean feat, considering how little sleep I've had) when I watched the test of Sweden's Ludwig Svennerstal on Shamwari. I've never seen Ludwig before (or to be honest, even heard of him) but he had a beautiful performance, except for some flying changes that were a little over the top. He scored 43.7 penalties to rank fifth, and my first thought was, "Now we have to worry about the Swedes too!" I'm told he hoped to get a medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but maybe he's ahead of schedule.
When you're at the Olympics, it's a little like being in the twilight zone. You forget the date and day of the week; all you know is that it's the first day of eventing dressage, or the second day of show jumping, or whatever. On the bus back to my hotel, I looked out the window and saw lots of lovely restaurants with the lights on (I'm still waiting for dinner and it's nearly 10 p.m. British time) and people bustling about. It looked like fun, and then I realized, "Oh, it's Saturday night." But when you're at the Olympics, it's all about the Olympics and only the Olympics. The thing that matters is the competition, and this one is going to be exciting.
Let's see what tomorrow brings when we wrap up the dressage. But as the eventers always like to say, "It's not a dressage competition."