July 31, 2012 -- Who is the greatest eventer on earth? There is only one answer to that: Michael Jung of Germany. Today he became the first person ever to hold the titles of world champion, European champion and Olympic champion simultaneously.
He also was the only person in the competition, which started with 74 riders, to finish on his dressage score. Sam, the horse who was nearly lost in a battle with his former owner last year, behaved like his usual marvelous self today, soaring over a course that stumped some other big-name combinations. At the time of the ownership dispute, Sam was said to be worth $1 million. What do you think he's worth now?
When I asked Michael what it was like, being the person who holds three major titles, he had only a one word answer: "Awesome." Michael seems like an incredibly nice guy. My first experience with him was at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where he took the world honors, but my impression was the same then. Despite his great ability and golden glory that rains down on him, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously.
I wondered what other goals he could possibly have; he now has won all the majors in the championship category. But he gave me a great answer, with a chuckle: "I don't know. I like to ride the horses, to train with the young horses and that's the reason I'm a rider, not just to win everything and stop riding."
This has been an incredible eventing match, with as many twists and turns as Sue Benson's cross-country route. And today was no exception, coming down to the last fence in the final round. The fashionable (she always looks so cute!) Sara Algotsson-Ostholt of Sweden was tied for the overnight lead on 39.3 penalties with Ingrid Klimke of Germany. But Ingrid had 9 penalties in today's first round of jumping, for the team medals, and decided there was no point in putting her horse, Butts Abraxas, through another round. She had thought another German could take her place, but that didn't work out; it was against the rules.
Sara, however, was fault-free in the first round on her homebred gray mare, Wega, (can you imagine taking a homebred to the Olympics? Well, we all can dream). Michael also was clear, leading up to a showdown in the second round, which was for the individual title. (Remember I told you that the International Olympic Committee does not allow two medals to be presented for one competition anymore, the way it used to be done. And remember I said I thought that was stupid? I'll bet Michael doesn't think so...).
He was fault-free again in round two, and all that was left was to watch Sara go. She was having a beautiful trip until the last fence, where she found herself in a bit of an argument with her mare, who had gotten strong. The result was that in the last second of the last competition, a rail came down and Michael, who had been behind by 1.3 penalties, became the winner. As I predicted yesterday, if you'll recall. His score was 40.6 penalties, to 43.3 for Sara and 44.8 for the up-and-coming German rider, Sandra Auffarth, who took the bronze.
Michael also led Germany to the team title, which it had won in the 2008 Olympics as well, but without him. Two gold medals meant a very happy 30th birthday for Germany's top rider; talk about the stars being lined up at the right time. The Brits, who desperately had wanted to take the gold for the first time since 1972 while riding in their home nation, settled for silver with 138.2 penalties to Germany's 133.7, but were very gracious about it, and the crowd loved them.? The stands were a sea of waving Union Jacks; there is no question this country loves its riders.
"Although it wasn't the gold, it was still worth it," said team member Zara Phillips.
Another Olympic story was Miner's Frolic, ridden by Christina Gifford Cook to clinch the medal, with just one time penalty. The horse, her 2008 Olympic double bronze medal mount, had suffered from colitis last year and it wasn't clear that he could ever be ridden again, let alone live. What a marvelous comeback he made.
It was very cool to see Princess Anne, who rode in the 1976 Olympics, congratulate her daughter, Zara, on the podium. I feel sorry for Zara, she gets so much media attention. The place was swarming with photographers, but one of the photo bosses here said that the London papers will clear out for the most part after today, because they are only interested in Zara and her royal connections. Good. It will be less crowded. I wasn't allowed to go out and take shots of the medal presentations because only a limited number of photogs could be accommodated and as an American photographer, I was told I had to shoot from the sidelines because, "The U.S. isn't on the podium." That's an understatement.
New Zealand, third on 144.4 penalties, edged Sweden by 4 penalties. Sweden will continue to be a force in the sport in the future; it has the talent and the horses. That tough New Zealand campaigner, Andrew Nicholson, put in two clear rounds today on Nereo and wound up fourth on 49 penalties.
The best-placed American was Karen O'Connor, who finished ninth on Mr. Medicott with 53.8 penalties. If she had not had 5.6 time penalties, something she is still thinking about, she would have been fourth with 48.2 penalties. "Always in sporting life, you're going to have moments of what you did that you regret," she told me.
"I regret my time faults. I'll think about that a lot. I'm working on making him faster at the end of the course, when he's not so strong."
I pointed out to her that she didn't have the time faults on purpose, but I did wonder why she accumulated them on this wonderful horse, part of the 2008 German gold medal team.
She explained that it had a lot to do with when he was on course.
"He was early in the order (15th). When you do an order for a team competition, and you're second to go, you don't have as much information as the fourth or fifth rider. It might have been different but you can't look back at it that way. I'm delighted. He's a great horse."
By now you're saying, "Good for the Germans, the Brits, the Kiwis and Karen, but what about the U.S. team?"
I hate being the bearer of bad news, so I procrastinated. While the U.S. was certainly not one of the medal favorites, who would ever have thought the country would finish behind Ireland, which didn't qualify a team and had five people (two of whom were eliminated here) who qualified as individuals to make up the squad? Or after yesterday, behind Australia, which had an awful time on the cross-country course, as two horses slipped and fell. But it only takes three riders to finish under this format for a team to be ranked.
Okay, I'm getting to it. So Ireland was fifth, the Aussies sixth and the U.S., seventh of 13 squads. Unbelievable. This morning, one of the USA's strongest show jumpers, Otis Barbotiere, was withdrawn from the holding box during the trot-up by rider Boyd Martin after it was determined he might have had a sprain, perhaps because his shoes were over-studded for the ground yesterday. Boyd went first, so he and the team had to take their best guess about how to handle the surface. In the show jumping, Will Coleman finished 27th after having two time penalties with Twizzel, who had a stop on cross-country yesterday and Tiana Coudray wound up 40th on Ringwood Magister, who had two rails down and time penalties in show jumping.
What really stung was the performance of Phillip Dutton on the touted Mystery Whisper. He had two rails and a refusal in the first round and two rails and time penalties in the second to finish 23d. He felt he didn't get the horse "thinking forward enough" and had the refusal because he'd had a bad jump beforehand and then Phillip cut a corner to a spooky looking boat fence, so Mystery Whisper stopped.
"I think it surprised him," said Phillip, adding "I'm pretty embarrassed about it."
I asked U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO John Long about the reaction to the placing, and he replied, "We're very disappointed. This is a lot more competitive than it has been over the last two Olympiads. It's a call to action for us and it means we're going to have to re-horse and find new owners.
"At the same time, I 'm very proud of the job that we did yesterday," he said, referring to the cross-country.
"Maybe an Olympics or two ago, what we did yesterday would have put us into contention for a team medal. But it has gotten so competitive. We've got to catch up. We'll get home and do a post mortem on the event. To presuppose that there are any solutions the day after the event is rather naive. We'll just wait until we get back home."
I don't want to end this postcard like Debbie Downer. So I'll repeat what so many people told me, that this event was a great boost for the sport,
John enthused, "This was absolutely spectacular. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. There's not a superlative that I know that really can describe what happened yesterday. I think it bodes well for the sport going forward."
One thing we should all be grateful for is that there were no serious injuries to man or beast. Canada's Hawley Bennett Awad has been released from the hospital after a concussion and a sacrum fracture and should be fine, but will stay here awhile before going home.
Camilla Speirs' Portersize Just a Jiff, who had a fall, has been taken to an off-site veterinary hospital after being treated at the venue. Marcus Swail, Ireland's team vet, said the horse sustained some bruising to his ribs and chest during the fall and has been under observation, but was comfortable this morning.
There's so much more I could say, but I hate to turn these postcards into letters. I'll be going into more detail about what happened here and how prospects look for the U.S. in an article about the Olympic eventing that will be published soon in Practical Horseman magazine.
There is no competition tomorrow, so instead of a postcard, we'll be putting up the photo gallery from the eventing. I'll be sending another postcard Thursday as Grand Prix dressage gets under way.