Markopoulo, Greece, August 17, 2004 -- The U.S. eventing team may be a question mark in the medal department, but its star, Kim Severson, seems headed for glory.
The squad's anchor rider, who put in the American contingent's best dressage test, rode fault-free cross-country on Winsome Adante this afternoon to move up from fourth to third in the individual standings.
Notice I said a fault-free trip, not a perfect trip.
Kim was taken aback by Dan's attitude as she took off on the obstacle-studded carpet of grass that snaked through the Markopoulo Equestrian Center, about an hour outside of Athens.
"He was stronger than he's ever been. I got lucky a few times, I'll admit," said Kim.
ike everyone else, she's feeling her way with the new, shorter format that has dropped the roads and tracks and steeplechase. The 'chase phase, she explained, "makes him think for himself" as it gets Dan's blood flowing and enables him to concentrate on his jumping technique. Without it as a forerunner, she was riding an unfamiliar engine.
Although some riders miss the longer and more involved speed and endurance phase that was traditional at the Games and other championships, Kim has no problem with the change.
"I like the format a lot, because you have to do a lot less with the horse to prepare," she said, noting that may enable a horse to have a longer competitive life. It's for sure that we'd all like to see Dan around for a long, long time. He does everything so well that he seems like an eventing ideal.
The team is lagging behind Kim. It still stands fourth, as it did after dressage. But now the French have overtaken the British for the lead, with 113.4 penalties. Leading the way for France is Nicolas Touzaint, the winner of the dressage, who was faultless cross-country with the steel gray Galan de Sauvagere, the horse he rode to the European Championship last year.
Nicolas is very subdued in person, but on horseback, he lets his emotions show. I was standing by the final jump as he cleared it, raising a fist in triumph even before Galan's hind hooves hit the ground. He waved both hands in the air on his gallop past the finish line, and a horde of French men and women (several wrapped in their nation's flag) celebrated with him, roaring their approval as they rushed toward their hero. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) their demonstration of approval had to end at the rope barrier tied tightly across the course.
Germany moved up from third to second on 119.6 penalties, led by Bettina Hoy, who made the same upgrade individually. She managed it even though Ringwood Cockatoo had 3.6 time penalties.
Another German, Ingrid Klimke, turned in an amazing performance. She fell from Sleep Late as he slipped between fences 15 and 16. Wasting not an instant, she hopped back in the saddle and finished with the fastest time of the day. Although she originally was penalized for the fall, it was determined that since it had nothing to do with either jump, it would not be charged against her.
The Brits dropped to third on 125.6 penalties after Pippa Funnell logged a depressing 11.2 time penalties with Primmore's Pride. Pippa was second after dressage, but is now eighth, probably out of medal range. Primmore's Pride is a big galloping horse, and the closing downhill run of the course didn't suit his way of going.
The U.S., which was 14 penalties back of the bronze medal slot yesterday, has narrowed the gap to four penalties, with a score of 129.6. Its only other double clear was Darren Chiacchia on Windfall II, but none of the other riders got more than 1.6 time penalties, which could not be said of the teams ahead of America in the standings.
Australia is fifth on 129.4, while New Zealand lags in sixth on 154.6 after one of its stars, Andrew Nicholson, had a fall.
Some riders predicted the course would be too easy and according to some standards, it may have seemed that way. By my count, 55 starters had no jumping penalties, though there were plenty of time penalties to go around.
At the end of the day, though, most people agreed that the course was fine, and good, moderate weather--impossible to predict during August in a Mediterranean country--made it even easier to handle. Rain or intense heat would undoubtedly have put a lot more black marks on the leader board.
Don't forget that the Olympics sailed as a maiden voyage on this format, which continues to evolve.
"This was a steppingstone," U.S. Coach Mark Phillips told me, explaining he expects the next championship under this format to be harder, once riders and trainers learn how to cope with its idiosyncrasies.
Only one major accident marred the proceedings. Over and Over, Belgian rider Joris Vanspringel's mount, crashed at fence 26, the Spring Day combination, and was taken to the veterinary hospital with a fractured stifle. As I write this, vets are operating in an attempt to save him.
But aside from that, it was a beautiful day, and a landmark for not-very-horsey Greece. Despite their unfamiliarity with the sport, folks came out to see what eventing is all about. There were 11,000 spectators, just 2,000 short of the facility's capacity. They quickly got into the swing of things in a fabulous setting, cheering at the appropriate times and honing in on the most beautiful obstacle, the water combination, where they stood six or seven deep. There the horses had to jump over boats in the little lake that had been created for that purpose, making it a very entertaining outpost for the crowd.
So let's hope tomorrow goes as well, and that it brings the U.S. team one medal and another for Kim who so richly deserves it. Though Nicolas is on a roll with his 29.4 penalty score, Bettina isn't far behind with 32, and Kim's 36.2 is less than two rails from the top of the heap. Just as we really didn't know what would happen on cross-country, show jumping under the new format is also a bit of a mystery. That's particularly true since the individual final is at night, a few hours after the team final, so there are a lot of variables at work.
Speaking of work, that's enough from me. I need to put my feet up--they worked overtime today on the course. Did I tell you that they included a pedometer in the souvenir bag they gave to all the journalists? Between all my walking around the labyrinths of the media village and my time on cross-country, I'd be afraid to read what it had to say (if I had bothered to put it on). I just didn't want to know.