I have been writing about the possibility of a U.S. four-in-hand medal for years, a period in which it has been as elusive as Bigfoot, and, I feared at times, just as unlikely ever to appear.
But the team of Tucker Johnson, Chester Weber and Jimmy Fairclough made everyone into believers today at the World Equestrian Games as they took America's first medal in their sport. And it was a silver, yet!
That wasn't the only good thing that happened for the U.S. Equestrian Team today. Peter Wylde made the "final four" ride-off for the individual show jumping medals. He became the first American to qualify for the competition since Greg Best did it in 1990 at the first WEG in Sweden. Oh, and I should remind you AGAIN that I predicted Peter would make the final four. And that the U.S. would get team silver in driving.
Interestingly, Eric Navet of France, whom Greg rode against in Stockholm, also will be in this head-to-head four-way show jumping confrontation. Twelve years ago, Eric won the title and Greg was the odd man out when they passed around the medals. But more about the jumping later. The driving medal was so great I want to tell you about it.
The stars were lined up right from the beginning here, when the team led in dressage. Some hiccups on the marathon put the Americans second, behind the Dutch, but luckily, the standings didn't change today in the cones as all three U.S. drivers delivered perfect trips.
As the morning wore on, it was obvious the cones course was not going to be a factor in the placings. The level grass field meant there was no terrain to cope with, as Jimmy pointed out, and 12 of 40 drivers went double clean, like all our guys.
So everything was status quo. Ijsbrand Chardon of Holland, a former world champion, took the individual gold again, and his nation has won more gold medals in the sport than any other.
Chardon was incredibly emotional after clinching his medal, putting his head in his hands at first, then sharing his joy with everyone on the carriage, and after that, with the crowd. He must have thought he'd never get here, having lost a horse at Aachen when it broke a leg during the vet inspection, and had a horse in his team hurt in Breda. But he borrowed a horse from Dutch driver Ad Aarts to compete here.
The secret of his success?
"No secret," he said. "It's extremely hard work."
And as for the cones course being too easy, he disagreed.
"It was not so simple to go in as the last competitor," he said. "It was difficult enough to win."
Tucker, who wound up fourth, just shy of an individual medal, said he had hoped the team could win gold.
"I feel like I didn't live up to what I had to offer to provide that, but I did the best I could," Tucker said.
Still, he and the others were thrilled with silver, and hope it can do good things for the sport in this country.
"Hopefully, it will inspire others to make the transition to four-in-hand driving from either other disciplines or from the more beginning levels of singles and pairs," said Tucker.
"It is possible. It just requires a measure of commitment."
Okay, back to the show jumping. Today we had two rounds to sort out the four best from the top 25, with Peter in the number one position going into the competition. He hadn't had a rail down at this show with Fein Cera until today, but he dropped to number two after the first round, when the bay mare toppled the blue rail that was the highest element on the second part of a double flanked by lighthouses.
A lot of the horses seemed worn out in this competition, but not Fein Cera. Peter felt she was tired, and even took the precaution of putting on spurs for the second round. To me, though, she looked like she might be taking a spin along the trails when she walked into the arena for that round, her tail flowing in the slight breeze.
She was jumping beautifully. In the 5ABC combination, maroon fences decked with Spanish shawls and matador's capes, Peter opened his arms wide over the second and third elements to give her some freedom. Though he had two rails in hand to make the final four, he only needed one. The last fence, red and black striped planks over a liverpool, was his lone knockdown.
The leader after round one, Eric on Dollar du Murier HTS de Seine, kept that position, even though he accumulated three time faults. The totals from today don't matter, because everyone going into the final four starts with a clean slate.
It's a nice, eclectic finals, with Helena Lundback of Sweden standing third on the petite (15.3-hand) Utfors Mynta and Ireland's Dermott Lennon on Liscalgot finishing fourth in the qualifier.
Helena has a pony tail that swings around when she rides. It's adorable, and I figured it was a deliberate signature.
"No," she told me with a laugh. "I have a big head and it hurts when I tuck my hair under my hat."
Helena didn't expect to be in the final; she didn't even expect to be in the WEG earlier this year, after her mare had trouble recovering from a December virus. It wasn't until the summer that she knew the horse was going to be all right, even though some had assumed Mynta would never be jumping in the big leagues again.
Helena said with a 1,000-watt smile that her feelings at being among the elite at the WEG are "a mix between being tremendously happy and scared to death."
I have an idea there will be a lot of tossing and turning among the ranks of the final four as they try to get to sleep tonight.
Peter confessed to nerves in the first round today, saying he had a "cotton mouth," something you never would have guessed from looking at him. As he pointed out, the whole process leading to the final four, and then that test itself, is like a final exam not only on a rider's expertise in the sport, but also about his character.
"This is all about knocking you down...and completely testing every part of your skill level. That's what champions are all about," Peter said.
His rise to the final four is good news for the U.S. squad, which missed a medal in the team jumping and, I might add, did not qualify for the 2004 Olympics when it placed sixth. The USA gets another chance in the Pan American Games next year. That's the same scenario as 1999, when Peter got an individual silver in the Pan Ams, and the team made the cut for Sydney there.
Anyway, let's get back to the current challenge.
After he qualified for the final four, Peter's teammate, Leslie Howard, exclaimed, "I'm so excited."
Me too. Tomorrow should be quite a day, as the reining medals are awarded in the morning (the only question for the U.S. is how many we'll get) and the final four goes in the afternoon. Following that are the elaborate closing ceremonies, which will have a lot to live up to after the success of the opening ceremonies.
It's been an exciting two weeks, but you know what? I think we're all ready to go home. I, for one, am still longing for a decent meal. Last night I had a choice between a giant octopus in a bowl (I'm not kidding) and a salad of tomatoes, peppers and very questionable-looking shrimp. I didn't eat the octopus.