August 9th, 2016 -- Astier Nicolas and Piaf De B’Neville won Individual Silver during a fairy tale weekend for the French rider and the United States’ Phillip Dutton uplifted the spirits of Team USA when he pulled through to earn Individual Bronze with Mighty Nice. It was Phillip’s sixth Olympic Games and his first Individual Olympic medal.
It is no secret and no surprise that Michael Jung is a dominant force in eventing, the likes of which have never been seen. For most athletes, the disclaimer “barring major error” is used before victory predictions, but in this German rider’s case, any error whether minor or major, never even enters the conversation. He is the current World, European and now two-time Olympic Champion of eventing. Michael and Sam’s two clear stadium jumping rounds helped he and his teammates Julia Krajewski, Sandra Auffarth and Ingrid Klimke earn a Team Silver medal and made Michael a double Olympic medalist once again (he earned double Gold with Sam in London 2012.)
But it was France who shone in the team competition to take the coveted Olympic Team Gold with the all-male team of Nicolas, Karim Laghouag, Matheiu Lemoine and Thibaut Vallette. Australia, who started the day in Gold medal position, faltered in stadium jumping to earn Team Bronze (the team consisted of Shane Rose, Stuart Tinney, Christopher Burton and Sam Griffiths.) New Zealand was in the hunt but saw the podium slip through their fingers to finish in 4th place.
An entire section of the tall grandstands at Deodoro fluttered with the red, white and blue of the French flag as a large cheering section boosted the already high spirits of the Team Gold winners. France had gone 12 years since winning their last Olympic Gold medal and according to Nicolas, “it’s been a very long wait. It’s such a relief today. We are a team of very good friends.”
“We had very intense preparation, and we were rewarded today,” added teammate Thiabaut. “We worked very very closely in preparation for Rio, we know each other very well, and I think that is very helpful in a competition like this.”
The Jung Factor
In addition to French Gold, the most remarkable part of the day wasn’t so much that Michael and Sam had won Individual Gold—ask anyone watching and they would have bet on him to clinch it—but that Sam was still hyper and fresh during his two medal ceremonies. So fresh that his groom had to lunge him in the middle of the arena as the medal ceremony unfolded close to the main grandstand. Michael later said that Sam’s nervous character keeps his blood up even after the completion of one of the most difficult Olympics in recent memory.
“You have to give Sam a very quiet feeling so that he believes everything is very easy,” Michael said of his horse, a 16-year-old Baden-Wurttemberger gelding by Heraldix xx. “But today, he was much easier to warm up than yesterday and much better in the second round. He was much more relaxed and listening to me.
“He can run every hill, he can jump every fence. This is a very special moment for me, because it’s the second [Olympics] with Sam. I am very proud of him.”
The close connection that Michael has with Sam just keeps paying off in dividends—the two were of the same mind over every jump today as they were on Monday when they jumped a clear cross-country phase. Michael is now just the third eventer ever to win back-to-back, Individual Olympic Gold medals.
“For sure the cross country was very difficult, but we were very lucky we had good conditions,” Michael said. “The ground was very good, the horses were galloping very easy on this ground and after a win you’re more relaxed and more happy. We will now have to celebrate a little bit!”
Drama of the Day
All 48 horses that were presented for the final horse inspection at 8:00am were approved to jump today, although a few tense moments were had when Mighty Nice was held and re-presented. The Olympics are the only three-day eventing competition where the top horses come back to jump a second round for individual medals and after the challenging test of Monday’s cross country phase, and a tough show jumping track, the top 25 that qualified for Jumping Individual Round B were an elite group.
The drama of the day belonged to Australia and New Zealand, who swapped in and out of medal contention, and Germany, which moved onto the podium after starting the day in 4th place only to be unable to break through France to repeat their London 2012 Team Gold.
Christopher Burton of Australia, who led the cross-country phase with Santano II, had everything to lose today, and unfortunately his fate was sealed in Round A, when he racked up 8 faults to drop him to Bronze Medal position, and finally to 5th place after Santano II ticked two more rails in Round B.
However, his countryman Sam Griffiths had a better day and helped pull Australia up to that Team Silver spot by going double clear with Paulank Brockagh to finish Individual 4th.
“I had a little tear in my eye as I went around today, my horse really tried her heart out,” Sam said. He readily admitted that going home with an Olympic medal, be it bronze or gold, is a true honor.
Speaking of tears, Mark Todd may have wanted to shed a few after Leonidas II, jumping last in the rotation as team anchor, hit four fences for 12 faults in Round A, dropping New Zealand out of medal contention. Until then, New Zealand was in Gold Medal position after a clear round from Clark Johnstone. Mark found some redemption when he returned to jump clear in Round B, but his regret for letting his team down from the anchor position was clear.
“He was just too well after yesterday, he was too full of himself,” Mark said. In the second round I decided that it had gone so baldy out there that we might as well come back and try again. We had nothing to lose and I didn’t want to leave him on that bad note. I was in 11th place at the Olympic Games, it’s not so bad. And we moved up to 7th. We will just live to rue what might have been.”
A Touch of Redemption
And for Phillip, that Individual Bronze medal held special meaning in so many ways. He and his team couldn’t help but wish that the late Bruce Duchossois, who was a part owner of Mighty Nice, had been able to see his horse earn an Olympic medal, but there was no lack of support present for Phillip and his horse.
“It’s been a great achievement for him, and Bruce would have been very proud of him,” Phillip said. “Bruce’s family, they’re all watching, and (part owner) Caroline Moran is here and has probably shed half a bucket of tears already. For everybody who is associated with the horse, it’s been a great week for us.”
Dutton moved up to Bronze medal position despite pulling a rail in the triple combination in Round B. After half of Team USA failed to finish Monday’s cross-country phase, dropping them well out of team medal contention, Phillip described how the team tried to look forward and move on to the final phase:
“It was a disappointing day yesterday for our team,” he said. “A lot of people in America work hard for us to get here, so it’s pretty gutting. Especially for Lauren [Kieffer] because she was having a cracking round actually. So we just had to get up and do our best today. It was fortunate for everybody that it worked out.
“Especially for ‘Happy’,” Phillip continued, using his horse’s barn name. “To get to this international stage I’m quite pleased. I’ve had better gallopers in my time but I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse with a bigger heart.”
Big hearts sure come in handy in an Olympic Games, and the riders who hung a medal around their necks today did so in partnership with the biggest equine hearts in the sport.