August 6, 2012 -- No U.S. rider was able to produce a fault-free round in today's team show jumping final, where the fences were big and the challenges were many. As a result, the medal that seemed a tantalizing possibility went elsewhere, and hopes now have to focus on Wednesday's individual final.
McLain Ward on Antares and Rich Fellers on Flexible move forward into that round after having two knockdowns apiece this afternoon over the imposing route cleverly designed by Bob Ellis.
This afternoon's action was another in a series of disappointments at these Games for U.S. supporters, who were let down by the eventers last week. The show jumpers had always seemed the most likely American medal winners in the three Olympic disciplines, but things just didn't go their way.
While Beezie Madden was the best of the squad today, she had one fence down with Via Volo. Still, that was a great improvement on her first appearance last weekend in the imposing arena with its towering grandstands. She and the mare didn't even make it around the course then.
Although the U.S. was trying for its third consecutive Olympic gold with half of both the 2004 and 2008 teams, McLain and Beezie, neither was aboard the horses they had depended on in the other Games. Both Sapphire and Authentic are retired. Each rider now has a relationship of about two years with their new horses, good enough to develop an understanding, but not the type of bond McLain and Beezie had with their other mounts.
Reed Kessler, at 18 very much the rookie of the group, was chipper throughout the Games. Considering her inexperience, she held her own, but today was her worst round with Cylana, as they accumulated 12 penalties.
"She rode very well," said George Morris, the technical advisor/chef d'equipe, otherwise known as the coach.
"She showed her greenness when the fences got bigger and bigger and the pressure got bigger and bigger. She showed a little passivity, which you'd expect. But there was a very admirable performance."
We'll all be seeing a lot more of Reed on future teams.
Rich, who replaced Beezie as the anchor after her mishap on Saturday, hasn't had a rail down in the first round of a grand prix since March. But the World Cup finals winner came to the end of his lucky streak today. Think of the pressure these competitors are under, and how tired their horses must be after three straight days of challenging jumping tests before you criticize their performances.
Not many people picked the Brits to win their first show jumping gold since 1952, but I had a feeling about it. I told you a few days ago (I feel like repeating the story) that I went up to Great Britain's point man, Nick Skelton, in Florida last winter and told him I could see the Brits winning all three team golds here. He was, shall we say, skeptical. The eventing squad came close, taking silver; the dressage team is on the brink of taking the gold tomorrow and the jumping is now history.
British fans have been incredibly supportive (and incredibly loud). When Peter Charles, of all people, clinched the win, they went wild, screaming, stomping and waving their flags. I was sitting in the stands at that point and felt as if I were in the middle of a big party to which I hadn't been invited.
I say Peters Charles "of all people" because he had, how do I put this politely, the worst record on the team since they first cantered into the ring on Saturday.
There were only five double-clears in today's main round; two belonged to the Brits and two to the Dutch.? So it was no surprise when they had to jump off for the gold after being tied on 8 penalties each.
Nick on Big Star and Ben Maher on Tripple X (love that name) both were fault-free again in the jump-off, while Scott Brash had a rail with Hello Sanctos. The Dutch had one clear, one 8-faulter and one 4-faulter.
Riding Vindicat, Peter Charles got himself Vindicated. There was no way he was going to fail, "being at home in front of the most fabulous crowd you could ever imagine."
He put in a super clear round and barely landed off the last fence before he was raising his arm in triumph. The Brits had zero penalties with the drop score; the Dutch didn't bother to send their last rider and wound up with 12 penalties.
Nick, who has had a broken neck and shoulder and hip replacements, had felt his time to win a medal was running out.
"For me, personally, it's everything. To happen in London is the greatest feeling," he said.
On Wednesday, in the individual medal finals, he could feel that feeling again. He definitely is the favorite, though it remains to be seen if Big Star gets flat after running in the jump-off today, and if having to do the extra round puts him at a disadvantage. There will be 35 participants, all starting with a clean slate, so it's a whole new ballgame.
The bronze team medal went to the Saudis, who moved into third with 14 penalties before the jump-off. They have quite a program and the commitment (as well as the horses) to make it work. All the men are beautifully mounted.
Switzerland had 16 penalties to finish fourth, followed by the three-member Canadian team that lacked a drop score (26 penalties) and the U.S. and Sweden tied on 28.
What's going wrong with the U.S. program? There have been several open sessions to discuss it. The team was 10th at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 and in 2011, got relegated from the Super League, or whatever they are calling the main Nations' Cup league these days (the name has changed several times).
So why didn't the U.S. do better here?
"We didn't have a Sapphire and an Authentic as anchors," George Morris told me as we chatted under the trees outside the arena.
"There has to be much more commitment at this level. A country has to make a commitment to riding at a standard," he said, noting "most of our resources are spent in the hunter division, the equitation division, the adult hunter division.? This has to be a big priority for the country.
"We have to produce horsemen, not just cosmetic fake horsemen." He noted that this observation isn't just about show jumping, it also applies to eventing and dressage.
Tomorrow, while the jumpers rest, we're back to dressage, speaking of that. The Grand Prix Special will wrap up the team competition. The gold will be between Britain and Germany, with the Netherlands likely taking the bronze. The U.S. will be battling it out with the Danes and Swedes for the spot below the medals.
I'll be sending another postcard tomorrow to fill you in.