August 7, 2012 -- A BBC announcer waxing eloquent this morning on the TV before I left for Greenwich Park, contended that "the streets of London are paved with gold" because of the country's medal success here.
Now they can add another brick. Britain's dressage team earned its country's 20th gold medal (the largest number since the 1908 London Games) by a narrow margin this afternoon over Germany, which ended the winning streak that nation had enjoyed for the last seven Olympics.
"To have come here and won any medal would have been amazing but to come here and win gold; I don't think it has sunk in completely yet. It's an incredible feeling for the three of us, and I think we're all really proud of each other," said Laura Bechtolsheimer, who partnered with Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin to make the dream of winning Britain's first dressage medal come true.
Britain wound up with a total of 79.979 percent, to Germany's 78.216 and the Netherlands' 77.124. The U.S. was far out of the medals in sixth place with 72.435 percent, behind Denmark (73.846) and Sweden (72.706).
The stadium once again was packed to its capacity of 23,000, and following the British victory, fans did their version of the wave, utilizing the Union Jack, flapping it in a variety of sizes as the arena came alive. Throughout the tests, it was obvious that the spectators were educated in dressage, as they "oohed" in sympathy over spooks and mistakes.
The whole competition had sparkle. It's a refreshing era of new faces on the podium. Charlotte, whose score of 83.286 on Valegro became the highest in the class, was making her Games debut, as was the entire German team of Dorothee Schneider, Helen Langehanenberg and Kristina Sprehe.
When I wondered how the Germans felt about the end of their streak, Helen promptly replied, "Everybody asks us if we have lost the gold medal. No, we have won the silver medal. We are really happy."
Helen, fourth on Damon Hill (78.937) was thrilled after her ride. She acknowledged the crowd not only by waving, but also by giving cute little nods with her head.
Charlotte joined her mentor, Carl, third overall on Uthopia (80.571) and Laura (for whose father Carl once worked) in boosting the cause of British dressage. Both Carl and Charlotte started as grooms, which they believe is proof that hard work offers a foothold from which the aspiring can rise in the world of dressage.
That's a nice contrast to the continuing "elitist" chant about the sport that got amplified because Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is one of the owners of Rafalca, Jan Ebeling's ride on the U.S. team.
This is the first Olympics where the team medals are based on the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special, not just the Grand Prix. After the Grand Prix, Britain was leading Germany by 0.562 percent, and the two remained neck and neck in the Special.
It was Valegro's spectacular test that won it for the British. He got eight 10's, perfect marks, for a range of movements including the extended trot and the two-tempis, but was penalized for anticipating in the extended walk and got scores of 5 to 6 for a fumble in the one-tempis. But those minor transgressions hardly mattered, such is his quality and his rapport with his rider. It is beautiful to see a partnership like this, built on years of training and trust. Sadly, though, Valegro, like Uthopia, will be for sale following a little vacation after the Games.
That's fairly typical, since post-Olympics often is a time of transition. The Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven, who has earned more medals than any other equestrian in history, is retiring Salinero, her 2008 Olympic gold medal mount.
And Steffen Peters, tied for seventh (76.254) the highest-placing American, doesn't plan on riding Ravel in another championship after he completes the musical freestyle for the individual medals on Thursday, when the equestrian portion of the Olympics ends.
Steffen lost points today when Ravel stumbled on the centerline before a series of nine one-tempis. But he regained his balance and was able to complete them, as well as the pirouette that followed. However, Steffen felt that without the bobble, he might have been in the 78 percent range, which could have put him fifth. But who's counting.
"I'm just excited that he wants to do it after all these years," Steffen said of his 14-year-old Dutchbred partner.
Asked whether he thought there was any possibility that he could earn a medal, Steffen said, "I doubt it, with the top three the way they were, that's a real tough one. For that he would have to be right now already at 80 percent."
In addition to Uthopia and Valegro, only Parzival, the ride of world number one Adelinde Cornelissen, earned over 80 percent today as he finished second.
Although all the 18 starters will begin with the same blank score slate, Steffen isn't looking at the numbers. As he put it, "I'm hoping I can get one more really exciting freestyle in there."
After winning the World Cup finals, sweeping the competition at Aachen, taking two bronze medals in the World Equestrian Games and competing in two Olympics with Ravel, "There's really not much out there where he needs to prove himself and he doesn't owe us anything, but we owe him everything," Steffen said.
His teammates, Tina Konyot on Calecto V (25th) and Jan Ebeling on Rafalca (28th) ended their Olympic adventure today. The horses that are winning here are at a different level. While Steffen is all set to move forward with Legolas, Ravel's understudy, more quality horses are required for the U.S. to field competitive teams now that the bar has been raised.
"We need to get close to the 75 percent mark," Steffen pointed out.
"The level of competition is amazing," said Gary Rockwell, one of seven judges presiding at the Olympics. That's another innovation, up from the usual five judges, along with the Judges Supervisory Panel, which keeps an eye on things and changes scores when necessary. Leif Tornblad, another judge, explained no one can see everything from one vantagepoint, so the panel is helpful in case a judge misses something.
Tomorrow is the contest for the individual show jumping medals, likely the USA's last chance to avoid going home without medals for the first time since 1956. Rich Fellers on Flexible and McLain Ward aboard Antares are the U.S. representatives, who will be facing Great Britain's Nick Skelton and Big Star, the favorites to win. Britain can always use another brick for its golden road, but there are a good number of candidates for top honors.
I'll tell you all about that competition tomorrow night.