Gladstone, N.J., June 14, 2007 -- The Olympic quest was firmly planted in the dreams of a few dozen kids yesterday evening when medalist Debbie McDonald gave a heartfelt talk about sportsmanship to a lucky group of 4-H members.
After the jog for the Collecting Gaits Farm U.S. Equestrian Federation National Dressage Championships, Debbie went upstairs in the historic U.S. Equestrian Team building that overlooks the arena to explain to the youngsters why the right behavior can be as important as their riding ability in the journey to show ring success.
"It takes a bit of courage to be a good sport when you lose. You have to say, 'Sorry, guys, it just wasn't happening today,'" Debbie told the group.
Some of the kids, frankly, had never heard of Debbie. But after watching inspiring videos, courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the USET, they quickly grasped that they were in the presence of a Very Important Athlete.
"It was like, awesome," 12-year-old Brianna Havel informed me. She still had stars in her eyes after hearing Debbie say she wanted to take "one more shot" at the Olympics with Brentina next year, now that the mare has recovered from the tear in a hind superficial tendon that cut short her participation in last year's World Equestrian Games.
Debbie was very frank in recounting how she felt something was not quite right in her first extended trot at the WEG, but kept riding conservatively to insure a bronze medal for the U.S., team without endangering her mount.
"When you go out there, there's a lot of pressure to bring home medals," said Debbie, explaining how she handled a difficult situation so the U.S. could qualify for the 2008 Olympics, but then withdrew her horse from further competition after the Grand Prix.
She also discussed the need to be friendly with competitors, giving as an example how a jumper rider who finds a slippery corner in the ring might well come out after his or her round and tell the next competitor coming in to be careful there.
I asked Brianna what she got out of the talk and she told me, "a blue ribbon is not all that matters," so she got the message.
And that's just what the USOC wants to do with a program that sends Olympic athletes to the grassroots to impress the need for sportmanship from the ground up.
The USEF reached out to local horse clubs for the occasion and the Hoofbeats 4-H, located in Hillsborough about 20 minutes from Gladstone, got the nod.
Catherine Marrion, a 4-H leader, said when she received a call about the opportunity to have her kids meet Debbie, "I jumped right on it and said, 'Yes, yes, yes!'"
She noted with a smile that one of the club's riding instructors was skeptical. "Debbie McDonald's not going to speak to your club," she informed Catherine.
"They believed me eventually," Catherine said.
Debbie answered a bunch of questions from the eager kids, one of whom wanted to know about flying the horses to competitions abroad, and how they are made comfortable. Someone wondered what the equine equivalent of chewing gum was to make sure the horses' ears didn't pop on take-off and landing. Debbie told them the grooms feed carrots and treats at those time to make the horses comfortable and keep them swallowing.
After the talk, the kids swarmed Debbie for autographs and to have more questions answered. Davide Alexis, a long-legged 13-year-old who competes in the jumpers with Casey, an ex-racehorse, beamed after getting some advice and encouragement about putting his horse on the bit.
Kim Bergen, 18, said she found Debbie's talk informative.
"I now have a goal to go to the Olympics," she said, noting that it was an eye-opener "to meet someone who had been there and was so down-to-earth." Olympians, she realized, are simply human beings "and not like gods," which means it's a goal to which she, too, can aspire.
After the talk, Debbie attended a reception for competitors. She isn't riding--Brentina is just back in work and she's aiming for a European tour this fall--but she's on hand to school a few riders and support the competition (she is, after all, the USEF's developing dressage rider coach.)
It was fun to see everyone in an informal setting before the competition got underway today. I'll be sending my first postcard Saturday morning, and then wrapping up four days of the show in my Monday morning postcard. So don't worry, we'll be in touch!
In Riding Through, Olympic medalist Debbie McDonald describes her system for success in dressage and relates her life story. To order, call 1-800-952-5813 or visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com.