August 3, 2012--British fans got what they wanted today, a deserving heroine who they could reward with a standing ovation and lots of flag-waving.
Charlotte Dujardin came to the rescue of her team, turning in an inspirational Olympic record performance with the powerful Valegro, earning 83.663 to put Great Britain in the lead for the team medal with a total of 79.407 percent. Germany is very close behind on 78.845, with its strongest rider, Helen Langehanenberg, scoring 81.140 on Damon Hill.
The Dutch are third with 76.809, courtesy of world number one, Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival (81.687). Edward Gal, Totilas' former rider, looks as if he has cemented a good relationship with another black horse, his new mount, Undercover (75.395). And would you believe Anky van Grunsven, the perennial gold medalist, had the lowest score for the team, 73.343 with Salinero? Times have changed. Think back to the classic Anky/Isabell Werth Olympic battles. At one point, it seemed as if those two pillars of the dressage world, one Dutch, one German, would be fighting it out forever. Now Isabell isn't even riding here and Anky is playing her 18-year-old mount's swan song.
Charlotte, Adelinde and Helen were the only three to score over 80 percent. I can remember the days when you were good if you scored more than 70 percent.
And what of the U.S.? It's fifth on 72.801, behind Denmark (73.845), and unlikely to march into medal territory on Tuesday, when the awards are handed out after the Grand Prix Special. Even Steffen Peters, the high score for the U.S. with Ravel (sixth on 77.705) conceded that the Dutch likely have the bronze locked up.
"The Dutch team looks quite good," he said, but taking the positive view, he noted that at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, the U.S. had had two riders below 70 percent. Here it has two above 70, plus his 77.
Steffen did a superb job with his test, but like all perfectionists, he felt there were things he could improve.
"I wish I had a bit more in front of me in the first two piaffes; it wasn't as good as it can be. The rest felt absolutely phenomenal," he said.
"I think even the extensions were a bit better, the zig-zag half pass is probably the best he's done, so I'm thrilled. I really went for it in the canter extension to a point where he did a bit more than I asked him for, he blasted out of that corner, so I got a bit nervous when I brought him back, but he collected beautifully, did his (flying) change and then two super pirouettes.
Riders aren't getting time to go all the way around the dressage arena in the 30 seconds before the start bell is rung after they enter the big ring, so Steffen practiced working with that short time during ring familiarization a few days ago.
"I kept warming up to the very last minute, then went straight for the cameras (which are along the ring) and knew we had 30 seconds until the bell rings and then another 45 to get in."
Steffen was all smiles, saying he is "super excited." He added, "I hope we can step it just a tiny bit up in the Grand Prix Special, which is usually his better test.
Steffen wasn't the only U.S. rider to compete today. Tina Konyot, first to go this morning, stands 27th with a score of 70.456 percent on Calecto V. She had a fumble in the one-tempis, but basically was pleased with her first Olympic experience and with her black stallion.
"He felt very, very good to me, my horse. I had little bobbles that of course in this moment, it cost and I'm not in the upper echelon of the European show circuit, so I think that affects (the score); I haven't been seen in the European shows for quite some time. I think he gave a very strong performance. I was hoping for more points than that, I know he has that in him, we both do. I will look at my video and see why that didn't happen."
She feels her Olympic experience is even more special because she made her own horse, rather than having someone buy him for her. She suggested that after the Olympics, she might try "a little amateur show jumping" with him. I'm sure technical adviser Anne Gribbons will be thrilled to hear that, but after the Olympics, it's often a time for change. Will we have the same team for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France? Unlikely.
I asked Tina what she liked best about the Olympics, a goal she has been trying to reach for more than a few Olympiads.
"I enjoy all of it," she told me.
"Maybe I don't show my enthusiasm the same as a 25-year-old. At my age, I still have fun and laughter, but it's a little different feeling when you're older." She cited the young girls who are "all giggly and looking around" in the Olympic village.
What matters to her is finally having become an Olympian.
"Being here is just a great honor to represent the U.S. It's been a long, long dream for me," she stressed.
Today's U.S. scores were added to the 70.243 earned yesterday by Jan Ebeling on Rafalca, who now stands? 30th.
The other American competing, Adrienne Lyle, was riding Wizard as an individual. Her score of 69.468 placed her 35th, too low to make the cut of 11 non-team riders who will compete in the Special.
She and the horse she has been bringing along for seven years with mentor and trainer Debbie McDonald looked beautiful in a setting that suited them. The test had many good points, but one costly mistake was a break in the extended trot.
"It's just tension, he gets a little over-exuberant sometimes when he's got all that energy boiling around him and he just took a step that was too much for him to handle and broke," said Adrienne.
"That was a bummer, because that's one of his stronger movements. He had some powerful moments."
There was quite a bit of anticipation before she started. "We were doing whirlybirds before we went in," she confided, but added, "He pulled it together, he tried very hard."
She said being in that great arena, with the towering grandstands on three sides on the view of London on the other is "Very cool. You take it in when you first come into the ring, but when the bell rings, you kind of tune it all out."
Adrienne is among the few in the competition wearing a helmet rather than a top hat. But she's in good company. Charlotte and Canada's Ashley Holzer also are among the growing minority that value their safety more than tradition. By the next Olympics, perhaps the top hats will be used for planters or some other decorative purpose and everyone will don protective headgear. We can only hope.
I think the fact that Charlotte is wearing a helmet means a lot. Her performance was awe-inspiring. Valegro has so much power, yet he is so self-contained. He and Charlotte are having a private conversation while the rest of us watch, and the result is effortless, just what dressage is supposed to be all about. I'm betting the sale of dressage saddles in Great Britain goes up by a good margin post-Olympics. I think this twosome can have that kind of effect. How many people watched today's performance, in person or on TV, and said, "I'd like to do that."
Tomorrow, we finally get to see some show jumping; in fact it goes on for the next three days. I don't like waiting so long for the dressage team medals to get resolved. I think by the time I get back to dressage, I'll have forgotten the Grand Prix; it's like switching off a movie halfway through and then coming back to it much later; you can miss the plot. I'm all for continuity, but on the other hand, it's pretty obvious how this story likely will come out.
My postcard tomorrow will cover the jumping, which looks like the USA's best shot at an equestrian medal. There's a lot of competition out there, but our team is really stellar (and Germany does not seem to be as strong as usual). Still, there's Switzerland, France and several other countries to cope with that could make a real statement, so this should be quite exciting.