August 5, 2012--I'm sure you've seen TV shows that are done as flashbacks; I can remember "Seinfeld" was among those using the genre more than once.
Because I want to deliver good news first for a change, that's the way I'm going to start my postcard, with McLain Ward leaving the grandstand this afternoon and telling me as I passed him, "We needed that."
He was referring to the fact that a few minutes earlier, Rich Fellers had just delivered a perfect trip--the only one produced by the U.S. squad today in the first team competition. It insured the U.S. will have a spot in tomorrow's final team round. Just eight of 15 nations qualified, so it was no sure thing--can you believe Germany, France and Belgium didn't make it?
Rich, the World Cup winner and his steady mount, Flexible, are continuing on the roll they have enjoyed for most of this season. They looked beautiful over the fences, but what struck a chord with me was the way Rich lovingly touched the stallion in appreciation after his round. It was more like a caress than even a gentle pat. The two seemed to be communicating in a bubble, blocking out the applause from the crowd of 20,000, as they offered a message to each other.
Rich is tied with 11 other riders for first place, less than half the 32 who were in that position yesterday. Today's course was more difficult, with several options and a number of eye-catching fixtures; I loved using Big Ben as one of the standards, but the point of having a triple combination marking the Great London Fire left me puzzled.
In the previous U.S. round: Reed Kessler, eager to avoid the time penalty she incurred yesterday, pushed Cylana a bit harder and wound up with two rails down.
"I was desperate not to have a time fault today,"? the 18-year-old conceded, and she didn't. But she also didn't get the scope she sought at "B" of the triple combination and got flat to the vertical at the next numbered obstacle.
"I really wanted to be the first American to bring home a clean round," she said. No question she was under pressure.
Which brings us to what happened before that: Beezie Madden, who had been eliminated from the individual qualifying round yesterday after problems at a double with Via Volo, got around with only 4 faults for a knockdown at the initial element of the first combination, something she attributed to over-riding that made the mare a little flat. Normally the team's anchor, she had been moved to the less vulnerable second position, with Rich appropriately taking over as last to go. It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of coach George Morris, giving Beezie more of a comfort zone and the team a cushion for safety.
Starting out the U.S. effort was McLain on Antares, looking strong as usual, but with a foot in the water that McLain blamed on himself for getting too close to it on take-off.? That insured the competition would be a nailbiter for U.S. supporters until each rider had gone.
"I think a little bit in the back of my mind, I was forcing things a little bit, just thinking I needed to log a solid score," McLain said of his failure to clear the water fault-free, noting perhaps it would be better "to let things happen a little more."
Okay, that's probably enough of the flashback technique, but I thought it was a good way for you to get the picture of what happened with the U.S. riders on this day of surprises. So are you ready for one more? If you haven't been watching the action on TV or your computer, would you like to guess what country is in the lead?
How about Saudi Arabia?
Yes, the Kingdom's riders have only a 1 penalty total, after being able to drop a 4-fault knockdown score from world championships silver medalist Abdullah Sharbatly on Sultan. He was one of two Saudi riders (the other isn't here) who had their eight-month suspensions for a controlled medication positive in their mounts commuted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which enabled Sharbatly to become an Olympian. The Saudis have tremendous horses and have medaled in the past, so it's not as much of a shock to see them heading the list as one might think.
The day started with rain that was, as they say in these parts, bucketing down. Great Britain's Nick Skelton, the favorite for top honors with Big Star, was totally soaked when he entered the ring, but that didn't prevent him from turning in a clean round as he continues on his quest for Olympic individual gold.
Though Nick normally tends to be rather unemotional, he spoke in glowing superlatives about his mount.
"There are no negatives with this horse; he is the perfect animal," Nick said.
Ben Maher also was fault-free with Tripple X, (love that spelling) enabling Britain to drop the eight penalty total of Peter Charles, the team's weak link with Vindicat, so only the 4-fault score of Scott Brash (Hello Sanctos) counted. It is tied for second with the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland on that mark.
As McLain said, "We need zeroes," which is the key to success in the Nations' Cup format. One person can run up a big score, but that can be dropped if the others are fault-free; if everyone has just 4 faults, however, it adds up and it's fatal to medal chances.
That will affect Canada, which now only has a 3-member team and no drop score after it was determined that Tiffany Foster's mount, Victor, was hypersensitive in one front leg. You'll remember the hypersensitivity issue from 2010, when McLain Ward missed his chance to win the World Cup finals with Sapphire after she was judged to be hypersensitive. I thought some changes had been made to the way such issues were handled after the furor over McLain's disqualification, but apparently not. No one has accused Tiffany of any wrongdoing, however; the horse had a little cut. That stuff happens.
Even so, she's understandably heartbroken at the way her first Olympic Games is ending.
"I would never do anything to jeopardize the welfare of my horse," she said.
"What happened is totally devastating to me. I understand why the rules are in place and I understand why they look for hypersensitivity. I just feel so bad for my team."
Captain Canada, Ian Millar, age 65 and in his 10th Olympics, was fault-free on Star Power, and defending Olympic champion Eric Lamaze had only 1 time penalty on Derly Chin de Muze (you'll remember the untimely death last fall of his 2008 mount, Hickstead). Jill Henselwood's 4-fault total with George left them with 5 penalties in sixth place, ahead of the U.S. and Brazil, which are tied for seventh with 8 penalties.
Tomorrow is a whole new day, however, and a lot can change. The fact that Beezie seems to have overcome Via Volo's quirky performance from yesterday should help.
How did she do it? (It's a lesson for all of us who run into problems with our mounts, even when we're not in the Olympics).
"We jumped her over a combination when I came out of the ring yesterday," said Beezie.
"This morning, I did some rails on the ground and one very low jump just to get the rideability better. Yesterday was a culmination of things. the rideability, the fact that she was kind of over-achieving; I could have made a better decision there to the double, but today we felt more together and tomorrow I can ride her and trust her a little more and I think she'll be like she usually is."
It's wonderful to see this team work together and support each other.
"I was just so proud of Beezie and pleased with her performance. That gave me a real boost," said Rich, who said what happened to Beezie yesterday was "a jolt to the whole team."
He felt that today, Flexible "was a little more on his game, a little more dialed-in...he gets better through the week typically if I don't mess him up."
I wondered what the odds are on the team coming from behind tomorrow.
"We only have 8 faults. It's sport, anything can happen," Rich said firmly. ?British riders Nick and Ben, who are in the tie with Rich, have an extra incentive to do well. The British post office has been printing stamps picturing the country's gold medal winners, and they are painting postboxes gold in the medalists hometowns. Wouldn't that be enough to inspire you to go out and win? We'll see...
We're looking forward to tomorrow afternoon. It should be exciting, and I'll tell you all about it in my next postcard.