Markopoulo, Greece, August 24, 2004--The U.S. show jumpers put on a gold medal performance tonight at the Olympics. Unfortunately, they did it after Germany had already won the gold, but their effort was enough to take the silver in an unexpected jump-off with Sweden.
"For a day that looked like a disaster, it ended pretty good," said coach Frank Chapot after the team of Beezie Madden, Chris Kappler, Peter Wylde and McLain Ward stepped up on the podium to have the olive wreaths placed on their heads and the medals hung around their necks.
Germany and the U.S. were the favorites to be battling for the top prize, but the U.S. got off to a surprisingly slow start and didn't recover until the tie-breaker. Meanwhile, Germany ran away with the gold, collecting only 8 penalties compared to 20 each for the U.S. and Sweden.
The cast of the medal ceremonies, getting ready to walk into the ring in their costumes, had to cool their heels as the riders prepared to venture out on a shortened course.
The jump-off counted both faults and time. Peter, who had the 12-penalty drop score in both regular rounds with Fein Cera, was instructed just to go clear, which he did. Then, Chapot said, McLain on Sapphire and Chris on Royal Kaliber were told to push for speed, each leaving out a stride to the second jump, which turned out to be the key to victory.
When the final Swedish rider, Rolf-Goran Bengtsson got to the in-gate, he realized that with the U.S. ahead by more than seven seconds, there was no way he could make up the time. He decided not to jump, which meant Beezie didn't have to jump either. It was midnight, and a competition that began at 9 a.m. (with a long break in the middle) was finally over.
Asked whether he was emotional when he got the medal, Chris said that hadn't hit him yet. What he did feel, he admitted, was "relief."
Beezie always looks cucumber cool, but she explained after her first round, "I felt less pressure today, in a way, because I knew my horse had gone in and done well. And we were finally finished waiting for this day. It was exciting to have it finally be here."
Although her performance on Authentic--three perfect trips in as many rounds--gave her the number-one ranking in the individual medal standings, unfortunately that edge won't mean too much on Friday, when equestrian wraps up with the show jumping individual finals.
Her big opposition will probably be the leader of the German squad, the tremendously consistent Ludger Beerbaum, who had a double clear today. For some reason, while waiting to step on the podium, Ludger decided to entertain the crowd by tossing his helmet in the air and catching it. He did it once, then twice, but the second time it hit the ground. That proves Ludger does miss once in awhile.
The top 45 riders from today and the qualifier last Sunday all start with a clean slate, though Beezie will have the advantage of going last in the jump order because she was in first place tonight.
The course was as amazing today as it was for the first jumping competition on Sunday. Designer Olaf Petersen combed Greek mythology and literature seeking inspiration for his marvelous fences, which he built himself. There was an airy, arched stone bridge that was eyeballed by more than one horse, and a fence of delicate orange planks above forms resembling fragments of ancient Greek ceramics.
Just how delicate the planks actually were became evident when the Meltemi winds got to them. The top one blew down several times during the morning session, and a Greek rider got to skip right over them when they all tumbled in a particularly strong gust. In the end, a jump crew member had to hold them in place until the horses were only a few strides away--that guy needed good timing in order not to get jumped himself.
I knew it was going to be a tough day when the U.S. got off to a slow start in round one. I was, frankly, aghast when Peter Wylde's mare had a foot in the water, toppled the problematic planks and dropped a rail at the final fence, a fishing boat that looked as if it had been transplanted from the water obstacle at the three-day event.
I was still recovering from that shock when McLain had 8 faults, a knockdown and a foot at the water, too. WHAT was going on here, I wondered? The water was a problem because as McLain said, it was "flat," with nothing much for a horse to look at on the take-off. The only German who went in the water, though, was that team's chef d'equipe, Kurt Gravemeier, who was tossed in by his boys after the medal ceremony.
Beezie shrugged off the mishaps.
"That's why we have four riders on a team," she said.
While the Germans and the Americans were the favorites, many had liked the chances of the French. But it was over early for France, when World Cup Champion Bruno Broucqsault's mount, Dileme de Cephe, landed hard after fence three and began hobbling. The horse was whisked away in an ambulance to the state-of-the-art veterinary clinic over by the stables, as French chef d'equipe Jean-Maurice Bonneau walked a devastated Bruno out of the arena. Vets determined Dileme had a bowed tendon, as does Who Knows Lily, the mount of U.S.-based Argentine rider Federico Sztyrle, who also went lame during the competition.
As a result of the mishap, they barely made the cut-off for the second round, which only included 10 teams. Then they dropped out as a team altogether (paving the way for South Korea to enter the top 10) because former world champion Eric Navet's horse, Dollar du Murier, wasn't feeling up to snuff as indicated by having 16 faults in the first round.
Tonight's competition didn't end until nearly midnight. The Greeks are night owls. I'm sure many of them went out to their favorite taverna afterwards to celebrate. It's 3:45 a.m. and I, however, am going back to my cell at the Agios Andreas media village to collapse for a few hours.
But we'll be back here tomorrow for the dressage musical freestyle leading to individual honors in that discipline. I'll tell you all about it then.