Markopoulo, Greece, August 27, 2004 -- The last day of the Olympic equestrian competition was a disaster for U.S. show jumpers, with the bright spot--a bronze medal for Chris Kappler--overshadowed by an injury to his horse, Royal Kaliber.
I don't know what they showed on TV, but it was shocking to see it in person here. Chris was jumping off with Rodrigo Pessoa for the silver individual medal and seemed to be ahead on time. He was clear, fast and two fences from the end of the course when he felt Royal bobble. He dismounted immediately and people rushed onto the field to help him. It was, unfortunately, a scene we had witnessed twice before in this arena, and Chris' distraught face was heartbreaking.
We all feared the worst, but luckily, Royal did not suffer a fracture. He was taken away in a horse ambulance and is being cared for in the state-of-the-art veterinary clinic at the equestrian center for an acute strain of his left front superficial digital flexor tendon. Dr. Tim Ober, the U.S. veterinarian, said he should be fine after rest and treatment.
But until that word came, Chris had some bad moments. He was comforted by Rodrigo, who came over and hugged him.
When I asked what Rodrigo said to him, Chris replied, "I don't remember, but it made me feel better."
Chris walked into the arena on foot to receive his medal, as gold medalist Cian O'Connor of Ireland rode Waterford Crystal and Rodrigo was aboard the statuesque Baloubet du Rouet.
While Chris was on the podium, he was thinking of Royal.
"He's been the horse of a lifetime for me," he said. "He got me the medals I always wanted; what else could I ask for?"
There were many questions about the footing after Royal's accident. Two other horses bowed their tendons in the same part of the ring earlier in the week, but show officials insisted the ground was fine. However, the FEI will investigate, said Catrin Norinder, one of the organization's officials.
Chris wasn't sure if the ground had anything to do with Royal's problem.
"You're jumping maximum fences over many, many jumps; these things are going to happen," he said, trying to hide the anguish he felt for the horse he owns with Kathy Kamine.
The day did not go the way anyone thought it would. There were 45 starters in the first round of the individual test, with Beezie Madden last to go. The heroine of the U.S. team silver medal effort several days earlier, she and Authentic had been perfect through three rounds.
Authentic looked just as good over the first seven fences, but Beezie went to her whip at the water, which has been troublesome all week. After that, Authentic became "a little aggressive" to the next fence, the "Atom," dropping a rail there. Beezie was able to get him under control for the next two fences and was heading for home down the triple combination when he toppled a pole at the first fence, and then the second.
"I cannot tell you why," said Beezie, noting he's only a 9-year-old who has had a lot to handle at the Games. "Maybe he was just looking to get through there," she suggested.
His 12-fault total meant he would not come back in the second round. The gold that had seemed to be within Beezie's reach was suddenly gone, but she was okay with it. Beezie is show jumping's version of eventing's Kim Severson, always cool and collected.
"We had a great day in the Nations' Cup (the team competition) and that's what we came here for mostly," Beezie said matter-of-factly after dismounting. "He's a young horse. He put in a fantastic effort in the first round and both rounds of the Nations' Cup." Then she smiled.
McLain Ward made it into the second round of the individual competition, for which the 45 starters in the first round were cut to 29. But after four fences, his mare, Sapphire, suddenly seemed to be out of control. It turned out the bit had broken. McLain dismounted, a halter was put on the horse, and he walked out of the ring, his Olympics finished by a freak mishap.
One theme that ran through the night was redemption. Rodrigo's horse twice had lost him titles, at the 2000 Olympics and the 2002 World Equestrian Games, by stubbornly refusing to jump. I asked why, with that history, he brought Baloubet here.
"The horse has super quality," he told me. "Things like that happen to everybody but you cannot throw the horse away and for sure, I did not have a better one to bring this year."
For Cian, the gold medal--to be celebrated with a drink of Guinness--was an affirmation of his talent that he badly needed.
He'd had five rails down in the Nations' Cup, as Ireland finished far out of the money. There had been a lot of hype about Cian before the Games, and that backfired on the 25-year-old rider, who now has proven the hype was right on target.
Interestingly, Irishmen hold both of the world's most prestigious show jumping titles, since Dermott Lennon took the crown at the world championships two years ago. Cian won with four penalties, while Rodrigo and Chris had tied on eight. Great Britain's Nick Skelton, who led going into the second round with Arko, dropped to 11th after toppling three rails and collecting one time penalty. Another favorite, Ludger Beerbaum of Germany, was 16th on Goldfever.
A less-touted German, Marco Kutscher, finished fourth in his Olympic debut on the impressive Montender, while Britain's other rider, Robert Smith, came unexpectedly close to a medal as he finished fifth with Mr. Springfield, who looks like a difficult ride.
It was quite a night here, quite a night. I still haven't gotten my brain around it all. Maybe I'll have some more insight tomorrow, when I send you my final postcard before (thank goodness!) heading home.