August 8, 2012--Dreams were both dashed and delivered on a day of surprises in the individual Olympic show jumping, where relative longshots prevailed in the medals and Britain's luck finally ran out.
Hometown favorite Nick Skelton had a clear trip on Big Star in the morning round, which included 37 starters drawn from the top ranks of those who had vied for victory in three previous competitions.
The horse, discovered as a 5-year-old by his partner, the USA's Laura Kraut, hadn't come close to touching a fence during his outings in Greenwich Park. But in the second round of 22 riders, it all went wrong. The capacity crowd of 23,000 was just waiting to cheer 54-year-old Nick (called a "golden oldie" by one of the city's papers) when he went through the finish line. Of course, that wouldn't have been the end of it, because in order to take the title, he would have had to win a jump-off against Switzerland's Steve Guerdat, the only double-clear to that point.
Three fences from the end of the course, however, at the Cutty Sark obstacle (named after the tea clipper ship that is an attraction nearby) a rail fell, making Steve the champion.
Remember I told you in a previous postcard that I wondered if going fast in the jump-off for the team gold two days ago would make Big Star jump flatter than usual? Was that it, or was it the fact that the one extra round in the team fray had tired the 9-year-old Dutchbred stallion, the youngest horse in the competition. We won't know, and Nick isn't analyzing it, at least not in public.
"I just touched the pole at the wrong time and that was it," said Nick.
Steve certainly was happy, tossing his helmet in joy as he delivered his exuberant victory gallop on the French-bred Nino des Buissonnets, but he was not overwhelmed by his achievement. In fact, his comments reminded me of those made by Michael Jung, who won the individual eventing gold last week, though it seems like 10 years ago because so much has happened here since (and when you're working hard at the Olympics, time is a relative thing).
Although naturally he is pleased with the gold medal around his neck, Steve explained, "I don't do it for this. I do it because I love it. I love riding. I love jumping. I love competing. But I had a goal to be here one day. It is a dream come true."
We did have a jump-off, however. It was for the silver, as Gerco Schroder of the Netherlands and Cian O'Connor of Ireland were tied with 1 time penalty each.
Let me interrupt my saga here to say that when I called Steve, Gerco and Cian "relative longshots" for the medals at the beginning of this piece, in no way did I mean to say that they weren't top riders. All have great credentials; it was just that their names weren't mentioned in the same breath as Nick, or world number one Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden, the 2008 silver medalist.
Okay, back to the postcard: Cian, who was penalized for being 0.02 seconds over the time allowed in the second round after jumping clear in the first, has quite a story. He won the gold in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, as you'll recall (your memory should be especially good if you've read my previous postcards, because I already have explained who he is.).
Short version: He lost his medal after his mount, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for a prohibited substance. The situation became a long, drawn-out saga because the horse's "B" sample was stolen and papers involving the case went missing.
Some people are tracked by danger, others are tracked by drama. Cian is among the latter. He originally wasn't chosen by the Irish to represent them at these Olympics. The man who was, Denis Lynch, got tagged when his horse tested for hypersensitivity (and it wasn't the first time that had happened). So Cian got called up with Blue Loyd, a horse he bought last year with hopes of making the Games.
After the first three rounds here, however, he was only the first reserve for the individual finals. And then he got lucky, as Rolf-Goran got unlucky (please refer to "dreams dashed and dreams delivered," above). His mount, Casall, stepped on himself in the team jumping and was off when trotted before the ground jury during this morning's horse inspection. The jury asked that he be held for a retry, but he was withdrawn and Cian got the call.
In the jump-off, Gerco was clean and cautious with the time aboard London, a horse he got five years ago with an eye toward coming here. In contrast, Cian sliced and diced his way around the course, and was well ahead of Gerco's time when he pushed at the final fence and had a rail, putting him in the bronze medal position.
Asked why he went so fast when he was up on Gerco's time, Cian retorted to the questioner, "You had the benefit of looking at the clock." That's hard to do when you're galloping over jumps.
Cian's medal, the first for Ireland in this Olympics, has special meaning for him.
"Coming off Athens it is great to get here and deliver on the world stage. It's something special to give back to the Irish public. It's a proud day for me and all involved with me."
I'm saving the worst for last, as I've been in the habit of doing at these Games, where the U.S. has not fared well. Both McLain Ward and Rich Fellers qualified for the individual competition. They had a medal shot, if they went well, because everyone started with a clean slate.
McLain was going great with Antares through the first part of the first course, but at the end, he faulted at the water and had two rails at the triple combination, the next-to-last obstacle, for a total of 12 penalties that kept him out of the second round. He ended up tied for 29th.
"It's disappointing for sure," said a subued McLain, who thought his horse may have run out of gas after all the jumping he had done here.
However, he added, "I have to be honest, I don't think we had the team that we had going into Hong Kong (where the U.S. won its second consecutive gold medal) without the two horses (his Sapphire and Beezie Madden's Authentic, both retired now).
He said it's time to "go back to the drawing board and keep working to do better. It's horse sport and we have nice horses but I don't know if we have the Sapphire and Authentic. I think we ought to look at two years from now and put together a stronger team."
Rich had a rail and a time fault in the first round (think about the damage those time penalties can do; reread the part about Gerco and Cian). In the second round, however, he and the Irishbred stallion bounced back with a clear round. Unfortunately, the highest ranking he could reach at that point was eighth, but that's still quite good in this company, even if it wasn't enough for a medal.
Tomorrow, the equestrian portion of the Olympics wraps up with the musical freestyle for the individual dressage medals. If Charlotte Dujardin keeps up with the lofty standards she set with Valegro in the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special in winning the team gold for Britain, she'll take the individual title. Others who could be in for a piece of the action include Germany's Helen Langehanenberg with Damon Hill and her teammate, Dorothee Schneider on Diva Royal. The freestyle will be Dorothee's last ride on Diva, as her owner is moving into the saddle. Understandably, she's very emotional, wiping away tears as she talked about it. World number one Adelinde Cornelissen is also among those who could be in the medal picture with Parzival.
The USA's Steffen Peters doesn't believe he'll get a medal. But when the stakes are high and the players are pros, you can never tell what will happen. I cite the case of Cian O'Connor.
In any event, I'll send you another postcard tomorrow to fill you in.