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Hong Kong, August 18, 2008 -- When it counted the most, the U.S. show jumping team demonstrated why it so richly deserved the Olympic gold medal, turning in three perfect trips in a thrilling jump-off to beat the Canadians and take top honors after two hotly contested days of competition.
"It's the proudest moment of my life," said coach George Morris after the squad of Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, Laura Kraut and Will Simpson stood on the podium to claim their prize from Prince Albert of Monaco.
The Canadians were happy with their runner-up spot, particularly since they did it without a fourth rider today, after Mac Cone's mount, Ole, came up lame and could not start.
Norway, which last fielded an Olympic show jumping team in 1936, was the surprise winner of the bronze medal with 27 penalties. German--the favorite to take the title--wound up in an ignominious tie for fifth with the Netherlands, 14 penalties back of the U.S. and Canada, who had 20 each before the tie-breaker.
A gold medal is always special, but this one means something extra to the American team. Although the U.S. was the defending champion, it got the 2004 gold long after the fact, when the Germans were disqualified because one of their horses tested positive for a prohibited substance.
After the medals finally arrived in the U.S., they were presented during a small ceremony in Wellington, Fla., with a couple of thousand people watching, hardly an occasion of pomp in comparison to the real deal.
Some have felt the U.S. obtained the 2004 gold in a back-door way, and McLain wants to set them straight.
"We didn't win by default. Someone was caught not playing by the rules. We've lived for four years with people whining about that, a little unfairly," said McLain, who was half of the 2004 team with Beezie.
This victory demonstrated once and for all that the U.S. is golden.
Noting this was "Probably the greatest day for North America in the history of the sport," McLain said with a smile, "so it obviously feels very good."
When I caught up with McLain as he was on his way to celebrate with the team at their hotel in Kowloon, yet he emphasized he wanted me to mention two veterinarians, Bill Bradley and Dave Cook, in his home county of Westchester, N.Y.
He told me that his mare, Sapphire, colicked in May and was 10 minutes away from being operated on. That would have spelled the end of making the Olympic team with her. But these vets did their thing and saved her without putting her on the table. I think it's neat that in the flush of victory, McLain remembered them.
I asked him to comment on the gold, and here is what he told me:
I also congratulated George Morris and asked how he felt.
There are so many nice stories connected with what happened here. Canada's Ian Millar, who tied an all-time record in any sport by competing in his ninth Olympics, had never gotten an Olympic medal despite being involved in the discipline for 39 years.
"Things have never quite gone my way," he said. "This is a remarkable thing for me, especially this year."
He was referring to the death of his wife, Lynn, in March after a long struggle with cancer. That took its toll on Ian, too, but last night he had something to smile about, and said once again (as he told me before) that he's already looking ahead to being part of the 2012 Olympics in London.
He demonstrated he's got more than just staying power when he put in a clean anchor round to keep Canada on pace with the U.S.
For the Norwegians, a medal was heady stuff. It's a small country that has never been in contention for something of this magnitude.
"To win the bronze medal here today is unbelievable for us. It's like winning gold," said Geir Gulliksen, who was joined on the squad by Stein Endresen, Morten Djupvik and Tony-Andre Hansen.
By the way, Tony-Andre was ranked number one in the individual standings for his efforts with Camiro. He scored only three time penalties in three rounds on a horse who's careful but not speedy. It's a nice distinction for Tony-Andre, but everyone in the top 35 will start from scratch when the individual finals run Thursday as the equestrian portion of the Olympics wraps up here. The group will include McLain, Laura and Beezie. Will qualified, but the rules don't allow all four members of a team to compete as individuals.
The second and deciding night of the Nations' Cup began with the U.S. tied for the lead with Switzerland on 12 penalties each after Sunday's first round. Sweden was one point back, followed by Great Britain and Canada, tied on 16 penalties in fourth place.
McLain led off yesterday with his gallant mare having an uncharacteristic fault at the water jump for 4 penalties. Laura Kraut put in a clean trip with little Cedric, while Will Simpson had 8 faults, including an error at the water, on Carlsson vom Dach. Beezie, who ran into a problem with Authentic in Sunday's competition when he refused, was unable to nail the fault-free trip needed to clinch the title when the water caught her, too.
Meanwhile, the Swiss effort turned out to be as full of holes as their cheese, and they faltered, winding up fourth, three penalties out of the medals.
The tie with Canada set up the jump-off, and a bravura effort by the U.S. McLain, Laura and Will all went clear to secure the honors.
Canada's Jill Henselwood, the pathfinder for her nation, toppled a plank with Special Ed. Although Eric Lamaze was clear with Hickstead, there was no need for Ian to jump with In Style because lacking a drop score, the Canadians had already lost.
It was Will's performance that actually secured the medal, and that was special to him after two 8-fault rounds in the Cup.
I know he was proud that his kids, Sophie and Ty, saw him be the hero today--he's always talking about them.
The British should be mentioned, because they had an uphill battle here. They were in contention, as I said previously, but their anchorman, John Whitaker, didn't start on the first night because his horse, Peppermill, came out of the stall stiff. When the Ground Jury ruled that even though he wasn't competing on the first night he could ride in the final round, seven nations protested. Finally, the Appeals Committee ruled against John. So Britain was left with a three-man team and no drop score, which finished its hopes here.
"Medals are at stake...John is so good people fear him. Some people saw it as an opportunity to get John out of the competition. I don't think it is good sportsmanship," said John's teammate, Tim Stockdale.
The Brits wound up seventh on 37 penalties. Their bright spot was Ben Maher, making his Olympic debut, who had no penalties in the Nations' Cup with Rolette. He actually qualified ahead of defending Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil on Rufus, which is pretty amazing.
The courses here have been brilliant, and that, of course, is due to the expertise of designers Steve Stephens of the U.S. and Leopoldo Palacios of Venezuela who were (by the way) glad to see the top two medals go to the western hemisphere.
Steve did emphasize, however, that in designing, they were completely neutral.
The jumps were fabulous, from the light-as-a-feather dragon plank to the airy final fence in the jump-off that featured the Olympic rings. The obstacles told a bit of history and all had a beautiful look. But the arrangement of them was what was so terrific. Example: There was a vertical after the water jump that demanded care, but I was surprised at how many people compressed their horses too much after the water (afraid to get them strung out, I suppose) and blew the vertical. Water/vertical is a common question, but the way it was handled here was special, I thought, in what it demanded from the riders. There were problems like that all around the course. It took sensitivity as well as technical ability to ride these routes.
Steve was just beaming when I caught up with him after the Nations' Cup.
We chatted about his dream for more than 15 years to be an Olympic course designer.
He pointed out that he doesn't compete any more, so he can't ride in the Olympics. Getting here by designing is, he pointed out, "the next-best thing."
We're getting to the end here. I love it, but I'm pooped, working until 5 or 6 a.m. every day. But I'll gear up for Tuesday's feature, the dressage freestyle. Choi keen.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
For complete official results, click here.