August 9, 2012--Fate struck one last cruel blow to the medal-less U.S. team today, as normally rock-solid Steffen Peters and his equally steady partner, Ravel, finished 17th, next-to-last, in the individual dressage competition. While most folks in the know, including Steffen, didn't expect him to medal, they felt assured he would be high in the standings?though likely not in fourth place, as he was in the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics.
But Ravel just wasn't in the mood today, and made several mistakes in his freestyle to music from the movie "Avatar," ending up with a score of 77.286 percent. Steffen felt the horse was "a bit distracted."
Unfortunately, it was the last time Ravel will compete before going into retirement.
"That's why it was so sad it didn't work out today," said a downcast Steffen.
"There's no way of sweet-talking this; it just wasn't a good freestyle. This is not the way I wanted to finish. There were some wonderful things in it, but you can't look past the mistakes. This one will leave a scar, for sure."
He would like to see Ravel, the most decorated dressage horse in U.S. history, have a big retirement party, where he could "hopefully ride the freestyle once more and do it a little bit better than here."
Putting it all in perspective, Steffen said, "I'll remember Ravel for his career and if you put it all together, then this was just a little glitch today, but certainly very sad it happened at the end of his career. But I still love him, and he's given us so much; just not quite today."
Steffen's appearance marked the end of the least-successful Olympics for U.S. equestrians since 1956, the last time they came home without any medals. There are plenty of questions to be asked and answered in that regard.
"We are going to have a long, hard, honest assessment of our programs and how they need to change to target medals in Rio (site of the 2016 Olympics)," said Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's executive director of sport programs.
"We have new coaching staff in at least two of the three disciplines and I am sure they have a lot of ideas about what we need to do to get back on the medal stand. I plan to have in-depth discussions with all of the stakeholders when we return from London to obtain the basis for a four-year high performance plan."
The freestyle, which again drew a capacity audience of 23,000 to Greenwich Park, was a new way to end the equestrian portion of the Olympics. In the old days, show jumping was always the last event in the main stadium. In more recent years, as equestrian facilities tended to be outside the host city limits, show jumping was still the last event for horse sports.
This was a refreshing change of pace for the Games program. Spectators got what they came for, more than just British gold and bronze, courtesy of stars Charlotte Dujardin with Valegro, who took top honors, and her teammate from the country's gold medal squad, Laura Bechtolsheimer, who rode to the bronze on the imposing Mistral Hojris. The silver medal was taken by the Netherlands' Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival, who is ranked number one in the world. Each combination who entered the arena had something exciting to offer the appreciative crowd.
No matter who you were rooting for, the whole event was amazing. I recall the 1984 Olympics, and how we all were awed by Germany's Reiner Klimke with Ahlerich. Very few horses in those days had that kind of stature. Today's horses, however, are in a different league, with more finesse and style. Of course, they didn't do the freestyle in the Olympics then, and it has added a whole new dimension to the sport. Without the freestyle, it never would have reached the popularity it has achieved.
Charlotte rode to a perfectly choreographed melange of "The Great Escape," "Pomp and Circumstance," the James Bond theme, "Live and Let Die," an Olympic fanfare and the chimes of Big Ben, beautifully woven into the score. She earned 90.089 percent (just missing her British freestyle record of 90.65 percent) to 88.196 for Adelinde and 84.339 for Laura.
Understandably emotional, Charlotte kept wiping away tears with her white gloves (I felt like offering her a handkerchief) as she waited for the medal presentation.
"I just wanted to go out there today and enjoy it and not regret anything," she said. Although Valegro was tired, "he went out there and gave it his all," she said. Charlotte and her horse are quite a young combination. Valegro is 10 years old; she is only 26.
Her only major mishap, which she said was the result of "greenness and tiredness" came at the end of her performance, when Valegro had a mix-up about when he was supposed to canter and then do a piaffe pirouette.
"He just misunderstood me," said Charlotte, who has brought him up through the ranks, starting in young horse classes.
"He's given me three amazing rides, I couldn't have asked any more of him. To me, he's a very special horse."
Judge Stephen Clarke, president of the ground jury, discussed the winners, noting the first two in the placings were very close. While Parzival had "huge power and expression," the judges felt there needed to be more lightness and self-carriage, said Clarke, who also noted the chestnut sometimes crossed his jaw.
Charlotte's horse had more self-carriage "but maybe not as much power and expression today" in piaffe and passage. But the harmony in Valegro's test won the day.
I personally always enjoy Mistral Hojris, better known as Alf, but then, I am partial to chestnuts with white stockings. This horse has tremendous power and presence; you can't look away when he competes. At age 17, there may not be any other time when we get to watch him. He's going to have a rest and then Laura will see if he's interested in starting back.
After the medals were presented, the flags of the winners were raised and the gold medalist's anthem was played. I was quite touched by the way the British people in the stadium (who were a majority) sang, "God Save the Queen" loud enough so you could hear it.
The Brits didn't have a corner on emotional moments. I had a lump in my throat watching Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands perform for the last time on 18-year-old Salinero, who is being retired. Anky came to the Olympics to help her team, which won the bronze, and realistically wasn't defending her 2008 gold medal. Her test, however, was beautiful, dramatic and flowing, vintage Anky/Salinero, who looked so beautiful with his proud, arched neck and that energetic gleam in his eye. She finished sixth on 82 percent, a more than respectable score.
"I am really happy, it was a good test on his last competition ever," Anky said.
"I am so happy he kept going for four days and did everything well for me. I am not sad. It has been an emotional week, but it was always in my head that it was my last time and I wanted to enjoy it."
As I've said before, while Salinero is retiring, Anky was very firm about saying that she isn't. So we'll see that Anky smile (so bright she should have it patented) again someday soon on another winning horse.
After nearly two weeks of Olympics, I'm tired. No, make that exhausted. I can only imagine how the horses feel! I need a good night's sleep to think over all that has happened. So I'll send my final postcard from London tomorrow afternoon.