Wellington, Fla., Feb. 6, 2006 -- The Athens Olympics officially ended yesterday, 18 months after its closing ceremony, under the palms on the grass grand prix field at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
If you had told me as I took photos of the 2004 show jumping medal proceedings in Greece that I would be doing the same thing again in 2006 in Florida, I would have thought you were crazy.
Crazy is probably the best way to sum up how the medals finally got into the record books. I'll just recap briefly: The U.S. team won silver in Greece, the Germans got the gold. But German rider Ludger Beerbaum's horse tested positive for a prohibited substance, and after many months of legal proceedings, he was disqualified. Without his score, the Germans dropped to bronze, the bronze medal Dutch were elevated to silver and the U.S. found itself on the gold standard.
The formal presentation of the medals took a while to arrange, but since all the team members were competing in Florida, where better to do it than here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club?
Three members of the USA's last Olympic gold medal team, Conrad Homfeld, Joe Fargis and Leslie Howard, slipped the medals over the bowed heads of Chris Kappler, McLain Ward, Peter Wylde and Beezie Madden. Despite the fact that it was Superbowl Sunday, a big crowd turned out to cheer. It was all very nice, though lacking the excitement and drama of the formalities at the Games themselves.
Chris also was draped with the individual silver medal. The original gold medalist, Cian O'Connor of Ireland, had a drug-positive horse, moving Chris up from the bronze and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil from silver to gold. But after following the status of the situation for so long, Chris told me the other day he felt it was "time to stop patting ourselves on the back" and start thinking seriously about the current challenge, this year's World Equestrian Games.
None of the team members rode in for the ceremonies on their Olympic horses, who were all busy elsewhere, with the exception of Royal Kaliber. Chris's horse, as you know, had to be put down after he injured himself in the individual medal jump-off. His bowed tendon led to colic, which led to adhesions, and surgery could not save him.
We all felt Roy's presence, though, particularly at a ringside party given by Kathy and Hal Kamine, who owned Roy with Chris. The Kamines, who are lovely, caring, people, had two portraits of Chris and Roy done by artist Jan Lukens. They were on display at the party, providing the perfect backdrop. One of them will hang at U.S. Equestrian Federation headquarters in Kentucky as a constant memorial to this special stallion.
The whole medal ceremony in Florida was "great and bittersweet at the same time," said USEF President David O'Connor, who was on hand. While he celebrated the achievement of the team and what it means to the U.S., David noted that something is missing when the whole world isn't watching, as they are during the Games. And since he was the 2000 individual Olympic gold medalist in eventing, he should know.
Kathy Kamine struggled with emotion as she gave a speech to her guests, commemorating Roy and thanking everyone who helped with him. It was an apt final farewell to Roy.
"As much as we loved him," Kathy said, "there's a time to appreciate all he did for us and move on. We'll never forget him. You can't mourn; just thank God that we had him and that we enjoyed it and that he went out a true champion, doing what he loved."
Obviously, yesterday afternoon was a time for reflection as well as celebration.
"I always try to look at adverse situations in a positive light," said Peter Wylde.
Peter noted that since Athens, drug rules have been revised and there will now be much stricter standards for footing at championships, so hopefully injuries like Roy's can be prevented in the future.
Peter flew over from Europe, where he is based, for the ceremonies. He was happy to make the trip, noting that accepting the medal was another important chapter in his family history since his grandfather was an Olympic hockey player for Britain.
The medal ceremonies preceded the afternoon's grand prix, the $60,000 Wellington Cup that was won by another Olympian, Lauren Hough, who represented the U.S. in the 2000 Games.
Olaf Petersen of Germany set what Lauren called "a real thinking course for riders" that stumped all but four of 45 starters with the size of its fences and a variety of technical problems. The tie-breaker was led off by Kim Prince on Couletto K. James, but a rail down at the next-to-last fence, an oxer that stood 5 feet, 3 inches high and 4 feet, 9 inches wide, was destined to leave her in fourth place with a time of 39.41 seconds. Speedball Laura Chapot on Little Big Man decided she had to take a chance and blew the doors off in 35.47, but she faulted at the same fence as Kim.
Lauren proceeded more cautiously with Casadora, conquering the bogey fence and finishing in 37.84 seconds. The time was beatable, but Lauren noted, "I wanted to make sure I was clear."
The strategy worked. McLain, last to go on his Olympic mount, Sapphire, fell victim to the bogey and wound up behind Lauren and Laura with 4 faults in 36.66 seconds.
Dressage was also on the schedule this weekend, or at least part of it. A huge rainstorm blew in Friday night, and it poured most of Saturday, which led to the cancellation of dressage for the day, and some of the jumping too.
The Grand Prix Special was re-scheduled for yesterday. But some horses sat it out, including Friday's Grand Prix winner, Neruda, with Michael Barisone up, and second-place Kennedy, with Katherine Bateson-Chandler aboard.
Michael was shooting for 70 percent in Friday's Grand Prix, and he came close in 69.292. It was the first time he had shown since last June's national championship, where he felt he and Neruda weren't living up to their potential. He spent the last seven months working on Neruda's fitness with a plan designed by eventing veteran Jimmy Wofford. He also took lessons from Robert Dover to bring the rest of Neruda's performance up to the level of his spectacular passage and piaffe.
Charlotte Bredahl Baker, a member of the 1992 Olympic team, is making quite an impression with Komo. She was third on Friday and second in the Special with a score of 68.733 percent, just a hair behind the winner, Tuny Page on Wild One (68.800).
Tuny had a bad day Friday, when her aptly named horse took offense to what was going on around him.
"He's passionate, and with that comes a certain amount of volatility," she pointed out.
The dressage rings at the showgrounds are just arms' length from spectators, and Wild One wasn't happy about the goings on, finishing far out of the ribbons.
But he made a comeback with a better-designed warm-up for the Special, and Tuny's trying to pull out all the stops to showcase the horse's ability, rather than being cautious, so she can make this summer's World Equestrian Games, or maybe the World Cup finals.
Oh, if you're wondering why she is called Tuny, it seems the nurses at the hospital where she was born called her Petunia for whatever reason, and it stuck, except that her two-year-old brother could only pronounce "Tuny."
Charlotte, a native of Denmark who is based in California, hasn't been competing in Florida since the days when she was revving up for the Barcelona Olympics, but wanted to try it again. Her husband Joel, a polo player, is helping her out with Komo, trained and ridden previously by the late Carol Plough.
The Special suits the flashy Komo better than the Grand Prix. "It's a go-ey test," said Charlotte, explaining it shows off Komo's extended trot very well. It was her first Special with him, and even before she knew the score, she knew it was good.
I'll be sending more postcards from Florida next month, when we have a lot going on here--the Nations' Cup, the dressage Challenge of Champions and the national dressage freestyle championship. So keep your eye on EquiSearch!