Olympic Show Jumping, Day One

August 4, 2012–No matter how exciting a show jumping contest is, after 73 riders have gone over the course, it gets a little repetitive. If there’s a break in the inconsistent British weather and the sun finally is shining a bit, you can understand how someone (especially someone who’s getting very little sleep each night) may wind up with a condition akin to highway hypnosis and start drifting. That’s when it happened: I went from somnolent to shocked in a second as Beezie Madden was eliminated from the first Olympic individual competition this afternoon.

She was nearly three-quarters of the way through a course that 31 riders had aced when Via Volo decided she didn’t like her plan to take a quiet eight strides from the Greenwich Mean Time oxer to the 1908 Olympic vertical, the first part of a double. Via Volo jumped left and landed with her legs as straight into the ground as if she’d been a nail pounded into a board. Beezie had no choice but to turn the mare and try the combination again. This time, Via Volo stopped at the second element, the 1948 Olympic oxer (London hosted the Olympics in 1908 and 1948, in case you don’t understand the reference.) That meant elimination for Beezie from that round.

Via Volo put on the brakes at the second element of the ninth obstacle, ending rider Beezie Madden’s hope of an individual Olympic medal to go with the bronze she won in 2008 | ? 2012 by Nancy Jaffer

My first thought was, “Oh no, this is terrible for the team.” But actually, it’s okay. I should have said, “This is terrible for Beezie,” because it does indeed mean she can’t try to trump the individual bronze she won in 2008. But teams start equal tomorrow on zero penalties, and Beezie can participate in that competition, which ends Monday with a second round, followed by a medal presentation.

“Beezie’s a fighter; she’ll fight her way back,” team member Rich Fellers told me. “We’re all right.” Teamwise, today’s competition was designed to determine in what order the nations will ride tomorrow. But as Rich pointed out, that’s not very important, because so many individuals who are not part of teams will be going first that all the team members can get a good idea of how the course rides.

In the end, there were 32 riders tied for first on no jumping or time faults (Belgium’s Jos Lansink, the 75th and last rider who went after Beezie, was double clear.)

McLain Ward and Antares F had a perfect score in the first round of Olympic show jumping | ? 2012 by Nancy Jaffer

The route by Bob Ellis was designed to let horses and riders get a feel for the arena, the fences and the crowd, without challenging them too much. The spectators, by the way, though they are decidedly pro-British (wearing lots of red and blue in all conceivable ways) are very fair and make each rider feel appreciated with their applause.

For the U.S., McLain Ward led off on Antares to find himself in that tie, and Rich did the same with Flexible. We were all waiting for 18-year-old Reed Kessler, the youngest-ever U.S. Olympic jumper rider, to make her debut, and she didn’t disappoint. She and Cylana had no trouble with the fences, but they wound up with a single time fault, putting them in an eight-way tie for 33d. Cylana was a little excited by the atmosphere, more than 20,000 people in the stands, lots of waving flags and at one end, a big view of the London skyline. So we can all understand Cylana’s feelings. But Reed was a little cautious with her, not wanting her to get out of hand or unnecessarily tired; hence the time penalty.

Rich Fellers and Flexible, the USA’s other double clear | ? 2012 by Nancy Jaffer

Beezie was very sporting, as always, saying she thinks Via Volo will be fine and while it’s disappointing not to go for an individual medal, she pointed out that what’s important is getting another gold medal for the team, which would be the third straight. She and McLain were on both the 2004 and 2008 teams, always he as lead-off, she as anchor, bookending it, as he put it, for coach George Morris, who is retiring.

I don’t want you to think Beezie was the Lone Ranger out there. Despite the large number of clears, some others had their own troubles. One was former European Champion Christian Ahlmann of Germany on Codex One, who finished but logged knockdown and refusal problems, plus 3 time penalties that added up to a total of 15.

Sweden’s Lisen Fredricsen fell through the first element of the first double with Matrix, then hit the ground as her big gray galloped away, an Olympic nightmare. I’ll probably dream about that this evening, should I ever get to sleep.

Great Britain’s Peter Charles dropped two rails and was assessed 2 time penalties with Vindicat, putting his team in a tie for 10th. Britain’s big star, Nick Skelton, however, was clear on Big Star. He’s the favorite to take the individual gold, but we’ll see how that goes.

The only team with four riders clear was the Netherlands; watch out for them. They tied for first with Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium, which had 0 penalties too, but only after dropping one of their riders’ scores, which is allowed.

Reed Kessler, the youngest U.S. Olympic show jumper ever, with her father, Murray, right and coaches Katie and Henri Prudent | ? 2012 by Nancy Jaffer

The U.S. is in a tie for fifth with Brazil, France and Germany, all of which have 1 penalty. Those time faults can be expensive and really cost you in the end.

I had a chance to talk with Cian O’Connor of Ireland, sent here after Denis Lynch was dropped from the Irish roster when his horse tested as hypersensitive, which is a no-no. Denis appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but no dice.

Why is Ireland always involved with a drama? Do you remember Cian winning the individual gold in Athens eight years ago? Do you also remember the soap opera that played out when his horse tested positive for a prohibited substance?

There was a stolen B sample and some? missing papers. Finally Rodrigo Pessoa, who had won the silver, got Cian’s medal.

I asked if he felt retribution in being back at the Olympics; another chance and all that. It’s water under the bridge, as far as Cian is concerned.

“I’ve had a lot of success since Athens,” he said.

“It’s great to be back in the Olympic Games. One thing I noticed, which I was delighted about, was the support of the crowd. It was absolutely fantastic. If I may be modest and say so myself, it was probably second to the British riders, probably because of success I’ve had with the team at Hickstead and perhaps some individual success at Olympia, I probably have a little bit of a following in GB too, which is lovely.”

I’m starting to think I might be on Olympic overload. You can’t get away from it. The BBC has it endlessly on the “telly” (as they say over here), on the radio, on mobile apps and I’m starting to feel as if there’s a chip in my head playing all Olympics. all the time. The BBC’s announcers are endlessly cheery, giving oodles of time, now that swimming is over, to rowing, cycling and the heptathlon, a seven-event test that goes beyond the better-known triathlon and pentathlon. ?Even the news broadcasts are about the Olympics.

The medal count is used as a conversational icebreaker. Several people, trying to be friendly, have said to me, “How many medals does the U.S. have?” I have no idea (I somehow seem to have missed the BBC postings on the medal counts) except that I know the answer is “Zero” in equestrian, but I hope to change my reply when the show jumpers are finished.

This is my second Saturday night in London and I’m doing the same thing I did last Saturday; writing, eating healthy take-out from Pret a Manger, where I am now on a first-name basis, since I have no time to go to a restaurant for dinner. I look longingly out the bus window at the city’s highlights; the West End theater district, Big Ben and the bridge with the Olympic rings, but they go by fast. No chance I can visit them.

One funny thing I see on my daily journey is a giant photo on the side of a building. It’s of the royal family, taken, I would say, sometime in the ’70s. There’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and his brother and on the other side, Mark Phillips in a splendid military uniform, leaning over to whisper something to Princess Anne, who has an amused smile on her face. They are, of course, long-divorced. I wonder how many other divorced couples would like to see pictures of themselves in happier times larger than life on the side of a building?

I’ll be back with another postcard about the first day of the Nations’ Cup-style show jumping, and hopefully happier news about Beezie, as well as word that the whole U.S. team is on the rise.

Until then,