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September 13, 2012

Olympic Letdown Will Spur Us To Make Changes

Michael Jung and Sam set a brilliant standard throughout the Olympic eventing competition and provided a role model for the Americans to emulate. Photo by Kat Netzler.

With a new coach coming in, the U.S. event riders are in the perfect position to regroup for the future.

Though I’m honored to write an analysis on the Olympic eventing competition, it’s certainly daunting to comment on the performances of my friends and those who I hold in such high respect. Because I was at the competition and had an outside chance to compete myself, I feel that I was uniquely positioned to analyze our strengths and weaknesses and therefore have the observations needed to help diagnose why we fell short.

My comments are in no way meant to detract from the performances of individual members. I believe they by and large performed at the top of their current competitiveness, and most looked better than I had seen them ever before. And that brings me directly to the crux of the issue: At the moment, even our best is not good enough.

While I’m going to try and do my best to give an honest opinion, it’s easy to be an armchair hero. I won’t say there should’ve been different or better riders put on the team. Currently, we aren’t able to field a team that can win a gold medal without a huge amount of luck on our side. Luck is nice to have, but it’s better not to depend on it.

There’s a lot we need to work on, but we have enough talented and fully capable riders in this country to bring home medals in the next four to eight years. If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that you must embrace change and push forward to the future.

Luckily, our disappointment can be assuaged by a change of national coach. Hopefully, David O’Connor can use the nation’s emotion over losing to harden and mold our team back to competitiveness. I believe he will.

A New Process For Selection

The first thing is that it would probably be beneficial for our riders if the selection process were reworked. I can really only speak from my experience at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico, but I think my teammates would agree our team dynamic worked really well and benefited hugely from the selection process.

For the Pan Am Games, the U.S. Equestrian Federation was forced to make an early selection. Even when people had to be switched out, we knew the selection with enough time before the event that we were able to form a fully cohesive team. I am sure this contributed to our success.

While winning was nice, there is no comparison in competition between the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. What could be taken away from that trip, however, is that all members performed a personal best result. If the same had been done at the Olympic Games, we still might not have won a medal, but we would’ve been much closer. 

I truly believe that because we were able to establish this team dynamic early in the game, all five members of our team were more supportive and able to help than we otherwise would’ve been.

In contrast, the Olympic selection seemed like a rat race to the finish. There was no time to establish a synergy before heading to the Games. 

The top teams were more cohesive than we were. This will need to be fixed before the next team arrives on French soil the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy. Now let’s look at how the competition unfolded.

Dressage: Attention To Detail Is Essential

My general impression of the dressage phase is that the level of eventing dressage has progressed to a point we aren’t achieving in our country.

Look at the difference between our guys and the Germans. The Germans never look rushed, and the horse’s head never moves. Everything is so polished, so surgical. We don’t have this same level of precision, yet. We looked as though we were trying to create brilliance while the best looked like they were allowing it. Preparation is the key to this difference.

Thinking back to the selection trials, there wasn’t one selection trial for our team that featured the modified test for the Olympic Games. I happen to know it was mandatory for the German team to ride this modified test for the coach back in January. They must’ve ridden the test in front of someone seven times before the London Games. While this may not seem so important, it’s that attention to detail that allows you to relax in the ring.

Our horses possess the same level of movement as those that carried their riders to the podium. We have just as talented riders with the same ability to sit on a horse; we lack the attention to detail. Again, this can and must be fixed.

Cross-Country: Safe But Exciting

Cross-country was a fantastic day for the sport in general. The course seemed to strike just the right balance of challenging enough, without being overly dangerous.

I was also fortunate enough to watch the test event last year. The jumps didn’t look like they were overly huge, but the course still caused some problems. Experienced three-star horses running a two-star test event even looked tired and labored around that course, so it was apparent that the optimum time would ultimately cause some people to make mistakes this time as well.

The course was challenging due to terrain and didn’t look like a fun cross-country course to ride. I had the feeling that it felt very much like being in a washing machine—similar to the Red Hills event in Tallahassee, Fla., but twice as long and with a mountain in the middle.

I bet riders were tired and relieved when they made it around that course. However, from my seat—and a spectator standpoint—it was just the type of course you’d like to see: safe but very exciting.

Though controversial, Greenwich was the perfect atmosphere for the Games. The pictures were amazing, and Olympic cross-country at the park will be a place that will never be forgotten and will be hard to top in the future.

The anchorman for our team was Boyd Martin. On the big stage he consistently gets the job done. He galloped home with a really good score despite Otis hitting the proverbial wall. He really proved to be one of the elite on this course.

It was a given that it would be tough for Mr. Medicott to make the time, however Karen O’Connor did a wonderful job maneuvering him around a quick, windy track. It is a testament to how quickly she can build a partnership with a new horse and shows why you need experienced riders at the championships.

Tiana Coudray had a few hairy moments, but she then seemed to settle for the rest of it and, despite having a stop, was one of our fastest times. I give her credit for maintaining speed for the sake of the team.

Will Coleman rode very well and certainly looked like he belonged on a world-class cross-country course. Twizzel was halfway down the bank and then pulled his feet up to incur 20 penalties. It was unlucky not to have a clear round, as I thought he deserved it, but as Clint Eastwood said, “Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it…”

Phillip Dutton put in the round you’d expect. The horse doesn’t have much (or any) Thoroughbred in him, and yet he had one of the fastest times for the United States. The man is a legend cross-country, and I can confidently say he’s one of the 10 greatest cross-country riders ever.

The British put in a professional performance, rode the course like it was easy, and were quick. This phase proved that having a lot of Thoroughbred blood is still very important in an event horse. In addition, teams such as the Germans and Swedish, who have been on slower, thicker warmbloods in the past, are catching up in the cross-country phase, and tight, windy, show-jump-like combinations on cross-country play to their strengths.

The U.S. team’s cross-country riding was really on par with the top nations. For the most part, our riders looked like they could’ve been on any top team. As this is still the most important phase, it gives us a great place from which to start improving.

Show Jumping: It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over

Show jumping really showed that you must have a horse that is great at all three phases. You can’t have a horse that specializes in two phases and gets by in the third; you must be in the top five percent of each phase to stand on the podium in the end.

In general, sort of like dressage, top echelon riders looked tighter and less frantic in the saddle than we did, while still making the time.

Michael Jung looked like a pure show jumper in a perfect grand prix round. I’m very pleased Michael won because he set a very high standard for what we have to achieve going forward, and he rode beautifully all weekend.

So Now What?

How do we catch up and hopefully surpass the current leaders?

By keeping it simple: Start small. Start at the beginning.

The problem starts with our selection process. We stopped developing riders 10 to 15 years ago, in my opinion.

Everything we do is based on a horse-and-rider combination. No one has really sat down and said, “OK, who has the potential to achieve individual medals?” Concentrate on training them 12 years out. Send horses their way; send syndications and owners their way. Concentrate on building a team in four years, eight years or 12 years.

I keep hearing people blame our shortcomings on the lack of depth in upper-level riders. I disagree. What we need is focus. You need at least five people who can score consistently on the flat in the 30s, all go clear within 10 seconds of the time, and only take one rail consistently.

Increase that number to seven or eight, and you have an insurance policy against injury. (New Zealand did it in five.) This is how Jack LeGoff built our team for decades.

When I spoke with David O’Connor after the Games, he made the point that you must be able to win at 80 percent of your best. Anything less, and you’re dependent on luck. This is where the winning teams are in relation to us at the moment. We don’t have the resources to do this with 30 people or even 15.

The top teams have a style, a scientific formula, a brand, and they hold themselves to the standard of that brand. We can do the same, but we must concentrate on the riders who will be able to execute this plan.

We need to learn from these countries and do things that make sense for us, but we have to come up with uniquely American ways of doing things. All five of our riders had such different styles, and though each one’s style brought something to the table, there needs to be a synergy in our riders’ form—something that makes us, well, American. 

If you want to look even further down the road, simply examine which sports the United States excels at during any Olympic Games. What do they all have in common? They are mostly collegiate sports that offer scholarships.

If we could push for Olympic equestrian sports in the collegiate system and make college the training ground for great competitors, we might have a way to keep talented young riders in the game and build a foundation that would provide eventual upper-level depth of riders.

I’m confident David is the right person for the job. He seems to thoroughly understand where the United States needs to begin in order to enable us to be more competitive next time around. It’s definitely exciting to have a clean slate, but it also means we need to work to prove ourselves.

It’s going to be a long haul, but my fellow competitors are up for it, and I believe we’re all in agreement that everything about our program needs to change.

It will be hard work, but in our past there are lessons, and from those we can build a bright future.

Michael Pollard and his wife, Nathalie, run Chatsworth Stud, a breeding and training facility in Chatsworth, Ga. Michael, 31, is also the CEO of several carpet and equine-related businesses and a father of four. At 18, he jumped around the Rolex Kentucky CCI*** and won the Markham trophy as the highest-placed young rider. He was the U.S. Eventing Association’s Young Rider of the Year in 2001. In 2009, he won the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.), and in 2011, he was a member of the gold-medal U.S. team at the Pan American Games (Mexico).

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Olympic Disappointment Will Spur Us To Make Necessary Changes" ran in the Sept. 10, 2012, Olympics Analysis issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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