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June 27, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Karen O'Connor, Part 3

After a flawless and winning performance at the Bromont CIC***, Karen O'Connor and Mr. Medicott were named to the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team short list and are now bound for Britain. Photo by Kat Netzler.

In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.

The Olympic short list for eventing became official, and since Mr. Medicott and I are on it, we’ll be heading to England in less than a week. We’re a little more than six weeks out from the Olympic Games, and the journey just charges on.

Having such a positive Rolex Kentucky experience with Mr. Medicott [they finished fourth in the CCI**** in April] gave me a good read on the progress we’ve made. I was able to reflect on the things we’d done well and now will have to reproduce at every event, as well as the things we needed to work on in preparation for the final North American Olympic observation trial, the Bromont CIC*** [in Quebec in June].

Unfortunately I fell off Veronica, the other horse I had nominated for the Olympics, at the fifth fence at Rolex, the first water complex. She’s a young advanced horse, and I think it was perhaps overzealous to expect her to run around a four-star after doing only one three-star. But the mistake was mine, and I didn’t expect our round to end so quickly.

I took Veronica on to the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) a few weeks later, and she did the cross-country there so easily. I’m not sure where she’s going to go this summer; I have to look at the calendar and discuss it with her owners, Sarah Kelly and Jerome Broussard. But she’s a lovely horse who’s also brave and has true grit. She’s going to be great at the four-star level in another 12 months.

I was very pleased with my performance with Mr. Medicott at Rolex. He certainly had a competitive dressage test [scoring 44.2 for fourth place], but I felt like I left quite a bit on the table, so going forward into Bromont I really wanted to take that performance to another level. I knew I would need to work quite hard between the two competitions with my dressage coach, Linda Zang, in consultation with our team chef d’equipe, Mark Phillips.

Although our cross-country round at Rolex was much, much smoother than I’d had all spring with “Cave,” I still wanted it to be faster. The day after Rolex ended, I talked to Mark about it, and he agreed that if I’m going to be a true contender for London, I needed to be able to make the time, easily and smoothly. He and I were completely on the same page.

Our timeline was pretty compressed moving forward toward Bromont, because the horses obviously need a break after Rolex, but they also needed to be ready six weeks later for the CIC. When we started to bring the two ends together, we had a very short window in which to get back to work and try to improve our horses.

So the last two weeks before Bromont were action-packed with gallops and jump schools. We also brought Linda Zang to the farm on two or three different occasions, which was really great, not only for my horses, but for the other Bromont-bound riders in our community.

I also kept working a lot on the show jumping with Marilyn Little-Meredith, and that continued to improve, not just with Cave, but with all my horses.

So I felt very positive going in to Bromont. Cave and my other two rides, Mandiba and RF Amber Eyes [who ended up finishing first and fifth in the CCI**] were going so well.

Blue At Bromont

At Bromont, I really wanted to improve the technical merit of my dressage test while at the same time getting Cave moving much more forward. I got a lot closer to what I’m looking for, though I still left a bit on the table.

One of the easiest movements for this horse is the rein back to the canter; he’s so confirmed in it. And for some reason my timing was just off at the end of the movement, and I missed that. Our lateral movements still need to be more forward, and our counter-canter needs to be straighter. I think there’s another 5 or 6 points I can pick up, so I’ll be working on those details from here on out.

Watch O'Connor's dressage test, courtesy of Eventing Nation.

Several riders chose not to run their horses cross-country at Bromont, but ever since Rolex I’d had a plan to run all three phases there, and I never wavered from that. We needed to have that cross-country run together. Cave is one of the best cross-country horses I’ve ever ridden, and he’s certainly one of the best cross-country horses in the world right now. But I had a job to accomplish: to come out of the box much faster and get home safely and within the time.

I was delighted with how easy that was to do. I came across the finish line about 7 or 8 seconds inside the optimum, thinking, “Wow, I think I can do that again!”

I had a good course walk with Marilyn before the show jumping, and we formulated an exact plan about how to execute the course, and then I rode to that plan. In fact, all three of my horses jumped clear rounds. That’s a great feeling.

Mr. Medicott won the CIC*** on his dressage score of 43.0. A lot of horses scratched, so I didn’t get to go head to head against them, but he did get a solid score in the dressage and stayed on it, and I feel going forward that I could possibly improve that by anywhere from 2 to 5 points, so I’m super excited.

Watch O'Connor's show jumping round, courtesy of Eventing Nation.

Detail Mania

We all came home from Bromont, and Mr. Medicott got to go out and enjoy his field in the pouring rain. He just came in caked in mud, which gave us all a good laugh. At least, I think it was a chestnut with a white blaze. It was hard to tell.

Things are really moving fast now. Cave will be re-shod this week, and he has a gallop on Friday, and then he leaves on Saturday for Eddy Stibbe’s farm in England, where the short-listed horses and riders will be based until the Games. I have Dick Thompson’s funeral [see sidebar] on Monday, and then I’m planning to fly out Tuesday night.

Once I get to England, we’ll have less than two weeks to crank it up for the Barbury Castle CIC***, our final outing. So there’s just not a lot of time; every day is important.

At this stage, one does not just get on your horse and go and give it a ride. Every day has to have a plan, and you execute that plan. Our six remaining weeks have been mapped out to the day in consultation with Mark, who really has a great team around him and is doing the most fantastic job ever—and I’ve been with him a long time—in his final year of coaching.

I haven’t seen Eddy Stibbe’s yard yet, but I’ve known him for as long as I’ve been eventing. He’s one of the few people in the world who’s competed in almost 200 three-day events in his career. I did stay at his property near Burghley on two or three occasions, and he’s always had a wonderful training facility for event horses.

Mark has also gotten us access to the gallop that David and I used when we were living in England, and it’s probably one of the best gallops in the world. We have huge advantages being given to the American riders this year, and we’re incredibly grateful for them and will do our very best to make the most of them.

While the U.S. team will be using Barbury CIC as its final outing, David [the Canadian Event Team’s technical advisor] has chosen to take his riders to Gatcombe Park for the one-day advanced horse trials.

I don’t know Mark’s thoughts on Barbury versus Gatcombe, but there are four weeks and a bit between Barbury and the Games, and there’s three and bit between Gatcombe and the Games. So it’s taking a little bit of a risk going to the latter, because you have one less week for your final preparation.

On the up side, Gatcombe has very severe terrain, similar to the Olympic venue of Greenwich Park. Gatcombe is set in a big huge bowl, and Greenwich is steep, terraced parkland that riders will have to climb all the way up and then gallop back down.

Barbury is a much more open piece of property. But it will be the final outing for many teams, including the British, so I expect the course to mirror what we’ll see at Greenwich. Both are great venues for the final trial, and I think we’ll know by the end of July which one worked the best!

As a team rider, you don’t always have control over the leadership’s decisions, but I’m very comfortable relinquishing that. I have huge respect for Mark, so it’s easy to yield to his decisions. If and when they waver slightly from David’s, which is rare, I support the U.S. team. That’s where my allegiance is. And David supports my position too.

That said, there’s plenty of time for the two of us to be together and discuss those decisions in depth and plan out how I can maximize the results of those decisions. David is always a great overseer for my riding. We’ve been doing this a long time together, and now we’ve been doing it a long time together in separate camps, and it actually works famously. It’s really an enhancement, not a detriment.

At the end of the day, while riding seems individual, eventing at this level is definitely a team sport. Every person on our team—our grooms, veterinarian, farrier, owners, sponsors, assistants, office staff—has done such an amazing job in the lead-up to these Games, and without everyone pulling their weight and excelling at their jobs, I wouldn’t be here in this position today. In just a few more weeks, I hope to make all of them very proud.

Fast Facts About Karen O'Connor

Hometown: The Plains, Va., and Ocala, Fla.

Age: 54

Olympic Contender: Mr. Medicott, a 13-year-old chestnut Irish Sport Horse gelding (Cruising—Slieveluachra, Edmund Burke) competed through the four-star level, including at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, with German rider Frank Ostholt and then this spring with Karen.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original verstion of "Karen O’Connor Finds Victory And Loss Along Her Road To The Olympics" ran in the June 25, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Read Karen O'Connor's Road To The Olympics Part 1 and Part 2

 

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