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August 14, 2016 -- It has been, as Debbie McDonald put it, “a long, long, long ride” for the U.S. to get to another Olympic team bronze medal, but “when it happens like it happened yesterday (Friday), it kind of makes it all worthwhile.”
Debbie, the former U.S. developing dressage coach, is now in private practice, so to speak, but she's still there for the squad even as she focuses on training team members Kasey Perry-Glass and Laura Graves.
Her spirit and work ethic have helped energize a national team for which the bronze was the USA's first dressage medal at the Games since Athens 2004. Debbie happened to be a member of the Athens contingent, as was Robert Dover, now chef d'equipe, technical advisor, super fundraiser and visionary, who always saw his country on the podium in Rio and willed it to happen.
After achieving icon status as a rider and trainer with Brentina in the early part of this century, Debbie has now achieved the same with her coaching efforts. She is so invested in her students that she rides every stride with them from the sidelines, releasing the tension with ecstatic applause or even jumping up and down after their final salute.
The pressure was past the boiling point Friday as Laura and Verdades entered the arena during the decisive Grand Prix Special at the Deodoro Equestrian Center. Theirs was the make-or-break ride that would determine whether the Netherlands or the U.S. took bronze behind rock-solid Germany, always a cinch for the gold, and silver medal Great Britain, led by world record holder Charlotte Dujardin with Valegro.
“I literally took four Pepto-Bismol and couldn't eat,” Debbie confided. Naturally, she had to present a calm exterior to the team, no matter what was going on inside.
“I couldn't show any of that to them,” she explained.
“But you know when you want something so bad, you want it to happen, and a lot of people had problems.”
Their number included Valegro, who wound up second in the Special with an uncharacteristic wrinkle in his performance.
“Everybody had their little challenges for sure,” she said.
It was the kind of situation that demands the utmost in focus and skill from both horse and rider. How amazing to find Laura--who no one on the international scene had heard of until she was fifth in the 2014 World Equestrian Games--as cool as any of the multi-medal Olympians who were riding in the competition seen by millions around the world. She was the anchor for the team in her first Olympics, which is really incredible.
“How far she's come,” marveled Debbie, who looked on with fierce concentration as Laura produced the ride of a lifetime on a horse purchased off a video as a weanling14 years earlier. Her score of 80.364 clinched the bronze, a testament to Debbie's devotion as much as it was to Laura's diligence and cool head.
Debbie is full of justified praise for Laura.
“She's not that affected. She knows what her job is and she does it. There's very few people who could be in that position.
“That horse just looks amazing right now,” added Debbie.
Laura's score was one of only five over 80 percent in the Special; behind Germany's Isabell Werth (on her way to being the most-decorated equestrian Olympian ever); Charlotte, and two other Germans superstars, including world number one Kristina Broring-Sprehe.
There is, however, one more mountain to climb tomorrow, when Laura rides in the freestyle for the individual medals with two other U.S. competitors, another Olympic newbie, Allison Brock (Rosevelt), coached by Michael Barisone, and Olympic veteran Steffen Peters (Legolas).
“It just really has been a pleasure, they're such team players, every one of them,” Debbie said. “It's been a joy to be around them. They all contributed to the medal.” The team goes beyond the riders to tireless Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of sport, and Hallye Griffin, the USEF's managing director of dressage.
Laura goes next-to-last in the freestyle, just before the competition wraps up with Isabell in the final dressage performance of the Olympics. It seems unlikely there is another Rio medal in Laura's future, with three Germans and Charlotte in the mix.
“She's pretty realistic about that too,” Debbie observed.
“But you know, you just never know, every day has another challenge and she does have a very difficult freestyle and she pulls it off, and she's got great music, so we'll see.” As Debbie pointed out, “Sometimes, there's just something in the air.”
She noted, “the horses have been on the venue for over a week, and they really haven't had any days off. It's been hot, cold and hot again.”
The U.S. did the best it could under the circumstances, as she pointed out “Ours were getting a couple of easy days leading up to the freestyle.”
Once dressage wraps up, Debbie will be thinking about her Idaho home and going back to help her protege, Adrienne Lyle, who has an exciting stallion with which she's been working.
First, however, Debbie has to go to one more show, at Lamplight in Illinois, before getting some time off and becoming reacquainted with what's happening at her stable, where Adrienne has been in charge for all the weeks and months Debbie has been traveling.
But if anyone deserves a break, it's Debbie, and even this workaholic is going to switch off.
“I'm not going to spend all day at the barn,” Debbie vowed, saying she will give in to the lure of the peace and quiet that is just a short drive from River Grove Farm.
“I'm definitely going to try to go to the mountains and park my Airstream and hide away for a few days,” she promised.