July 14, 2015 -- What makes a champion? It's not only ability, but also determination and the gumption to bounce back from a performance that is less than optimal.
A case in point is U.S. dressage star Steffen Peters, who had an uncharacteristically mistake-filled Grand Prix Special at the Pan American Games with Legolas on Sunday, then went into the arena today to produce a masterful ride and win the individual gold.
He and his longtime mount were together on every stride, from the piaffe that started him off with the words, "Hi, I'm Legolas" punctuating his bouncy music, to his final salute and a heartfelt, all-out hug for his partner.
The ride rivaled what the duo did Saturday in the Grand Prix, when they topped the standings with a foot-perfect test. That's what made the Special such a letdown. But the team already had clinched gold Sunday with stellar work by Laura Graves, Kimberly Herslow and Sabine Schut-Kery before Steffen even entered the arena at the OLG Caledon Equestrian Park, about an hour north of Toronto.
It was the second time in four years that Steffen won Pan Am double gold, having taken both top medals at the last Pan Ams in Mexico on Weltino's Magic.
I wondered what the process was for him to put the Special behind him and gear up for today. Ordinary mortals might have had a hard time with that, but then, Steffen isn't an ordinary mortal.
Here's what he told me.
He did thank his personal trainer for helping him build the strength he needed to coax what was required from Legolas.
For his second trip to the podium at these Games, Steffen was accompanied by Laura, earning her first individual medal -- the silver -- at an international championship, and Canada's Chris von Martels, a sensation with the sprightly Zilverstar who took the bronze.
Verdades, Laura's mount who came to her from Holland as a weanling after her mother, Freddie, spotted him on a videotape, usually has lots of energy. Today, however, he lacked his usual sparkle, though anyone who didn't know him would have thought he was aces.
When I tactfully asked if he felt okay in terms of "tiredness" (not sure where I got that word), Laura chuckled and said, "It was that obvious, huh?"
"It's been a long week...I just didn't have as much horse," she continued, but the weather -- hot on the weekend and humid after showers yesterday, was a bit enervating for him.
She noted he normally gets lit in the ring, but this time, although he had it in the warm-up arena "we kind of lost it on the way down. It's just another learning curve," she commented.
He usually gets revved up again by the fans, Laura pointed out. Although the biggest crowd of the equestrian competition thus far nearly filled the stands (the capacity is 4,000, and I think attendance was close to that), they were fairly quiet for Laura's entrance and that didn't give Verdades any kind of incentive to shift into overdrive.
These Games were the first with squads composed of both Small Tour and Big Tour horses. Although the Big Tour horses got a 1.5 percent bonus for the team competition, everyone was on equal footing for the individual.
Chris' horse was Small Tour (both Legolas and Verdades are Grand Prix horses). He noted that during the selection trials, he played it a bit safe. But he added, "Fortunately for me, Zilverstar has a lot of quality, and even when you ride him a little under his maximum tempo, he still has more than plenty big enough gaits to be able to fill the bigger marks." He definitely is eye-catching; loved his trot extensions and his balance.
Canada will have to work toward a "composite team" for the Olympics, since the silver medal country didn't qualify here--only the U.S. did, because just one berth for Rio 2016 was available. The composite team includes riders who are high on the computer list, and before Chris can get there, Zilverstar has to move up to Grand Prix.
I asked if Chris thought the horse would be ready to try for Rio.
"I wish I could tell you that," he said.
"Of course, my childhood dream and my goal always will be going to the Olympics, but it's a horse and you never know if he's ready or not, but we're going to try our hardest."
I was very impressed with Chris, and indeed, with what the Canadian silver medal team did here.
New chef d'equipe Alison Martin was understandably proud of her crew as we discussed the way they shone on their home turf.
The margin between first and third was miniscule, 0.575 percent, and it was interesting to see such an evenly matched trio in action.
Steffen's total of 80.075 ranged from an 82, awarded by judge Stephen Clarke of Great Britain down to 78.5 from Maribel Alonso of Mexico. Two of the judges gave him scores over 80. Laura earned 79.825 percent on Verdades, with three judges giving her more than 80 percent, while a 78 from Lilo Fore brought down her average. Chris had two scores over 80, and just missed getting that mark overall, finishing with 79.500.
U.S. coach Robert Dover had hoped to sweep all the individual medals, but Kimberly Herslow's Rosmarin -- brilliant on Sunday -- ran out of gas; she admits she should have shortened his warm-up. His hooves landed with a plop in one pirouette, and he did one-tempi changes when he should have been doing his twos. Kim, standing second after the team competition, finished eighth with 73.175 percent, behind the energetic Lusitano Xama dos Pinhais and Joao Victor Marcari Oliva of Brazil (73.275). Joao was right behind his countryman from the bronze medal team, Leandro Aparecido Da Silva on Di Caprio (73.300).
When I asked Robert how he felt about not having the sweep he dreamed of, he smiled and gave me a good answer.
He added, "I could not be more proud of all of our athletes who helped us get the gold team medal, but also today, our gold and silver medalists. They rose to the occasion and did their job."
For full results from today, click on this link: http://results.toronto2015.org
The downer for the U.S., and the Canadians was a last-minute decision yesterday not to let four team members from one country compete in the individual finals. That excluded Sabine for the U.S. and Megan Lane for Canada, since both had the lowest scores for their nations.
The situation started with a meeting in which the technical delegate said four people from one country could compete in the final. It has always been only three, I was told, but no one really picked up on that.
It seems the Pan Ams' technical handbook for dressage does not mention restrictions on the number of riders from one country who can go in the individual competition.
Venezuela attempted to protest after the 30-minute post-meeting deadline for such action, so the protest was not accepted.
But the next day, it was announced that according to the Pan American Sports Organization rules, only three riders from each country could go on to the finals. However, the chefs d'equipe at the session agreed to ask PASO for an exception to allow four riders from one country to compete. Part of the package was letting the two riders from Venezuela and Mexico compete as extra riders, rather than losing their places as a result of having two number-four riders take part.
The exception was given, but when Venezuela and Mexico objected, PASO stated it would not agree to an exception after all. So Sabine and Megan were out, but each got to perform their freestyle as test rides to get the judges on the same page; Sabine for Small Tour and Megan for Big Tour.
"This is an unfortunate situation, in which PASO was very willing to make an exception to its own rules providing all competing countries were in agreement," said Trond Asmyr, the FEI's dressage director.
But once the unanimity at the morning chefs d’equipe meeting fell apart, "PASO had no choice but to enforce its rules of allowing only three riders through to the individual final," he pointed out.
Will Connell, director of sport for the USEF, tried his best to get things changed, but to no avail. He thought the exception would have worked perfectly.
"It was a win/win for everybody, it was a win/win for the sport, and now the sport looks silly," sighed Will when we talked about it last night.
"The design of this competition to have Big Tour and Small Tour was about moving dressage forward in the Pan Americans. When you have something new, there are glitches. We had a solution, and I don't see why anyone wants to change that solution. We pulled the rug from under the feet of two athletes 18 hours before they were going to compete in a final at a championships. It's very sad."
Okay, I got down in the weeds with that one, but I think people wanted to know what happened. When the stakes are high at these events in any sport, it is not unusual to have contentious situations.
For her part, Sabine was extremely gracious. (I have to admit that in the flurry of all I did today, I didn't talk to Megan, but I'm betting she was the same.)
"It's disappointing, but I'm really happy I got to go and ride and happy to have my owners on the same page as I and everybody else," Sabine said.
Her freestyle had cool music composed by a young man who is a friend of her husband, movie stuntman Kristian Kery, who also helped with the project. He wasn't on hand, though, because he's in Louisiana shooting a remake of "The Magnificent Seven."
On a lighter note, I’ve been obsessed with Pachi, the so-cute porcupine Pan Am mascot that is given to all the medalists. I got one too, but I had to buy mine, since I wasn’t on the podium here…
Anyway, I asked Laura what she thought about this little character.
Okay, that's it for dressage. Next up is eventing. It starts Friday, but the eventers arrived today.
Look at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman for a photo of the team. On Thursday, I'll be getting a look at the cross-country course and watching the horse inspection, so be sure to come back for my postcard on those activities. In the meantime, check out www.facebook.com/dressagetoday as well as Practical Horseman's Facebook page for more photos.