Success can be counted in more than medals. For the U.S. dressage team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, finishing just below the podium, in fourth place, was quite an achievement. It also served as a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is destined to rise even higher and that a new American face has superstar potential.
"For me, fourth was, in a weird way, like winning a gold medal —for where we are, relative to where we were," technical adviser/chef d'equipe Robert Dover said proudly after shepherding his squad through the Grand Prix competition that determined the team placings.
The rise of the U.S. also is good news for the global dressage scene. America was the only non-European country in the top eight teams at the WEG. If the sport is to have an international reputation, it requires successful participants from a wider geographic area.
"It's very nice to see the whole sport developing all over the world. From a sporting point of view, it becomes less and less predictable. Congratulations to the Americans," said Stephen Clarke, the FEI's dressage judge general, who officiated at the WEG. Dutch coach Wim Ernes also echoed praise of the American dressage progress. "You're doing a good job at the moment in America, the level is coming up...you can really come up in the rankings again," he said. Both men also emphasized how impressed they were with Laura Graves, who became the talk of the WEG with three stellar performances.
Final Team Standings
The ultimate team standings were not an overnight proposition, as it was obvious well before the WEG that Germany would take the gold medal there. Even the loss of super horse Totilas a few weeks before the Games in Normandy, France, wasn't going to stop this juggernaut that is backed by so many top horses and riders.
The only question involving the top placings was whether the Dutch or the British would be second or third. In the end, another super horse, Valegro, prevailed for Britain to earn the team silver and both individual gold medals with Charlotte Dujardin, getting bouquets of "10s," while the Dutch suffered from losing the world number three combination, Edward Gal and Glock's Undercover, to injury. Gal did his usual excellent job with Undercover's less-experienced substitute, Glock's Voice, but wound up as the drop score. Although alternate Diederik van Silfhout stepped up with the impressive Arlando NH NOP to fill in for another dropout, Danielle Heijkoop and Kinglsey Siro, the Dutch still fell short with 227.400 percent to the mark of 231.343 for the British, who were more than 10 percentage points behind the Germans' 241.700.
The non-believers, and there were many, counted the American squad as fifth, sixth or perhaps seventh in their WEG predictions, giving the edge to the Danes, the Swedes and even the Spanish. Yet in the end, the U.S. total of 222.714 was good enough to hold off the fast-closing Spanish (221.800) and the Swedes (221.386), while the Danes didn't measure up to expectations and were seventh with 218.028.
The Secret Weapon of American Dressage
There were no surprises when it came to the medals themselves in the atmospheric d'Ornano Stadium in Caen, but the U.S. had another surprise for everyone going forward to the individual competitions, the Grand Prix special (which was part of the team competition at the 2012 Olympics) and the freestyle.
In the special, Graves, who had been scored as 74.871 in the Grand Prix, behind Steffen Peters' 75.843 with Legolas, ultimately surpassed the USA's longtime number one, earning 77.157 percent to finish eighth. Peters was 10th with 75.742 percent.
While Graves’ performance in the special was impressive, it was the freestyle that astounded. Graves finished fifth. Who ever would have dreamed that? Certainly not the 27-year-old Vermonter turned Floridian. Her score of 82.036 for a routine to melodies whose name she doesn't even know, put her ahead of such luminaries as Austria's Victoria Max-Theurer and Augustin OLD, as well as Sweden's Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven with Don Auriello. Peters was the only other American in the top 10 with a score of 77.321 to finish 10th on Legolas.
Graves, who earned more than a few freestyle 9s and even a 9.5 for her canter pirouette left, was an unknown to the dressage world at large when she started making her mark internationally on the big stage at Aachen with the horse her mother bought off a video when he was a foal. She has persevered with him for 12 years, through a broken jaw that never fully healed and developed him at every level without rushing him. As a working student for former U.S. technical adviser Anne Gribbons, Graves brought Verdades to Grand Prix with her help, then began working with Debbie McDonald, the USA's developing dressage coach.
"Our results at this WEG were an indication that the U.S. is back on track in terms of getting on the podium," commented McDonald, who was on hand at the WEG to help Graves and her protege, Adrienne Lyle, who also contributed to the team total with Wizard. The placing, McDonald added, "also demonstrates that the developing program, as well as all the other pipeline programs in place for dressage through the U.S. Equestrian Federation, are starting to work."
Graves is the perfect example.
"Suddenly, there is new hope, and the excitement to go with it. Laura Graves, who was known only by a few on the East Coast until the June selection trials, came out and wowed the world in Normandy," McDonald continued, who jumped with joy from her perch on the ringside "kiss and cry" stand when Graves and Verdades worked their freestyle magic.
What Comes Next
While McDonald was thrilled with the team's finish, she also is looking ahead to what needs to be done next. "It was fun to demonstrate that the U.S. is coming back, especially after so many knowledgeable people in the sport had predicted we would finish sixth or seventh. Now we must focus on the Pan American Games in Canada next year. The U.S. will put its best team forward to win the gold medal in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil," she said. "I am confident Robert Dover can make this happen. His enthusiasm and the momentum he has started in this country is very exciting. It will be nice to see the U.S. back on the podium, and make no mistake, it's happening soon."
As someone new to the highest level of competition in her discipline, Graves pointed out that she had no expectations, having never counted on making the team, after barely qualifying for the selection trials. "It makes everything a little more playful than just pressure. When you're at the bottom, which I feel like I've been at the bottom for a long time, there's no pressure because there's nowhere to go but up," she said. "But once you start doing well, there becomes some pressure to keep performing.”
McDonald sees Graves' success as a double bonus for the U.S., likely inspiring others to try following the same path. "Hers is a `dreams-come-true' story, the kind that people love to hear, about a young woman and the horse she has owned since he was a foal. The relationship between them is special and the evidence of that is in the arena. Verdades truly is a very gifted horse and Laura does a beautiful job making sure he stays happy and is still having fun while performing to the international standard…That's not an easy thing to achieve, with so many grueling months leading up to a major competition such as the WEG," McDonald pointed out.
"Her success offers hope to riders who don't have sponsors. They now have something on which to base their dream of buying a young horse and developing him. All those young horses won't become world class, of course, but Laura shows that with determination, it can be done—she proved it."