August 15, 2014--The U.S. dressage team for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games included a surprise when it was officially named yesterday.
Steffen Peters (Legolas) and Laura Graves (Verdades) have been on the squad since June by virtue of finishing 1-2 in the selection trials. Tina Konyot, a veteran of the 2010 WEG and the 2012 Olympics with Calecto V, also made the cut as expected because of her Grand Prix scores at the trials and mandatory outings at the Fritzens, Austria, show and Aachen in July as per the selection criteria.
On a numerical basis, Caroline Roffman was expected to be the fourth rider with Her Highness O (dressage doesn't have a traveling alternate the way show jumping does). The Grand Prix is the test for the team medals at the WEG, and her Grand Prix scores from Fritzens and Aachen were ahead of 2012 Olympian Adrienne Lyle and Wizard by 0.36 percent. (Both women tied in the Grand Prix with Graves at the selection trials).
But Roffman was bypassed as Lyle made the team.
"It is such an incredible honor to get to ride for the USA, and I still can hardly believe that Wizard has matured from a hot-head rambunctious Small Tour horse, to carrying me to Brentina Cup champion, the Olympics, and now a World Equestrian Games," said Lyle.
"It has been such an incredible journey with him, with so many ups and downs along the way. I can’t begin to thank the Thomas family enough for giving me the opportunity to ride such an amazing horse, and Debbie McDonald for her never-ending dedication and help."
For more about Adrienne, visit her blog at Dressage Today.
In announcing the squad, the U.S. Equestrian Federation stated, "As part of the selection process in the naming of the team, the performances of all combinations were taken into consideration. It was felt that with just six months of competing at the Grand Prix level, it was too soon to ask the talented combination of Caroline Roffman and her 11-year-old Hanoverian mare, Her Highness O, to contend with the World Championship atmosphere of the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games."
Roffman, back in the U.S. with her horse, emphasized she is supporting the team and wishing them "the best of luck." She added she has become friends with Lyle, noting she and Wizard "are a super combination. They have proven that internationally."
Meanwhile, Roffman, 25, is still in the process of regaining her equilibrium after the high of thinking she had made the team by the numbers she earned in the European mandatory outings, and then having the rug pulled out from under her.
"I was quite close to achieving something that was on my list of dreams, but these are the bumps in the road that hopefullly, down the road if I make it to a team, will make it that much sweeter. That's really where I am right now, that's all I can feel," she said.
The rather unusual USEF announcement requires some elaboration -- especially since Graves also has been competing with Verdades at high performance Grand Prix level just since the beginning of the year. So I spoke with technical adviser/chef d'equipe Robert Dover, who offered more detail concerning the decision.
"It's about experience, but it's about the experience they're having and Laura Graves has had just about 100 percent consistency. She hasn't had any kinds of ups and downs. She's been only up," Dover said.
"Her abilities from the beginning of the season to the actual final qualifiers...have remained steadily progressing and her confidence level is enormous. Everyone is different, and she's two years older than Caroline, and sometimes just a couple of years makes a big difference in someone's confidence."
Her Highness scored 70.4 percent in the Aachen Grand Prix, but then had a score of 61.314 in the Grand Prix Special, which was not part of the selection criteria. She went on to earn 67.690 percent in the Grand Prix at Verden, Germany, earlier this month, which also was not among the shows listed in the criteria. Lyle was marked at 68.640 percent in the Grand Prix at Fritzens, but bounced back at Aachen (70.340) and Verden, where her total was 71.740 percent.
"I think that it was apparent by the ups and downs with Her Highness that not only was the mare sort of coming and going confidence-wise during the season over here, but also Caroline's confidence had highs and lows," Dover observed.
He said those involved with selection felt Roffman and her mount were "a really promising pair" that needed a little more time for seasoning.
"Sometimes it truly is in the best interests of a horse and rider to get more international experience and exposure, so they are not overfaced and have to suffer in a way you would rather they not have to go through," he commented.
"I believe the right decision was made in this case. It's always very difficult because you're talking about people who put so much into trying to make a team and no one ever wants to get in the way of someone's dreams. I think the decision was made honestly, not only in the best interest of the team, but also truly in the best interest of the horse and rider."
Although the Special at Aachen was not part of the team selection criteria, Her Highness' performance that dropped her far below her usual scores in that competition was startling. Roffman explained she is still getting to know her mare, noting that when the horse gets tired, she gets "hot," and her warm-up before the Special didn't help the situation, leading to a number of mistakes in the test.
"My horse is green," said Roffman, pointing out that those like Lyle whose horses have done Grand Prix longer know exactly how much to warm up, and are aware of what circumstances could prompt them to add or cut minutes from the process.
"I'm not going to tell you she's as ready as she's going to be next year," said Roffman of Her Highness.
"But can she perform the Grand Prix test? Absolutely. Does she have a very good character and always try her best? Absolutely. Did we have a bad test at Aachen? Yes, we did, but she's a horse and I'm a rider and these things will happen. It was unfortunate it happened when it did...it was the only time we had something like that happen."
Some observers have wondered what difference it makes to replace Roffman with the more experienced pairing of Lyle and Wizard, since there is likely no scenario that will put the U.S. on the medal podium at the WEG.
But taking the long view, as Dover commented, overfacing horse and rider combinations too early in their development can have serious consequences.
He cited the case of Irish, the young horse Norman Dello Joio rode to the show jumping individual bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics whose subsequent career lacked the highlights one might have expected, with the exception of a Hampton Classic victory two years later under the guidance of Jeffery Welles.
But Dover made it even more personal, talking about his own situation.
"When I was just turning 27 and went to the (1984) Olympics in Los Angeles, I had never had any international experience, so to speak. If I had been my own coach back then, I would have told me it was way too early for me to jump in like that. But hindsight is always so much better, and I went through what I went through, not doing well in that Olympics and doing even worse in the world championships two years later."
That brought him up short.
"I thought, `Robert, you're going to go to Europe, and you're going to learn how to win and you're not coming home until you do it." By the time he came home after winning at Aachen, he knew his job.
"I had to go through some really bad failures to figure that out. I wish I had someone help me figure out what to do back then. I'm only speaking for myself, but it sometimes isn't so clear to a person in a moment, but it certainly is clear years later."
At the same time, he pointed out, "the other obligation I have is to produce the strongest possible team for the Games. It was very evident to me what the team would look like in the last weeks. It wasn't about the last show, it was about many different things, whether there was a high defree of confidence. Confidence means confidence of the horse, confidence of the rider, confidence of the entire team."
Roffman said she wanted to go to Verden to give Her Highness an outing after the problem at Aachen, and was assured that scores there would not count toward selection. But before the team was announced, she was asked to withdraw and told that her Verden performance influenced the selection decision. When she didn't withdraw she was dropped from the team as her international championship dream disintegrated.
She felt if she had bowed out, people would have assumed that there was some health/fitness issue either with herself or her horse.
"I'm a competitor; competitors don't bow out. We wanted to show. We went to Europe; I left my business, my clients, my horses, my family, my friends to give this attention, and we made it there."
The team selection process is rarely perfect, and has been the subject of legal action in the past. Before the first WEG in 1990, for instance, show jumper Debbie Dolan sued unsuccessfully to make the U.S. squad, contending she had been promised a place on the team regardless of her performance in European pre-WEG shows.
Roffman has no intention of going that route, but she wants to see the selection criteria changed--and believes she has a lot of company in that thought. She would like to see more leeway for a coach to make team decisions, as she says is the case in Germany.
"Is it unfortunate that I became a little bit of a sacrificial lamb in this? Yes, it is. But I think now we go forward and I would be happy to stand and give my opinion in front of any boards and committees. We should have a coach that we all believe in and trust so much, I believe that Robert is probably that person, that can select the team. And we all know and believe he is trying to get a team that will do the best, and it is not personal; that his decision is the one that we listen to."
The decision should not be made by scores, she contended, "because this can happen. I believe this system does not work."
Moving on, how does Dover think things look for the U.S. at the WEG, where the competition starts Aug. 25?
"I think we have quite a strong team," he said, while noting Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain (who are being touted as gold, silver and bronze) are formidable. Dover also cited Sweden, but thinks the U.S. could be "on par if we have our best goes" with the third, fourth or fifth-ranked countries. He ranks Denmark and Spain, which also have potential, below the U.S. for this WEG.
"I think we're a team on the way up," he insisted, taking the long view that "our programs are going to be strengthened throughout this next year. We're going to do everything we can to produce world-class results."
For this Games, though, that means a dress rehearsal of the Grand Prix with an international judge, probably on Tuesday, at the farm in Belgium where the horses have been stabled.
Dover can't wait for the Games to begin, saying: "I'm very excited by how hard this group is working toward excellence."