Pan American Games Dressage Championships – Photo Gallery (& More) Part 2 of 2

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The Champions! Riders, horses and those who make sure they can become champions. The team gold medalists of the United States at the podium at the 16th Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

GUADALAJARA, Mexico, Oct. 21–The United States’ sweep of an unprecedented fourth straight Nations Cup victory and all three individual medals was a first for any country in dressage in the 60-year history of the Pan American Games.

Although the Pan Ams held once every four years as a qualifier for the Olympics was at small tour, the contest is just as fierce and competitive as any Big Tour–it is all relative. Teams other than U.S. had Olympic and World Equestrian Games veterans as well as at Pan Ams. The Pan Ams are, after all, the second biggest sporting event in the world surpassed only by the Olympics themselves, covering a region of about 50 countries and a dozen or so dependencies–above two-fifths of the 133 national federations that are inthe official show horse family. And among them are population and economic powerhouses such as Brazil and Mexico in addition to the U.S. as well as some nations with burning political motives to excel.

The Yanqui Dream Team for dressage included two Olympians among the four but the three individual medal finalists included one veteran and two championship rookies.

Only a handful of Pan Am sports–they include all 28 Olympic sports plus others of regional interest–provide an opportunity for a sweep of the magnitude pulled off by U.S. dressage. It was achieved by U.S. eventing in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. But the odds against it are enormous–it has happened only once in Olympic dressage history, by Germany in 1992, and close to once in the European Championships when The Netherlands won team gold and all three freestyle medals but missed out on a sweep of the medals for the Special at Windsor in 2009.

The Pan Am dressage did not fall into the new category of requiring seven judges and a supervisory panel as for other championships. But to hear the riders tell it, they had no complaints about the panel of five who adjudicated just fine, thank you.

Stars 'n' Stripes raised on all three flag poles for individual medalists at the Pan American Games. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-new.com

Dressage-news.com sat down with the four U.S. riders to talk of their experiences in Guadalajara.

Steffen Peters, 46, of San Diego, California, rode Weltino’s Magic, a nine-year-old Westfalen gelding (Weltino x Viva), The pair swept the small tour at the World Equestrian Festival small tour in Aachen, Germany, this year and finished at the top of the U.S. qualifying competition. Steffen has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the world with Ravel. This was his first Pan Ams.

A jubilant Steffen Peters after winning his second gold medal at the Pan American Games in his first appearance at the continental championships. © 2011 Ken Braddck/dressage-news.com

This championship was different because it put me into the position of really good teams like Germany or Holland. It’s been expected of them to win a gold medal. It adds a little more pressure. You need to experience it. It is quite a bit different.

It was “dream team” no doubt. But we were expected to do well. I’m really thankful to my team mates who put in three super performances. I’m a big sports fan so here’s what I mean. In the Intermediaire when the scores were announced I was jumping up and down, I was just so excited for Marisa because she was a rookie. It was really, really fun to see. It was like my favorite (NFL) team, the San Diego Chargers, scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. That’s how exiting it was for me.

I was very happy with Magic, but just as excited for my team mates.

To go to Grand Prix, Magic still needs to address the piaffe. The one-tempis are working, he does nice passage but since he moves so big in the trot, it’s relatively hard to keep the hind legs quick enough. It is too soon for 2012. I’m hoping by the end of 2012 we will get a handle on this.

Steffen Peters on Weltino's Magic in the victory gallop at the Pan American Games. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Any time you get to represent your nation it’s a huge honor. That, combined with competing with a hell of a team, made it just as special as the Olympics, the World Cup or the World Equestrian Games. The feeling didn’t just start in Guadalajara; it started after Gladstone, the selection trials.

The feeling is so wonderful, it never gets old. It’s the same feeling as my first time on the U.S. team in 1996 in Atlanta. Every single time it brings the same excitement. All the things that go with it. You always get the team clothing right before the Opening Ceremony. It brings that excitement, that adrenaline hits me. I’m glad it is still that way. it is such an honor and I know I will never lose that feeling.

As for the Olympics, I start preparing on Saturday. Shannon (his wife) enrolled me to start “Boot Camp” two days after I get back. (Boot Camp is a weekly fitness program administered by former Marines).

I was in great shape in Hong Kong in 2008 and I want to be even better prepared for 2012.

I’m older, Ravel is a little bit older. With Ravel it might be our last shot, let’s be realistic. So I’m making sure I am prepared.

Steffen Peters and his two gold medals with Anne Gribbons, who has coached U.S. high performance teams to Olympic qualification and Pan Am success unprecedented in dressage. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

 

Heather Blitz, 42, of Wellington, Florida, rode Paragon, an eight-year-old American-bred Danish Warmblood (Don Schufro x Pari Lord) gelding. The partnership is extraordinary as she was at his birth and helped him to stand. The Pan Am Games were Heather’s first championship for the U.S. and was Paragon’s first time outside the U.S. Heather trained and competed Otto in the U.S. and Europe, including a Nations Cup competition in Luxembourg before she sold the horse to become a U.S. team mount at the 2010 WEG.

Paragon with Heather Blitz aboard and showing of his elasticity that Stephen Clarke, presidentof the ground jury, described as "out of this world." © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

I’m on cloud nine. i think the feeling has gone beyond my expectations both in my horse’s performance and what it feels like to be a member of this really awesome team. The reception from the fans has been amazing–to walk through a crowd of people and them wanting to get a picture of you and your horse. It’s been an incredible feeling and the camaraderie of a team is something I’ve never had before.

I was a little reticent about this initially. Financial is an issue. I didn’t know about security, the horse traveling, the stress on Paragon, and the risk.

In hindsight it is such a no brainer, an experience not to be missed. I can’t way for the next time. Then, I’ll have it differently in my mind.

I’ve developed a huge amount of respect for what goes on behind the scenes and how it is handled by Eva Salomon, Jenny van Wieren, Christie Baxter and Jim Wolf (U.S. Equestian Federation staff).

This has been the highlight of Paragon’s career by far. Paragon is only eight, we’re just scratching the surface. It is so exciting to think there is so much more to develop. Injury and illness have to be avoided and assuming things stay on track, anticipating the future is hard to get my head around.

I have a lifetime relationship with Rob (McKean) and he loves the adventure we are on, that I have him to share it with. He has boosted my confidence and my career enormously.

The small tour for Paragon is now over. We started once at the big tour in a national show in the summer.

If I went in and did that test again with what I know now I would get rid of most of the glitches.

Now, I have 10 times more horse. He is steadier and more confirmed just in the month since the selection trials.

I’ve also learned that I can’t put so much pressure on myself. I mean, here I am second at the Pan American Games with a horse only eight years old that I trained myself.

Heather Blitz and Paragon came close to the individual gold medal at the Pan American Games, then marveled at what has happened to a horse to which she was the human midwife at his birth in Louisiana and trained him for the pair's first championship at the age of eight . Look out world! © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

 

Marisa Festerling, 34, of Moorpark, California, rode her own Big Tyme, a 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood (Saros van ‘t Gestelhof x Elvira x Wendekreis). Marisa is the mother a girl, Ella, who will turn four next month. She competed Big Tyme at the World Breeding Championships in Verden, Germany, but before the Pan Ams had never been on a U.S team.

Marisa Festerling and Big Tyme, another pair that have been atched for years to build a partnership that took them to their first U.S. tea championship. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

I didn’t know what to expect. This is my first team experience. i knew we were coming with really good riders and horses and was just as excited what the competition would bring. I was not familiar with the other riders and horses on our own team except for Steffen on the West Coast. It has been a really great experience to meet riders from other countries.

I’m amazingly organized and I went into this with total faith in the organization of our team and they really fulfilled that faith.

To come here and do so well for our country, I feel spoiled. This has whetted my appetite for more. It’s been a great way to start off. You think everything will be like this, but it’s not always the reality. You can hope for the best, always.

For me personally coming into this I expected to do my job and always hoped we would make to the final 15. I knew it was possible for us to do that if we did the best we could.

I take it one step at one time, it’s a process. I don’t know that I thought beyond one step at a time.

Of course I hoped for this. But for it to become reality is a dream come true.

My husband is an air traffic controller in Los Angeles. Fortunately, he could come for first two days but had to go home. Ella has been keeping track of how we are doing.

Now it is back to teaching, riding and showing. Frankie (Big Tyme) will get a nice couple of weeks light work before he goes back into training.

We are schooling the Grand Prix but it is not ready to show yet. It is too soon for London. We will work on putting the Grand Prix together and see where it goes from there.

I want to say thank you to everyone who has been so supportive and my team mates. One thing about the experience, our team has been great, everyone has got along.

Marisa Festerling riding Big Tyme after winning individual bronze to add to her team gold medal at the Pan American Games. She spent time alternately crying and smiling for joy. Oh, and jumping up and down. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

 

Cesar Parra, 48, of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, rode Grandioso, 10, a Westfalen gelding (Grosso Z x Hauptstutbuch Popocatepal). Cesar became an American citizen last year. He competed in two Pan Am Games for his native Colombia, winning a team silver medal, as well as the Olympics, WEG and a World Cup Final.

Cesar Parra on Grandio in his first U.S. team since becoming an American citizen in 2010. He had ridden on two Pan Am teams, at the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and World Cup for his native Colombia. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

There are many differences between competing for Colombia and the United States. One is the enormous amount of pride that I belong to the strongest team there is on the continent, like I started on the “Dream Team.” I wanted to be a part of that “Dream Team” from when I won the national championships at Gladstone last year. I wanted to be on the “Dream Team” from all angles–the horses, riders, the quality of people, the support. It’s amazing, a fantastic experience.

Am I happy with my performance? Yes and no. I wish I had a different start. But I learned something that I’m trying to do now in my life. I’m trying to walk the talk. I’ve been teaching my young students at home. you can do things right or you can be like a leader.

When the order of our team was decided I knew my horse needed to go out twice to get used to the atmosphere and the environment. The fact that I was the first to go was the right thing. I’m happy I delivered for the team what I was supposed to do. It may not have been perfect. Regardless of what happened, though, I knew we would bring home gold. I was much happier with my performance in the Intermediaire 1 on the second day.

I’ve been riding in championships more than 20 years and I have learned you must start strong, from the very first you have to be strong be at your best. It is very hard to make a comeback.

I’m really happy with the horse, he was wonderful, tremendous. Now we move on.

Grandioso has grown up a lot here. He has started doing the Grand Prix movements and we will keep on going with that.

I want to be at the 2012 selection trials. I’m looking forward to being in London, whether on Grandiose or another partner.

Whatever I’m riding, it has to be sound not only physically but also mentally.

The best lesson I’ve learned is that no championship is worth sacrificing the horse for. No matter what, the horse comes first.

Now we regroup. Hubertus Schmidt is coming to New New Jersey and maybe we will go to Europe before the Florida winter circuit. I want to be in London and I have made that commitment.

I haven’t talked about this before, but my wife is going through six months of chemotherapy. She has been a tremendous support for me, behind me every step of the way. It is one more thing we have to deal with. I think as athletes we must have a tremendous amount of discipline. Like everyone else, we also have problems at home but we have to keep on going. Everything will be fine with my wife, we have a union, we have love.

Marisa Festerling, Heather Blitz and Steffen Peters with a pirate's haul of treasure from the Pan American Games, © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com