USA Team Fit, Together & Confident 10 Days from Olympic Dressage

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USA team members Steffen Peters, Tina Konyot and Jan Ebeling all looking up to Adrienne Lyle, the youngest and tallest of the American riders. Photo: Courtesy Team USA

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

LONDON, July 23–The United States Olympic dressage riders will have been living and training together for much of the past two momths when the team Grand Prix starts 10 days from now, and they have come together like perhaps no other in bringing themselves and their horses to the peak of fitness with no illusions about the strength of the competition but confident of making their best effort.

“I think it’s incredible I’m living every little girl’s dream, that it’s unfolding now,” said Adrienne Lyle not only one of three Olympic rookies at the age of 27 but on her first ever American team at any championship who earned the individual place. “I want to be able to just take it all in–this is so much more than just a horse show. No one can ever take away from you this experience that transcends everything else>

Except for Steffen Peters, riding in his third Olympics, the other two team riders–Tina Konyot, on the U.S. team at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, and Jan Ebeling, a 2003 Pan American Games gold medalist, are also Olympic first timers.

And these Games are exceptional in many ways–the historic Greenwich Park that is the venue for equestrian sports stares at the London skyline of high rise business towers, St. Paul’s Cathedral and classically ornate homes. And unlike many championships in recent years–the equestrian events at the 2008 Olympics, for example, were in Hong Kong, more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) from Beijing–the riders will be living in the Olympic Village along with 10,000 other athletes from almost every nation on the globe.

The excitement is electric as they are just days from complete immersion in the Olympics, picking up their uniforms ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony when they move into what will be their home for almost two weeks–until after the Grand Prix Musical Freestyle on Aug. 9 which will be the finale of the equestrian events.

The quartet of riders along with team coach Anne Gribbons at their training base at Layham Hall, a world class dressage estate owned by American Linda Keenan in Suffolk, 45 minutes from London,  laughed and joked through almost an hour telephone conversation with dressage-news.com.

“I think the most outstanding aspect of this experience has been the cohesiveness of the team,” said Jan Ebeling, the oldest of the Americans at the age of 53, who has been under a media microscope perhaps more than any athlete in any sport because of the part ownership of his horse, Rafalca, by Ann Romney, the wife of U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney. She credits riding with Jan with helping her deal with the crippling effects of multiple schlerosis and is returning the gift by helping the German immigrant pursue his dream of representing his new homeland.

“The positive criticism on a daily basis when we watch each other ride and look at videos.

“We’re not just a team that’s a bunch of riders. I feel that in the time we’ve been here of improving myself and my horse. This is my first Olympics and it’s a very exciting and proud moment. I’ve been on teams before but this is absolutely amazing–a very.very cool team.”

The Romney connection and the avalanche of requests from around the world for interviews and photographs is what has led to the Americans enforcing a virtual lockdown, which in its own way has forced the riders to find ways to keep themselves occupied and productive and thus created a cameraderie without distractions.

Riders, grooms, team officials and support staff such as veterinarians in daily "Boot Camp" organized by Steffen Peters. Photo Courtesy Team USA

The team is:

–Steffen Peters, 47, of San Diego, California – Ravel is a 14-year-old KWPN gelding (Contango x Hautain x Democraat). They won two individual gold medals at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, only the second American to win the World Cup Final which they did in 2009 when they also became the only U.S. partnership to be crowned champion of the CDIO at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. The pair came fourth individually at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. This is Steffen’s third Olympics, his first was on the bronze medal U.S. team in Atlanta in 1996.

–Steffen also brought with him Legolas, 10-year-old Westfalen gelding (Laomedon x Furstin x Florestan II) bought by Akiko Yamazaki as a successor to her Ravel and arrived from Germany at Steffen’s stables last Christmas. Since then, the horse has competed in four CDIs in California and the pair are ranked 17th in the world. They won the U.S. Grand Prix Championships in their first appearance this year.

–Tina Konyot, 50, Palm City, Florida – Calecto V, 14-year-old Danish Warmblood stallion (Come Back II x Bahera x Rastell) were on the WEG team in 2010 that earned the United States a team berth at the Olympics. Tina began competing Calecto at Grand Prix almost three years ago. In addition to the world championships, the pair have competed in Europe in 2010. In the past two years, all but one of their nine competitions have been on the Florida winter circuits. Calecto has a Danish connection with the breeder John Byrialsen listed as an owner and whose Viegård Stutteri ApS is represented by the “V” in Calecto’s name.

–Jan Ebeling, 53, Moorpark, California – Rafalca, 15-year-old Oldenburg mare (Argentinus x Ratine x Rubenstein) owned by Ann Romney, Amy Ebeling and Beth Meyer. The pair competed in three World Cup Finals, in Las Vegas in 2009, Leipzig, Germany in 2011 and ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, this year. They have competed at the top European shows and are coached by Wolfram Wittig of Germany and ChristineTraurig of California. Jan was a member of the U.S. gold medal team at the 2003 Pan American Games.

–Adrienne Lyle, 27, of Ketchum, Idaho – Wizard, 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Weltmeyer x Pica x Classiker). Adrienne and Wizard competed in Europe in 2010. They competed for the first time this year on Florida’s winter circuit of 11 CDIs over three months. The partnership will compete as individual, as the U.S. was one of only five nations to qualify both a team of three and an individual. Debbie McDonald, Olympic and world championship medalist and World Cup champion, has been coach and mentor of Adrienne for the past six years leading to these Games.

The U.S. essentially has two reserves, one in Legolas and the other combination, Heather Blitz of Wellington, Florida, and her American-bred Paragon.

Ravel, Steffen said, will show up at the venue stables on Friday, the day of the opening ceremony, but Legolas will be on standby just in case.

Calecto V making the most of summer weather in England's green fields. Photo Courtesy Tina Konyot

Over the weekend, the U.S. combinations conducted a full dress rehearsal, performing rides before Anne Gribbons, riders dressed in top hat and tails, horses braided and rides to set times as part of the lead up to the Games.

“I had a chance to drive into London and around the outside of the venue,” Steffen said. “It is very, very impressive. And we’ll be No. 2 behind track and field. Although this is my third Olympics, it feels just as special as the first.”

All are looking forward to getting their team outfits, a moment that Steffen said, “it sinks in.”

As a firm believer and practitioner of personal physical conditioning, Steffen has created and led the daily exercises.

“When we go down the centerline we know that every option was completed. If we add just a few percentages in finess it will help. It’s also another good step toward team building, even if we suffer a little bit along the way.”

Tina Konyot said that Calecto has been enjoying everything about the training center England, he comes out of his stall squealing.

“The atmosphere is so fantastic,” she said. The facility is first class. They have made it a home for us. It has been just extraordinary. The whole Olympic feeling is so great.”

None of them have an illusions about the quality of the competition.

Steffen, like most folks, pick host Great Britain and Germany to be battle for gold and silver–but, he thinks the battle for bronze will be interesting as several teams could be in the mix, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, the USA.

“I think our horses look good,” Anne Gribbons said. “We are here with the best horses we have, the cream of the crop at the moment, and fantastic riders. The quality of other horse flesh may be superior. We just have to outride them.

“If we dont excel and don’t get a medal it’s not for lack of trying. You know what kind of horses we’re up against. It’s going to be one of toughest competitions ever.”

The number and quality of horses at these Olympics, in Anne’s opinion, surpass the 2009 European Championships at Windsor where she was one of the five judges of a show that many in dressage agree was the pinnacle of the sport until now.

“Everything is different,” she said. “Which horses will be among even the top three in the individual freestyle. It’s never happened before, there is nothing predetermined this time.”

Tina reminded American fans not to forget their foam rubber fingers.

Foam rubber fingers for USA dressage team members Tina Konyot, Jan Ebeling, Steffen Peters and Adrienne Lyle with coach Anne Gribbons. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com