Debbie McDonald, Two-Time American Olympic Competitor, First Time American Olympic Team Coach Talks About 2020
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Dec. 4, 2019
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Debbie McDonald is preparing for her first Olympics as the American team coach with possibly more prospects than ever before for a team to compete for a second straight Games podium placing.
Debbie has gone through the Olympic procedures before, as one of the most successful American riders with Brentina earning team bronze at Athens in 2004 and competing at the Beijing Games in 2008, team silver at the 2002 World Equestrian Games and bronze in 2006 as well as in 2003 the first U.S. partnership to become World Cup champion.
In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, two of the four members of the team that captured bronze were coached by her personally as were three of the four riders and horses that took silver at the Tryon World Equestrian Games last year.
The ability of Debbie to instill her skill as a trainer and competitor into so many riders that are among the elite has built her reputation as one of the very best coaches in the world.
The record she inherits has been impressive. USA has been on the dressage podium five times since 1984 by which time the military was no longer dominant and Cold War divisions were pretty much over. Germany has been dominant with nine medals–eight gold–and the Netherlands next with five podium apearances.
At the winter-long Adequan Global Dressage Festival beinning in Wellington, Florida in a month, the WEG team combinations of Laura Graves on Verdades, Kasey Perry-Glass on Dublet, Adrienne Lyle on Salvino and Steffen Peters on Suppenkasper will be vying with up to at least another half dozen pairs for three team spots and a reserve for Tokyo at the end of July.
“It’s going to be incredibly interesting and not boring,” Debbie told dressage-news.com as she was ringside coaching early morning in Wellington recently. “It’s going to be exciting; it’s going to be a really interesting year for us.
“We have young horses coming into the Grand Prix and looking quite promising. I don’t know whether they’re going to be ready for Tokyo, but my hopes are that they can get going enough that we can do some Nations Cups with them this next summer.
“Even if that doesn’t happen I think we have a few coming up that are going to be exactly what we need. It’s going to be a building year again pretty soon.
“We’ve got some older horses and we need to build up that string again. So I’m excited for the future.
The WEG combinations that she described as “the three ladies and Steffen” are the best known of contenders for the U.S. team.
But, Debbie said, “I don’t think we can say that might be it. We’ve got others coming here that could be contenders. You just never know.”
The pivotal event in creating a long list of U.S. combinations will be the top rated CDI5* at Global Feb. 19-23. Some newer combinations can ask for a bye, but there are seven CDI3*s and a CDI4*, as well as four World Cup events from January through March that give prospects a lot of opportunities to shine.
Global is a companion to the long running Winter Equestrian Festival of jumpers and hunters at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and is a neighbor of the more recently created Palm Beach Masters jumper series at Deeridge Farms that between them attract many thousands of equestrians from several dozen nations.
An unintended casualty of the high performance schedule may be the World Cup Final in Las Vegas in mid-April with North American qualifying expanded to three events from two previously that clashes with Olympic contenders focused on making the squad to go to Europe in early summer in hopes of being chosen for Tokyo.
Las Vegas is very special for Debbie.
The Thomas and Mack Center of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas that will stage the World Cup was created with a substantial donation from Parry and Peggy Thomas, the owners of Brentina. The Hanoverian mare was retired in Las Vegas at the 2009 World Cup Final.
“To be very honest,” Debbie said, “I think the riders are going to have to pick and choose. If they’re one of our older horses do I think they should do six shows?. They’ve got to do three qualifiers for Tokyo and three qualifiers for the World Cup, which has hurt us. It used to be two, that was more doable. But In a year like this, our show season condensed into three months, I think it’s going to be very difficult for these horses to make both.”
Steffen Peters, the only other American to have become World Cup champion which he did in Las Vegas in 2009, earned two qualifying results on Suppenkasper in California ealier this year and needs only one more. The pair will be in Wellington for the Global circuit.
Laura Graves has not yet made known her goal with Verdades, reserve champion the past three years, as the horse will be 18 years old. Laura has not competed the KWPN gelding since the World Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden last April. The duo led the United States team to bronze at the 2016 Olympics and silver for the team and individually at the World Equestrian Games in 2018. Her two team mates, Kasey on Dublet and Adrienne on Salvino, are expected to work toward Tokyo.
“The World Cup is in our country which is exciting,” Debbie said, “but it comes every year and the Olympics come only once every four years.”
As for the American team for Tokyo, the focus is on the Grand Prix Special. The Grand Prix of up to 60 combinations–including 15 teams of three horses and riders–will determine progression to the Special that will decide the team medals.
Debbie thinks it will take Grand Prix/Special scores of high 70s-80% to have a chance of making the podium.
“I’d like to think we’re still contenders for a medal but I have to say it’s very hard for the U.S. when we look at what goes on in summer over in Europe,” said Debbie who has spent much of the past two decades commuting as a competitor and then a coach. “You hear about all the shows and the scores, they have World Cup qualifiers way before we can start doing any of that.
“I look at the sport that’s happening over in Europe and think, ‘God! you can’t help but feel you’re out of the mix for a while, you’re not in it.’ Just looking from the outside in, we definitely have to get it together to get our goals accomplished.
“Our world is clustered into three months. I think it makes it very difficult because we can’t afford to go Europe three or four times a year. For the people who are coming here they are coming one time and getting three months and they probably don’t have a quarantine system going back into their country. We’re always trying to fight quarantine, when we go to Europe to make it the most beneficial time for us to go.
“We have to really plan our years, not that they don’t. But I think they have a lot more variety of when they can start a horse, when they can given the a break. Ours is pretty black and white unless we have riders who are willing to go to Europe and live which nobody wants to. We have a beauitiful place here.”
The plan after Global is to take short-listed combinations for European shows–possibly Munich, Compiègne, France and Aachen, Germany from about mid-May to early June. The group would return home before heading to Tokyo where dressage is scheduled the last week of July.
Dressage in America has changed substially from just a decade ago when individual sponsors would buy horses for Olympics and world championships. Prices of trained horses has put them out of consideration for many sponsors.
“I think our riders are much more aware of what it takes now to be a competitive country,” she said.
“I’ve got riders trying to buy young horses, some are foals. We have to build a pipeline, somehow. I see a lot of effort going into that by the riders now, which is exciting.
“It might be a few years coming up for them but at least they’re working on it. It’s better than just sitting there and saying, ‘Oh well, I’ve got one.’ We all know that can end tomorrow. For them to start thinking to the future, more is happening now than 10 years ago.”
“They have to, they just have to. That is only way to stay competitive. You’re going to have to go through a few but if they’re determined and not give up they’re going to find that next top Grand Prix horse.”
At the same time, Debbie said she sees “a lot of really amazing young riders–the training that some of them are getting is pretty exciting. I feel many of our young riders are very talented, not always on the horses they’re going to get that international experience (such as school masters) but I think our riders can be compared equally to the rest of the countries. When you look at other countries, it’s that top you hear about. You don’t hear about the ones coming up.”
At the age of 65, Debbie is enjoying another major change in her life.–being a grandmother, though her grand daughter who will be two years old next Febriary is almost 3,000 miles/4,800km away with her son and his wife in the booming high tech community of Boise, Idaho.
“It has been the most rewarding of almost anything in my life,” she said. “I can’t even describe the love you feel for your grand child. I never would have expected it… never!
“The sad thing is I’m here now and they’re there. I will try to find weekends between shows and fly myself to Boise to spend time with them.”