Heather Blitz On Her Olympic and Pan American Games Experiences

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Heather Blitz and Paragon at the Olympic selection trials. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Heather Blitz spent the better part of a year training, competing and waiting on the sidelines in case she and her Paragon were needed by the United States. As an owner and rider with no deep-pocketed sponsor she had to keep her business going even when she was off representing the United States at the Pan American Games in 2011 and was the traveling reserve at the Olympics in London this summer.

The absences from her business were not only for traveling to, being at the championships and coming home but lengthy periods preparing, competing in the selection trials and weeks of seclusion with the teams for her and her home-bred Danish Warmblood.

Heather, 43, maintained her business in Wellington, Florida, from before the Pan Ams in Guadalajara, Mexico, last October for which she has team gold and indvidual silver medals and then on standby for Olympic dressage the first week of August, hiring extra help to fill in during her lengthy absences.

First, Heather and Paragon, eight years old at the time, qualified durng the 2011 Florida winter circuit for the Pan Am selection trials at Gladstone, New Jersey. Final team training and the Games competition meant it was at least another month before they made it back home.

Although the Pan Ams are at small tour they are a qualifying event for the following year’s Olympics that itself was not important as the U.S. had already secured a place in London but were vital for funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee which is based in part on results.

Then, with limited U.S. high performance horse ranks from which to choose a competitive Olympic team, the goal then became training Paragon (Don Schufro x Pari Lord x Loran) for the huge leap to Grand Prix from small tour by earning enough scores at CDI3* or higher events to qualify for the selection trials. The pair achieved that in five shows over three months on the 2012 Florida winter circuit.

“It was hard to know how to prepare for the trials. especially for me with a young horse,” she told dressage-news.com. “I didn’t want to push him just to be on the team. I felt pretty much on my own–there was not a whole lot of advice what to push him for. I figured I would make the minimum requirement for the trials so I would have more horse for the Games if I made it.”

She did make it as a reserve.

The pair finished sixth in the trials, behind Todd Flettrich also of Wellington and, ironically, Otto, the Danish Warmblood that Heather trained to Grand Prix and competed in the U.S.and Europe before selling the horse as a ride for Todd at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Otto’s owner decided the gelding had given enough and rather than put him through the stress of more transatlantic flights to wait in the wings gave up the reserve slot to Heather and Paragon.

(A horse making it to Olympic Grand Prix team level less than a year after small tour at the Pan Ams as was the case with Heather and Paragon is unusual. It is 38 years since the great Keen, an American Thoroughbred too big for the track and ridden by Californian Hilda Gurney, accomplished that feat for the first time in 1975-76 and then again in 1983-84, winning medals at two Pan Ams and one Olympics.)

Heather Blitz as member of USA gold medal team at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I feel like we didn’t have our best performance at the trials,” Hether said of her performance in Gladstone. “We didn’t peak there.”

Selection trials over, the U.S. squad of Steffen Peters and Ravel, Jan Ebeling and Rafalca and Tina Konyot and Calecto V as the team with Adrienne Lyle and Wizard as the individual combination was given a couple of weeks off. None of the riders wanted their horses to undergo the stress of 1,250 miles (2,000km) each way from Gladstone to Florida or more than twice that to California so they they stayed at Gladstone.

What was already well over two weeks away from home was stretched by U.S. Olympic team preparation and training in seclusion for another seven weeks to Olympic competition the first week of August. Even longer before the horses were back in their stalls at home. A unique factor for these Olympics was the inclusion of Rafalca, owned in part by a prospective First Lady of the United States, that officials believed should be sheltered from media frenzy in a heated election campaign.

Heather appreciated the time with Paragon that she said enabled her to focus on his development as an international Grand Prix competition mount.

The next year, she said, will be used to build strength and consistency in the ring, something she did not have a chance to do in the few months between the Pan Ams and the Olympic qualifications.

The Florida winter circuit is on her schedule for 2013 as it is in her backyard, but she is not likely to go to California for the U.S. national championsips and does not plan to seek one of the two places for North America at the World Cup Final.

“It’s hard for me to imagine doing the World Cup,” she said. “I can’t dig the hole even deeper.”

Heather agrees that representing her nation is an honor and she is willing to make sacrifices.

But the American dressage team preparation was different than U.S. teams in the other Olympic disciplines of jumping and event and of other nations.

The U.S. jumping team format of trials during winter competition series to select a long list with observation shows over the following months ahead of selection is “a really great idea… so someone sees them over a period of time not just one day of competition.”

U.S. dressage, she said, should “start developing teams not six months before games but four years” in advance.

“We should now be nurturing those who stand out,” she said. “We’re talking horses seven, eight, nine years old. There are lots in this country. There should be some kind of umbrella under which to work, a a real plan… to get a dozen of them.

“We don’t necessarily need the clinics, collecting everyone in one place.

“We should formulate a plan for the right riders with the right horses and to have a group looking at how everyone is doing, someone who is in control but not teaching.”