Laura Graves & Verdades On USA Championships, 2016 Olympics
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
WELLINGTON, Florida, Dec. 8, 2015–Laura Graves will ride Verdades into the competition arena Wednesday “thinking about personal bests and about winning” the United States championships with memories still alive of her 2014 Festival of Champions debut that were in doubt because she didn’t know her scores were good enough to qualify.
But for Debbie McDonald, the Olympic and World Games medal winner and first ever American to hold aloft the World Cup who was her coach, she might have given up pursuing her dreams after a last ditch qualifier did not work out. The pair placed 10th in the CDI Grand Prix at Lexington, Kentucky just weeks before the national championships.
“Do I even drive north or turn around and go back to Florida?” Laura, now 28 years old, recalled of the Kentucky event that she talked about with dressage-news.com.
Laura had spent the winter and all the money she had and more leaving her base in the Orlando area of Florida to drive 200 miles (320km) south to Wellington to show off the KWPN gelding that her parents had bought as a yearling from a video sent from a Dutch horse dealer.
Living at the time in Vermont, a northeastern state bordering Canada known for 19th century covered bridges, maple syrup and winter sports, Laura developed Verdades into a dressage horse then moved to Florida and close to Wellington as the new heart of American dressage.
She and Verdades put in a strong effort at the 2014 Global circuit, she said, but left broke though “thinking this is going so well after some really intensive training. This is it. I’m going to blow them away in Kentucky.”
“Life has a funny way of putting one on their heels,” Laura said. “I had one of the lowest scores ever. it bummed me out and put me out of the top 15 for Gladstone (the championships).”
While she thought about going home, Debbie McDonald told her: “No, just drive to New Jersey and do it.”
Laura pointed her horse trailer to New Jersey, she said, and along the way learned she had squeaked into the championship lineup.
“I thought at the time, ‘I still think this horse is good and maybe I’m alright. If things work out I might make the top eight’.”
Laura and Verdades did better, runner-up to Steffen Peters and Legolas.
She comes into the current championships that get underway at the Global Dressage Festival grounds Wednesday with 17 combinations competing in the Grand Prix and seven in the Intermediaire championship.
Steffen and Legolas who won the 2014 title for the third straight year are back to defend their title. The rider has also brought Rosamunde, the spectacular eight-year-old mare, to be a candidate for championship honors.
Looking back to the 2014 Festival of Champions, Laura’s success sent her on the U.S. team to the World Games in Normandy, France placing fifth and the highest American combination in the Freestyle.
The 2015 World Cup Final followed then more training with Debbie in Idaho thanks to financial support from the international financial services company, Deloitte.
Highlight of 2015 was capturing team gold and individual silver medals at the Pan American Games to earn the United States a start at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next summer.
As a correspondent covering Laura and Verdades, now 13 years old, Laura appears to be as grounded as ever. She does not expect success, but when it comes accepts it as a result of a talented horse, hard work, training and support. The support of her parents and her partner, Curt, as well as sponsors have been crucial in helping achieve her goals.
Her focus is on Verdades and those who have helped her get to the top tier of the sport.
Laura and Verdades are ranked 15th in the world, according to the latest International Equestrian Federation standings. At the time of the 2014 Festival of Champions the duo was ranked 133rd.
“To be thinking about personal bests and about winning,” she said, “is not even realistic.”
On the way to becoming the second ranked American partnership, she has become a member of the top group of riders in the world–“last year I was a stranger. Now I’ve traveled with these people.”
Superstars like Isabell Werth of Germany embrace her into the elite cadre, congratulating her results and introducing Laura to fellow competitors on victory gallops.
As Laura prepares for the national championships, she is also thinking ahead to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival at these same show grounds in Wellington.
Her goals are to qualify for the World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden at the end of March. Her first World Cup was in Las Vegas last April.
After the World Cup, the pair will return to the United States for a couple of months before going to Europe to compete with the squad of Americans for selection of the team of four horses and riders that will go to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro directly from Europe.
Meantime, she is putting “Diddy,” as she calls Verdades, through a program of interval training to focus on fitness.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “I sometimes train her for 30 minutes and think, ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’. I gallop for three minutes, then walk for 40 seconds, then gallop for three minutes. We do cavalettis once a week.
“We’re only schooling. We can’t work on it so hard, it can’t be too much. We want the horse to be better but we don’t want to be greedy.”
How has success changed Laura?
“I don’t know if I’ve changed. I think a little bit of change is typical but I am who I am.
“I love the way I live. I love the way I approach this sport.
“If I allowed some of this success or attention to change me I wouldn’t be me
“I didn’t get into this sport to be famous.
“I’m here because I love horses. I like being with my horses, I like being in the barn, with our dogs, being at home. I’m a real home body.
“I’ll take what I have. I’m so happy with the way things have turned out.”
Schedule for Wednesday: