Steffen Peters Two Decades from 1st Olympics Preparing for 4th Games
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June 16, 2016
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
When Steffen Peters won a place with Udon for his first Olympics two decades ago he put a “huge burden” of so much pressure on himself to not let down the American team that he lost a lot of weight and could not eat much for weeks afterwards even though the pair contributed to the bronze medal performance.
The experience that came 11 years after he moved to the United States from his native Germany “was incredibly nerve racking and I was so happy that it worked out,” he recalls.
“Nowadays, the pressure is there, but I’m not losing any more weight and I’m not losing sleep.”
Steffen, now 51 years old and 20 years on from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, is in Europe with his two mounts, Legolas and Rosamunde, that are on the squad with six other riders and seven horses that are seeking to earn one of the fourth spots on the United States team for the Olympics that open in Rio de Janeiro in seven weeks.
He’s as excited as ever about the American group he is part of in Europe that, except for fellow German-born and first-time 1996 team mate Günter Seidel who also has adopted California as home, will be Olympic rookies.
“There’s no doubt there’s momentum,” he told dressage-news.com while cautioning against predictions.
“This comes from our younger riders… looking at Laura Graves and Kasey Perry… how exciting is that we have horses that can score over 77 per cent. I think that momentum is really something that can get the whole nation going.”
The U.S. team will be chosen after next week’s CDIO5* Nations Cup and CDI3* at Rotterdam, one of the premier horse shows in Europe. In addition, tension will be high as the four horses and riders for Australia’s Olympic team will be competing in their team final event, it will also provide a guide to the Dutch team and possibly clarify the fourth spot for Great Britain,.
The Nations Cup team consists of Steffen and Legolas, ranked No. 7 in the world and the highest scoring American combination this year; Laura Graves and her Verdades, 13th ranked in the world, reigning U.S. Grand Prix Champions, star performers at the 2014 World Games and 2015 Pan Ams; Kasey Perry-Glass and Dublet that became the pair to watch after winning the Nations Cup Grand Prix in France in May, just five months after starting Grand Prix, and Shelly Francis and Doktor. Allison Brock and Rosevelt likely would have been selected for the team based on their scores but as riders could compete only one horse in each of the Grand Prix Shelly with two horses had to compete one in the Nations Cup and the other in the 3*.
Steffen has been the dominant rider for America in the past decade–2008 and 2012 Olympics; team bronze at the 2006 World Games and two individual bronze medals at Kentucky four years later; 2009 World Cup champion, and 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games team and individual golds.
Despite his success in the years since, he has vivid memories of the Atlanta Olympics.
“I have to admit I was incredibly nervous,” he recalls. “I remember the last centerline in Gladstone when Udon won the Freestyle (at the Festival of Champions) and I was assured a spot on the team.
“I celebrated for five minutes with my family that was there at the time but, to be honest, the next thought in my mind was, “Oh s**t I’m representing the team!” I felt this huge burden on my shoulders. I can’t tell you how happy I was that Udon’s score supported the team for a bronze medal.
“Just to give you an idea I easily lost eight pounds (3.6kg) before the Olympics and some more weight during the Gams. I had a hard time eating and even afterwards I still remember being able to eat only very small portions because my stomach was not used to a lot of food. It was incredibly nerve racking and I was so happy that it worked out.”
Lila and Bob Kommerstad that owned Udon bought more horses for Steffen and Laurelyn Browning with Floriano at the 2006 WEG. Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang bought Ravel followed by Legolas and Rosamunde, and Jen and Bruce Hlavacek with Weltino’s Magic have all enabled Steffen to compete at least one horse in the international arena every year.
Ravel established Steffen as one of the world’s leading rider, coming within a fraction of a point of winning an individual medal at the 2008 Olympics, becoming only the second American (the other was Debbie McDonald on Brentina) to be World Cup champions, in Las Vegas in 2009 and rising to No. 2 in the world.
Although it had taken him a lifetime–he was 43 years old in 2008–“it felt like it happened overnight,” he said. “All of that happened rather quickly. I still remember looking back and feeling so grateful to incredible horses and incredible owners who put me there.”
He’s still surprised when strangers come up to him at airports among other places and congratulate him for his contribution to American dressage.
“It takes me by surprise. I’m not a soldier who fights for the United States in the Middle East… far from that. But it I appreciate it so much. It makes you realize the last 10 years have been absolutely fantastic.”
Although the United States did not extend into 2008 and 2012 the podium placings of the previous three Olympics, Steffen said: “The good thing is this year everything looks quite a bit better.”
Whether it will result in a medal in Rio, he cautions, “if you want to predict the future you have to create the future. That’s something we have to do in Rotterdam. Anybody who’s speculating are basing their findings on facts that are not there yet. We need to compete as a team and we need to deliver as a team. We get a chance to do this in Rotterdam and at Aachen
“Even afterwards we need to be extremely careful with predictions. We all know how quickly things can change in this sport. I think it’s important to remain humble and watch other nations very respectfully.”
He admits, though, there is a sense of “incredible momentum” and team spirit among the Americans that he says he takes his hat off to the enthusiasm, being everywhere around-the-clock as well as fund-raising at an unprecedented level by Robert Dover, the six-time Olympian who is team coach and chef d’equipe.
Most of the American riders work with their own coaches–Laura Graves and Verdades and Kasey Perry-Glass and Dublet with Debbie McDonald, Allison Brock and Rosevelt with Michael Barisone, while Steffen said he and Robert have worked out a “perfect understanding.”
“He tells me what he’d like to see but not necessarily tell me how to do it” he said. “That works absolutely perfectly for me. It’s been a very good training relationship.”
For the Americans that are selected for the team, most will be absent from home for as long as three months by the time dressage is completed at the Olympics.
Although it’s the longest time away from home for an American team, Steffen said that before he flew to Europe he was trying to wrap his mind around the schedule.
“As soon as I got here, seeing how every single rider and horse combination did in France,” he said, “it switched very quickly into show mode. I was motivated by my team mates. The two months remaining are long but exciting at the same time.”
Some of the American squad arrived in Europe in early May after the intensive winter circuits in Florida and California to prepare for the Nations Cup in France. The CDI4* in Roosendaal, Netherlands followed and Rotterdam will decide the team. With six weeks to the start of competition at Rio, the World Equestrian Festival at Aachen, Germany in mid-July may be added to the schedule.