USA’s Olympic Bronze Total Team Effort
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 14, 2016–The United States return to the Olympic dressage medals podium to collect a bronze for the first time since 2004 was the ultimate in team efforts by three rookies and one veteran of the world’s biggest stage.
The scores of the four American riders and horses were the highest ever for the United States over two days of Grand Prix and the medal-deciding Grand Prix Special in a remarkable display of different combinations delivering results when needed at critical times in case their team mates faltered.
Laura Graves of Geneva, Florida with Verdades that she has nurtured from a foal; Allison Brock of Wellington, Florida on Rosevelt that she has developed from a youngster; Kasey Perry-Glass also of Wellington learning the ropes herself as she took Dublet through small tour to start Grand Prix just this year, and Steffen Peters of San Diego, California who has dominated American dressage for most of the past decade and made Legolas an Olympic medalist to give him his second bronze.
Team spirit in what many purport to be an individual sport was possibly most apparent among the Americans and the two other teams on the medals podium–Germany that has built a gold medal juggernaut over decades but still gets excited about winning, and Great Britain where Carl Hester has become a magician producing the headline act when required–rider, coach and incomparable wit. The usually powerful Dutch with the retirement of the 19-year-old Parzival within a couple of minutes of the first competition ride in Rio became a reflection of Germany’s sad Totilas spectacle at the 2015 European Championships.
The Americans bathed in the Olympic glow that had been absent in the past two Games. In 2008 the U.S. was out of the team competition when a horse was disqualified after an illegal substance was found and in 2012 the entire American equestrian team had the worst results in 52 years.
That did not happen this time with U.S. dressage earning team bronze with individual still to come (only Valegro, Weihegold, Desperados and Showtime and who knows what other horses stand in the way) and Phillip Dutton’s individual bronze in eventing.
After living, training and competing together in Europe for three months led by Robert Dover, the U.S. team coach who also helps Steffen Peters while Debbie McDonald works with Laura and Kasey and Michael Barisone with Ali, the squad appears to an outsider to enjoy the camaraderie more than ever. Debbie went to the Olympic dance twice with Brentina and other championships numerous times, while Michael among his other achievements was traveling reserve to Hong Kong in 2008 and by all accounts made himself indispensable to the team.
They watch each other’s backs, as explained by Kasey, the youngest at 28 years of age who produced a score of 75.229 per cent on Dublet in the Grand Prix but under pressure had a bobble in the Special that was awarded 73.235 per cent, a result she described as “a bummer.”
“We worked our way back up to a 73,” she said, “that’s what a team is for. I did really good in the Grand Prix and Ali did really good in the Special. We help each other out, so that was very important.”
Ali Brock, also on her first championship team but groomed for Sue Blinks with Flim Flam of Olympic and World Games medal successes owned by Fritz Kundrun who with his wife, Claudine owns Rosevelt, played her role for the team perfectly in the Grand Prix Special.
“I knew I needed to ride clean and go full power if I could,” she explained. “I did the best I could. I also had a goal to move myself ahead of Edward (Gal) and we did that. I felt, ‘I’ve just done my job, now they’re primed to hit it really hard’.”
Steffen Peters on Legolas, a partnership that experienced the World Games in 2014 and won both team and individual gold at the Pan American Games in 2015, were the third combination to go for the United States.
Steffen, the “old” man of the team at 51 and at his fourth Olympics, had an improbable start to the ride on Legolas.
“Coming down the centerline my belt popped,” he said. “I had two big plates of spaghetti because I like to fuel up with a lot carbs. The belt was bouncing around the whole time. Legolas lost a little balance in the left half pass. I knew right there after that one mistake another mistake in the flying changes I wouldn’t be able to deliver the score of 74.5 which we needed to be ahead of the Dutch riders.
“You have to stay extremely focused but not go crazy to make up for that. I just felt from there on I could not make a mistake. Legolas delivered after that exactly what I was hoping for. He delivered with a team score.”
Laura knew the pressure was on her to assure bronze but didn’t know the score she needed when she rode her 14-year-old KWPN gelding into the arena.
“The horse I had he also wanted to win so that makes a really big difference,” she said.
“We’ve got this new thing. He’s changed a lot in the past six months to a year. Now when we take his wraps off he’s just wild. At first I was a little afraid he would get super excited. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to ride through a test,’ and then I learned how to ride through that test and makes it that much better.
“So now we know what he likes to do. Now I pull his wraps off, we have this yeehaw moment and he comes in and does his job. If there’s atmosphere he loves that, he loves the stadium. I usually know before I enter the arena just how he feels going around the outside, I can get a pretty good idea of how light hes going to be on his feet and I had a really good feeling.”
Laura was earning plenty of points in the first half in case the duo made a mistake later there should be enough in the bank.
“The trot tour is really strong for him so I just rode the best I could and pushed like I felt I could—he let me.”
It was obvious to spectators she had brought her A-game as she had in in the Freestyle to place fifth at the World Games in 2014.
Steffen Peters was sitting in the stands with Michael Barisone watching Laura and Verdades ride down the final centerline.
“There were two 50-year-old guys crying their eyes out,” he said. “It was just amazing. We knew right there even if the last piaffe/passage didn’t work out we had the medal. It was so incredible. I’ll never forget that.”