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Show Jumping Opens with Strong U.S. Performance in Athens

US Equestrian Federation

The four-member U.S. show jumping team showed up at Athen’s Markopoulo Equestrian Center ready to tackle the 13-obstacle jump course laid out before them. And that is exactly what they did – and in winning form. Today’s qualifier for the Individual medal saw 77 combinations take on the course, all but two completed it. Ten pairings were able to complete the course without any time faults or time penalties – including, two riders from the U.S. (Peter Wylde and Beezie Madden) and two from Sweden (Malin Baryard and Peder Fredericson). The team from Germany, much anticipated to give the U.S. a run for the Gold, posted none going clear, but two with only 1 point each in time penalties (Ludger Beerbaum and Otto Becker). With four medal contenders from the U.S. at Athens, only three have the possibility of going forward to the Finals. That is if they have a decent Nations Cup. Forty-five riders will make the cut to compete.

Up first for Team USA was one of those clear riders – Peter Wylde, who lives and trains in the Netherlands, and his Holsteiner mare Fein Cera.

There were few concerns with the course for Wylde, but he did say that the double oxers presented a good question for the riders.

“Everybody had had that down a lot…And I did something which bothers me. When it’s like that, I push a little bit and I think I pushed her too hard. But, thank God it didn’t fall down,” he said. “For the rest [of the course], I thought she was brilliant.”

Wylde characterized the course as “difficult, but not crazy difficult.” It didn’t take a lot out of his horse, who handled it all very nicely and smooth. He added, “But, for sure, the volume is going to get turned up. No question.” With the first qualifier over, the jumps are certain to get tougher. This course was nothing like what Wylde described to be the biggest course he’s every jumped – the Individual Finals at the European Championships two years ago. He cautiously noted that the bigger the course, the better the German team jumpers.

Things simply fell into place for the pair, said Wylde, who credits his horse with giving him self-confidence. “It’s an incredible feeling to have such an animal,” he shared.

He also credits his teammates with adding to the swell of confidence, knowing that behind him are three fantastic American horses and riders. “I feel such faith in my teammates. It really is a comforting feeling,” he said.

Going into the Olympic ring for his first time, Wylde was somewhat overwhelmed emotionally, he admitted. Most of his immediate family had made the trip to watch him compete. “I had to, just for a moment, take a deep breath because my eyes got watery and I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ Going into the ring really broke me up.”

The second member of the U.S. team to enter the ring was New Jersey’s Chris Kappler and his Dutch Warmblood stallion Royal Kaliber. The recipient of the 2003 U.S. Equestrian of the Year honors, Kappler was a subjective pick for the U.S. team based on his exceptional record. He did not have to compete in the Selection Trials. In 2003, Kappler and Royal Kaliber were the Pan American Games Gold medalists.

Kappler got a little chopped up in the turns in the wet footing and ended up making a big move at the wall, which presented him a bit flat for the aforementioned double oxers. He picked up one jump rail for four penalty points, setting him at a six-way tie for second place overall in the day (12 other riders ended the day with four faults).

He had great praise for the course and the venue, and complimented the organizers on their achievements. Today’s jump course was just a taste of what was to come according to Kappler. “Bet your dollar that it will be tough. Today he set a course that was tricky, difficult and to put everyone on the same playing field for the next Nations Cup.”

Another steamy Athens morning had presented itself to the riders, but Kappler took it all in good humor, mentioning the humidity back home in New Jersey. “I’m sweating like a dog here,” he laughed, but mentioned that Royal Kaliber was holding up much better than he was.

Third for the U.S., McLain Ward, from New York, and his Belgian Warmblood mare, Sapphire, had only one time penalty on the 94-second time-allowed course.

“My mare felt great, she was very relaxed and jumped the course pretty easy,” said Ward. “I think the course was great – very difficult – but not over the top. I was a little slow, and I need to watch that, but I don’t think that’s such a factor today to have a time fault.”

Ward mentioned that the ground was a little choppy, and the fact that he had a great draw was to his advantage. “Certainly with that many horses on grass, it’s going to get chewed up a little.”

Early on, a trouble spot for some was between the wall and the double oxer according to Ward. Those going later had the benefit of watching those before them and could stop themselves from breaking up too much and then having to really ride strong. “They’re big and very plain and at the end of a long course on a hot day,” he said.

Ward was very vocal in support of his teammates. It was obvious that this was a team that he was excited to be a part of.

“My horse was probably the least experienced [of the U.S. horses], so that was probably the biggest question,” said Ward. “She’s been going well here in Europe and I thought my three teammates were solid and professional and all had great talents underneath them. I felt very confident coming here, and I think everyone else did, too.” A shared work ethic among the team members is also common ground.

New York’s Beezie Madden came last for the U.S. team and she and her Authentic seemingly glided through the course. Though sitting around to ride 70th out the day’s competitors wasn’t her first choice. Once out on the course, any fears were allayed and they went clear.

“I like going early,” she admitted. “To sit around was not great, but once I got on, it felt like normal.” Once on the course, a clear round with no time penalties was her reward.

Madden mentioned that there were some interesting optical illusions to deal with in her eyes. “The course started down the center line on the diagonal with the triple bar – a bit of an optical illusion,” she explained. “As you come around the turn, they [the horses] sight-in on the one that would be on the right side. A little bit easier option was the left side because it was maybe one hole lower, and the inner of the double-verticals was one hole lower. I think it helped line-up the line better.” She said that anyone who jumped the right-hand side had to deal with their horse veering out to the right and they then were forced to come back in to tackle the vertical.

But anyone watching Madden today would have been hard-pressed to find her having much trouble with anything on the course at Markopoulo.

Madden was also enthusiastic about her team and their prospects for a medal. “We’ve been excited ever since the trials about the team we’ve got…We’ve all cohered really well.”

Before she and her teammates can take a place on the medal podium, there is competition to deal with – and it comes in the form of an international cast of riders that are ready to give them their all. Leads among them are German Ludger Beerbaum, Swiss rider Markus Fuchs and Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa.

Of his performance today, Pessoa, who finished on five penalties, said, “I am satisfied. My horse did really well.” A mistake on the oxer put him four points up, plus his time penalty. “I know the Germans and the USA will be ahead because they have better riders and horses,” he said.

Switzerland’s Fuchs was sitting in a 12-way tie for third with his four penalties. Another European rider, Beerbaum, faired better with a single time penalty.

“My horse did really well, but was stressed,” he said. “I think that this is not a key point for the competition. Even with eight faults, you can sleep easily.”

But few will have a good enough night’s sleep until the show jumping competition is done on Friday. Expectations have a way of keeping one up at night, and Team USA has its many fans back home looking forward to seeing them on the medal podium – both in the Individual and Team competitions.