August 19, 2008

The USA pipped Canada for team jumping gold in a thrilling third-round jump-off at Sha Tin Stadium in Hong Kong last night. And Norway climbed all the way up from overnight joint-sixth place to take bronze thanks to a spirited team performance.

The Swiss had to settle for fourth ahead of Germany and The Netherlands in joint-fifth while Great Britain, down to just three team-members due to the loss of John Whitaker and Peppermill, finished sixth.

Canada's Ian Millar and In Style fly to Olympic silver. It was Millar's record-breaking ninth Olympics. © Kit Houghton
As Swedish luck ran out, they plummeted from third to eighth while the Australians slotted into ninth place but the Aussies, also with just three in their side, fought a tremendous battle after pathfinder Peter McMahon broke his collarbone in a fall in the practice ring.

To take a medal with just three riders however is a remarkable feat by any measure. Team Canada's day began with the news that Mac Cone's horse, Ole, would be withdrawn as he was unsound, but nothing was going to kill their hunger for a share of those Olympic medals. "The odds are that you have no chance with a team of just three but you gotta try," said Canadian hero Ian Millar, and try they did, to the very end.

A 13-fault opening effort from Nick Skelton and Russel put the final nail in the British coffin as the competition got under way.

Another track full of questions and surprises faced horses and riders once again - Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens presenting them with flair, colour and creativity.

"It's a difficult track - it was very technical yesterday and even more so today," said Belgium's reigning World Champion Jos Lansink whose stallion Cumano is clearly really enjoying his jumping again after a long lay-off due to injury. "The course builder is using the water fences very cleverly," he pointed out after putting in one of the earliest tours of the course, picking up just two time faults. "The water is going to be a problem for a lot of riders," he added, and he was quite correct.

The first-day joint-leaders from the USA made a good start when McLain Ward's only mistake with Sapphire was at the water, and when Laura Kraut's Cedric put in a spectacular clear they were looking very strong indeed. "Tonight he was completely relaxed," Kraut said afterwards. "We had a mix-up in the practice ring when he thought a shadow was a groundline but things like that don't bother him, it just made him more attentive, and he felt amazing in there. My biggest worry was about the liverpool double but he soared over it. It's hard to believe how much he has come on over the last year. In May 2007 we jumped in the Super League in Rome and it was too much for him but he has decided to peak at the right moment - I'm thrilled with him," she said.

The joint-leaders from Switzerland however were in trouble right away. Pathfinder Christina Liebherr had a nightmare ride with No Mercy who lived up to his name when dragging her at break-neck speed around much of the track and, having hit the oxer at three, put a foot in the water and lowered the oxer at nine she had to pull up in front of the second element of 11 before circling to finish. "He is either a genius or a crazy horse, and today he was a crazy, crazy horse," the rider said in resignation after putting 23 faults on the board.

Team-mate Pius Schwizer meanwhile made an amazing recovery when Nobless M threw in an objection on the approach to the vertical at five, and did well to complete with just five faults this time out.

All eyes were on the Germans who, so surprisingly, were trailing the field after yesterday's opening round but any hope of a rapid climb up the order would be halted by 19 faults for Marco Kutscher when, in an effort to take a sharp check after a strong ride to the water, he stopped Cornet Obolensky in his tracks. Clearly unsettled, the handsome stallion completed, dropping several fences on his way home.

The Australians however were really rising to the challenge and Laurie Lever's excellent four-fault effort with the brave Drossel Dan was followed by a fabulous clear from Edwina Alexander and Itot du Chateau. If last man in, 23-year-old Matt Williams, could hold it together they would be challenging for a medal at the end.

Lying fourth overnight, the Norwegians were also making good progress despite a 12-fault result from pathfinder Stein Endresen when Morten Djupvik and Casino lowered only the second element of the double at fence eight and Geir Gulliksen picked up just five with Cattani. The Dutch were unable to make any real headway, eight faults for Angelique Hoorn and O'Brien and a good five-fault round from Marc Houtzager and Opium followed by an unhappy 27 from Vincent Voorn and Alpapillon-Armanie. And the Swedes, in overnight third, were fading fast too, Peter Eriksson's good opening four-fault result with Jaguar Mail followed by 20 from Lotta Schultz and Calibra and 17 for Helena Lundback and Erbblume - they couldn't claw their way back from there.

The Canadians were blossoming under pressure - Jill Henselwood paving the way with a superb clear, one of just five on the day, from the aptly-named Special Ed and Eric Lamaze keeping them right in the game with just a single mistake, at the second element of the penultimate double, with the big-jumping Hickstead. And as it came down to the closing stages it was clear that the weight of Canadian responsibility would fall on the mature shoulders of nine-time Olympian Ian Millar.

The line-up was already taking shape, the Germans finally finished off when Ludger Beerbaum's All Inclusive stopped when the partnership could not find the distance from the water to the following double to complete with six faults while Australian hopes were finally dashed by 17-fault round from Matt Williams. "I did too much with my horse in the warm-up, and halfway around the course I paid the price," the young man said philosophically.

The Dutch just couldn't stay afloat despite just a single error for Gerco Schroder and Monaco but Norwegian anchorman Tony Andre Hansen produced another fabulous round with Camiro. Hansen has been training with former Irish rider Gerry Mullins for the last six years and he has honed to skills to great effect over the past 12 months - his one time-fault the only addition to the Norwegian scoreline. "I want to thank Gerry a lot," he said today, "he pushed me and pushed me and here we are now - I owe him a great deal," he added.

It was clear that Norway would now take bronze but it took a foot-perfect round from Ian Millar to secure the Canadian position and, if Beezie Madden could leave all the fences up when last to go with Authentic then the Americans would take gold ahead of them. But a foot on the tape at the bogey water ensured a jump-off instead, both teams now sharing a total of 20 faults apiece.

You could cut the air with a knife as McLain Ward led the way in the third and final round, throwing down the gauntlet with the coolest clear from Sapphire over the new track which asked for a strong gallop to the new final oxer, and when Henselwood hit the wall, now fence two, the Canadians began to look vulnerable. Laura Kraut piled on the pressure with an amazing ride with Cedric who also left the fences intact but Lamaze pulled it back for Canada when producing the quickest time, 36.35 seconds, with Hickstead. If Will Simpson made a mistake then it would all fall back on Millar again, but a powerful clear from Carlsson Vom Dach sealed the deal - it was all over and the US held that precious gold while the Canadians had to do with silver. That wasn't really a problem for them though, because they have waited a long, long time for this.

It was an historic Canadian moment because they have not held an Olympic medal since Tom Gayford, Jim Day and Jim Elder took gold in Mexico City in 1968 - a full 40 years ago. And at 61 years of age, the record-breaking Ian Millar was very happy with the result. "I've been riding on Canadian teams for 39 years," he said, "and there have been a lot of good days but the Olympic Games have never gone my way so to be part of this is remarkable. I want to say thanks to my great team and horses and to the team that have been behind us all," he added. Millar was elated, but emotional. He lost his wife, Lynn, to cancer in March and said, "This one's for Lynn". His 34-year-old son, Jonathon, and 31-year-old daughter, Amy, were both in Hong Kong with him. His goal now is for them to be his team-mates in 2012.

"When Mac's horse was out this morning it didn't seem like we had any chance of a medal, and then Jill inspired us all with her great ride. She left us no choice but to have a real go - she set the standard and we had to follow," he said. And, even though he will be 65 when the next Olympic Games are held in 2012, he is looking forward to it already. "I'm going to try again for London - I've picked out the horse already!" he said.

"It's been a bit of a drought", Millar admitted, "but we knew coming here we had the team that could do it if things went our way." Canada has not finished better than ninth in Olympic team show jumping since a fourth-place finish in 1988.

Also very emotional about their achievement, Lamaze is in a four-way tie for the lead in qualifying for the individual medal final on Thursday. Henselwood and Millar are also qualified. All riders enter the individual final with a clean slate and it is contested over two rounds. Canada has just one individual medal in Olympic show jumping history. Michel Vaillancourt won a silver in his hometown of Montreal in 1976. "These Games are coming together just the way we planned," Lamaze said, seeming very optimistic about Thursday.

The Norwegians meanwhile were relishing their bronze, a first-ever jumping prize for their country which has not taken part in the equestrian Olympic contest since 1992. "When we qualified at the Europeans last summer we didn't really believe we could go this far - you dream that it might happen but this, to us, is as good as winning gold!" said Stein Endresen. "Finally we have a team riding at the same level at the same time - and the team spirit has been unbelievable" said Hansen while team manager, Sylve Soderstrand, added with some satisfaction "the team have stuck to the plan we made two years ago, and that is why we are here."

An American triumph, a Canadian moment to remember and for Norway the reward of commitment and the willingness to work together to make the impossible dream into a reality.

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