US vaulters fight back to claim gold

October 11, 2010

If you asked the Team USA vaulters how they were feeling this afternoon, they'd answer with a chorus of screams. They feel that good, because they pulled out a come-from-behind win to earn the team gold medal at the Vaulting World Championships, held as part of the World Equestrian Games.


The gold-medal winning US team in action. © Dirk Caremans


© FEI/Kit Houghton
Devon Maitozo, US team leader
Alex Hartl, team leader, Germany (German)

"We really connected today - we looked each other in the eye," said team member and coach Devon Maitozo. "Our horse was just beautiful, and we had the love of the audience with us, which helped. We just were in our bodies today."

On Friday their Freestyle routine fell apart when their horse, Palatine, became anxious in the arena and they had to settle for third place as a result. But today it all came together beautifully, and team's lyrical performance was set to music from Sergei Prokofiev's, with Rosalind Ross and Devon Maitozo playing the lead roles, they rocketed back up the leaderboard to steal gold.

To prepare for Sunday's round, Maitozo said, "We made a different plan for the horse and for ourselves. We took a step back from the intensity of the energy before. We really calmed ourselves down, collected ourselves, and the horse had a longer warm-up but a much more calm warm-up."

The plan worked, and the judges rewarded the US team with the highest freestyle score of the day (8.779), which brought their composite score up to 8.029.

Ross said the ballet was "spiced up" by Maitozo."That's how we strive to set ourselves apart from the rest of the competition, by making vaulting more like a dance performance and a theater performance, not merely gymnastics on horses."

"We want it to be a dance," said Maitozo. "We want it to be a drama of emotion, of movement, elegance - with the horse, not against the horse. We're dancing with the horse, not on the horse."

Other US team members were Blake Dahlgren, Annalise Van Vranken, Mary Garrett, Mari Inouye and Emily Hogye. The team longeur and horse trainer is Carolyn Bland.

The experienced team previously won the 2010 United States Equestrian Federation/American Vaulting Association national title. Members of this team were also on the 2006 World Equestrian Games silver-medal team and the 2008 bronze-medal team in the World Vaulting Championships. Maitozo was the individual gold medalist at the 1998 World Equestrian Games.

"I would say this is probably one of the most experienced teams of all time," Maitozo said. "Cumulatively, the years that this team has been vaulting is well over 120 years. We have a long relationship."

Asked what felt best about this great home-side result, Maitozo replied: "The most amazing thing is to share this moment with my team and our horse, Palatine". The Westphalian gelding was found by Maitozo on a horse-hunting trip to Germany in 2007.

"He is an elegant, accepting, calm and loving horse and I took to him immediately when I saw him" he said. He was not chosen as a team ride, however - Palatine was initially selected for use in individual competition.

"He's narrow, so I never imagined him being a team horse, but then my other horse had an accident and he had to be put down so Palatine was the only horse left and he accepted it when we tried using him for the team - I was pretty surprised!" Maitozo said.

Longeur Carolyn Bland, talking about the essential qualities of a good vaulting horse and about Palatine - "the horse needs to be able to carry himself well under saddle so he can do it on a long-line. I've been working with Palatine for two years - he's not necessarily Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's more of a slimline horse and it has taken time to put muscle on him, but he's really strong now".

There is a significant age gap between the US team members - Maitozo is 34 while the youngest team member is 14-year-old Emily Hogye.

"This is one of the great things about our sport," Maitozo said. "When we are together we support each other like a family. Vaulting has this unique aspect to it." Asked how it felt to be a gold medal winner at such a tender age, Hogye replied "it's kinda cool to be on a team with people who are so experienced because you learn a lot - not just about vaulting, but about everything else in life!".

Germany, which had been leading going into Sunday's freestyle, suffered a fall in the performance but still had a strong enough composite score (8.010) to earn the silver medal.

Team member Michaela Hohlmeier said, "It's just sad, [but] it's sports, so it can happen."

Germany vaulted aboard Adlon, a 15-year-old Brandenburger, and the longeur was Alexander Hartl.

Austria turned in a vigorous freestyle performance, set to the music of Cirque du Soleil, to earn the team bronze medal (7.990).

Team member Daniela Penz said "it was teamwork" that resulted in the team's best freestyle performance this year. "Everyone wants a medal - and gets a medal!" she said.

The Austrians were vaulting on Elliot 8 and, and the longeur was Klaus Haidacher.

The Swiss team placed fourth ahead of France in fifth and Brazil in sixth. A total of 12 nations competed.

Vaulting has been a major crowd-puller at the Kentucky Horse Park, and the sport looks set to go from strength to strength in the US having received extensive coverage throughout the week in the media. Maitozo said the benefit of highlighting it through inclusion in the Games has been immeasurable - "this has been an amazing opportunity to put our sport on the map in the US" he said.

The Austrians, last to go in today's competition, were delighted when taking bronze. Team manager Klaus Haidacher said the target was to take a medal - "it has been very expensive bringing six horses and 30 people to the Games, but we go away with a big smile now that we have succeeded!" he said. Their routine was themed around the Cirque du Soleil - "we like the music and we like the performance of the Cirque du Soleil because it is exciting and entertaining," said Austrian team member Daniela Penz.

The stats

12 nations competed in the Vaulting Team Championships The US team made a great recovery today after their routine fell apart due to an anxious moment for their horse, Palatine, in Friday's first Freestyle competition. The youngest member of the gold medal winning US team was 14 year old Emily Hogye, the oldest was 34 year old Devon Maitozo.


The winning US vaulting team is flanked by silver medalists Germany, at left, and bronze medalists Austria. © FEI/Kit Houghton