Great Britain won its first Olympic dressage medal at Greenwich Park on Tuesday at the London 2012 Games – and the host nation made it the best colour possible.
Cheers reverberated around Greenwich Park for the second time in as many days as Carl Hester, Laura Bechtolsheimer and Charlotte Dujardin secured a long-awaited victory and the gold medal.
The trio’s unprecedented achievement came just 24 hours after their jumping counterparts emerged triumphant following a nail-biting contest.
This is Britain’s first ever Olympic dressage medal and it also made Team GB the most successful British team since 1908 as it was the team’s 20th gold of the Games.
The British team finished top of the standings after the Grand Prix Special round, with Germany taking silver and the Netherlands finishing with the bronze.
The gold is a career-crowning moment for veteran rider Hester, 45, who has now contested four Olympic Games.
He set a new Olympic record with Tuesday’s test on his horse, Uthopia, only to have it beaten by Dujardin, his protege.
“We’ve done what we’ve wanted to do, it’s been a very stressful time for me through this whole thing,” Hester said.
“Obviously Charlotte relishes this whole thing, it’s an absolute joy to her to be here and she sleeps like a baby at night, whereas I get up at 1.30am like I did this morning thinking about how the day’s going to go.”
Dujardin, who has made her Olympic Games debut at London 2012, was the final British rider to compete on 10-year-old Valegro – bringing the British team their gold.
Speaking of her pride in her mount, she added: “He is a once in a lifetime horse, he is unbelievable, just very special.”
Britain started the day with the narrowest of margins over rivals Germany of just 0.56% so the mission was to out-score each of their riders.
The top seven teams from the Grand Prix that took place last Thursday and Friday qualified for today’s Grand Prix Special along with the leading 11 individuals and, first into the ring, it was German individual Anabel Balkenhol who set the early target with a score of 73.062 from Dablino. That was swept aside as the second tranche group of riders took their turn, US team-members Steffen Peters and Ravel leading the way into the lunch-break when racking up 76.254.
Germany’s first team rider Dorothee Schneider riding Diva Royal put up a 77.571% in the specifically designed, more technically demanding Grand Prix Special test to give them a good solid start.
She was followed by Hester and Uthopia to get the British challenge under way. Their performance was breath-taking with the extended trot work a highlight, giving them a score of 80.571%, which set a new Olympic GP Special record.
This partnership took team gold and double individual silver at last year’s FEI European Championships, but they had been through a dip in form in recent months. They only started to find it again in recent months, but 45-year-old Hester is a veteran of the game and went into the ring today with all guns blazing.
“You have to be bold to get eight, nines and tens, otherwise you are not going to get high scores,” he said after forging the new lead with a test full of his trademark energy and flair.
Uthopia powered through extended trot and canter changes. Hester’s style is all about freedom of movement, allowing the horse to carry the rider rather than the other way around, and he demonstrated it to perfection once again today with a lovely forward-thinking ride.
“I was really, really pleased with that; I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve lacked some confidence coming into this,” Hester said.
“I’ve only ridden the test once [in competition at Fritzens, Austria] and the score wasn’t so good so to come here, to better the mark by 5% and here of all places is amazing. The horse is the same here as in the arena at home and I can’t tell you what a comfort it is to have that.”
Seven-time Olympian Anky van Grunsven was the first of the Dutch team to go with the veteran Salinero and they scored 74.794% which kept the team behind the leaders.
Kristina Sprehe was next to go for Germany with the 12-year-old stallion Desperados who scored 76.254, but when Team GB’s second-line rider, Laura Bechtolsheimer, bettered that with a mark of 77.873 with Mistral Hojris then things were definitely going Britain’s way.
It was a chance for Bechtolsheimer to settle a score with Sprehe as the German rider had goten the better of her in Dortmund in the Special.
“The old Alf’s back, he felt fantastic; he gave me the performance of a young horse which makes me feel really emotional. He felt fantastic and even though we had a few costly mistakes I was so pleased,” Bechtolsheimer said.
“I feel so privileged to be part of the evolution of dressage, today has been so special. The crowd – there’s nothing like it, it’s amazing to have all those people behind you.”
Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill brought the German challenge to a close with a lovely test that was rewarded with 78.937, but as Dujardin set off with Valegro it was already clear that only a disaster could prevent the host nation from taking the gold. And she didn’t disappoint.
She started out as a horse-crazy youngster, leaving school early to pursue her dreams of a life in the horse world and working her way through a series of jobs as groom and rider until, one day, Hester sat on a six-year-old horse she had produced.
He had spotted it on a “talent day” when young horses were being viewed by prospective buyers, “and I asked if I could ride it,” he explained, “I could feel that it was very well trained considering its age and experience and I told her she had done a great job,” he explained. The story goes that Dujardin went to work for Hester for 10 days and has been there ever since. “What she has that makes her a great rider is feel, and an amazing temperament,” Hester said.
Dujardin, 27, who has been riding at Grand Prix level for only 18 months, was the world record holder for this test, so her confidence would have been high. On Valegro, she rode a mature, perfectly presented test with just the smallest of errors.
The extended trot was breath-taking – indeed 23,000 seemed to hold their breath throughout the test! Great piaffe and passage work was well rewarded by the seven judges. 81.905% flashed up on the board and the crowd went wild, the gold was Britain’s.
By the time she’d come out of the arena, it was announced that her score had been revised to 83.286%! A huge score; enough to take the Olympic record from her mentor, Carl Hester, but not enough to overtake her world record.
“My legs were like jelly, I was more nervous in there; I didn’t ride like I knew I could but he still felt really good. It’s so surreal but it was the ultimate dream to get here and win gold; Valegro’s the horse of a lifetime,” Dujardin said.
It was also enough to give Britain gold. Previously, the dressage team’s highest ever placing was fifth so to win a medal of any colour is a huge step in the evolution of the sport in Britain.
Individually, Richard Davison had to cope with a spooky and unsettled Artemis. The Florestan gelding had to wait to enter and then had the crowd moving back to their seats following the lunch interval and it unnerved him as he entered the electric arena. Davison did manage to get some beautiful work from the horse for a final score of 70.524%.
The Germans were gracious in defeat. As Chef d’Equipe, Klaus Roeser explained, the sport in the country that has been so dominant for so long is going through a time of change. “This is a new young group of riders, and it’s very easy to work with them, they are very professional but nice young ladies, and they are really working together as a team,” he said.
Langehanenberg, 30, backed that up, saying “yes, we are a real team, a great team, and we have been having a great time here in London! We are new to the Olympic Games and we have come here with fresh horses but we are really happy and proud with this result!”
There was a poignant moment when Dorothee Schneider talked about her lovely 10 year old mare Diva Royal. ”She is a very positive character and knows how to present herself going into the arena, she grows 10 centimetres bigger – she is a diva but in a positive way!” she said.
But tears welled up in her eyes as she explained that the mare will return to her owners in two days’ time and that Thursday’s Freestyle will be the last time she rides her.
Two of the British horses may also be moving home in the not-too-distant future, according to Hester. “I’ve had Uthopia for six years and the plan was always to ride him at the Olympic Games and then he would be sold. I imagine that will happen now, but I’d rather dwell on the fact that both of these people who own these horses (Uthopia and Valegro) kept them for us for the Olympics. I’d like to say thank you. First though they’ll be going home with us on Friday and will go out in the field for a holiday.”
Hester hails from Sark, in the Channel Islands, and the tiny island will now proudly paint its only postbox gold, as the hometown of every British gold medal winner is doing.
Bechtolsheimer, whose grandfather had travelled from Switzerland to see her on this very special day, paid tribute to the support of the crowd that has boosted every British team effort since the Games began and, asked what it feels like to be a gold medallist, said “I’ve been asked this question so many times and finally being able to answer seems bizarre!” she said.
“It’s very emotional. I always thought that to come here and win any medal would be amazing, but to win gold … it’s an incredible feeling. We are very proud of each other and of our horses.”
Now the leading contenders must focus on Thursday’s Freestyle Final which will decide the individual Olympic champion. And it’s not just the British that are looking ahead to that, the Germans and Dutch are too. “I can’t wait for it,” said Langehanenberg, “I love it and so does my horse!” while Adelinde Cornelissen said with a hint of a warning, “Parzival is in great shape, and I know we can do a little better than today.”
Looking towards Thursday’s Freestyle competition for the individual medals, Dujardin finished top of the leader boards with Cornelissen in second with Parzival and Hester just behind – these were the only three riders to break 80% in the Special. Bechtolsheimer is fifth so all three team members go through, but Davison didn’t quite make the cut but he would be unable to compete anyway as only three riders from each nation go through.
|1||226||DUJARDIN C||VALEGRO||83.286 Q||+|
|2||236||CORNELISSEN A||PARZIVAL||81.968 Q||+|
|3||227||HESTER C||UTHOPIA||80.571 Q||+|
|4||229||LANGEHANENBERG H||DAMON HILL||78.937 Q||+|
|5||224||BECHTOLSHEIMER L||MISTRAL HOJRIS||77.794 Q||+|
|6||230||SCHNEIDER D||DIVA ROYAL||77.571 Q||+|
|=7||254||PETERS S||RAVEL||76.254 Q||+|
|=7||231||SPREHE K||DESPERADOS||76.254 Q||+|
|9||216||ZU SAYN – WITTGEN.||DIGBY||75.730 Q||+|
|10||237||GAL E||UNDERCOVER||75.556 Q||+|
|11||219||MUNOZ DIAZ JM||FUEGO||75.476 Q||+|
|12||239||VAN GRUNSVEN A||SALINERO||74.794 Q||+|
|13||245||CARVALHO G||RUBI||74.222 Q||+|
|14||246||KITTEL P||SCANDIC||74.079 Q||+|
|15||248||VILHELMSON SILFVEN||DON AURIELLO||74.063 Q||+|
|16||213||KASPRZAK A||DONNPERIGNON||73.794 Q||+|
|17||205||MAX-THEURER V||AUGUSTIN||73.619 Q||+|
|18||233||TRUPPA V||EREMO DEL CASTEGNO||73.127 Q||+|
|20||247||TELDE M||SANTANA||72.270 R||+|
|21||255||VAN OLST A||CLEARWATER||72.016 R||+|
|22||221||KANERVA E||SPIRIT||71.889 R||+|
|23||217||BARBANCON MESTRESM||PAINTED BLACK||71.556 R||+|
|24||210||HOLZER A||BREAKING DAWN||71.317 R||+|
|25||252||KONYOT T||CALECTO V||70.651||+|
|29||220||MARTIN DOCKX J.||GRANDIOSO||69.286||+|
|30||222||LINDH M||MAS GUAPO||69.016||+|
|32||238||VAN DER MEER P||UZZO||67.444||+|