SA's Adrienne Sternlicht is crying right now. But if you've been keeping an eye on the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, you'll know that those tears are tears of joy. Alongside her teammates - Devin Ryan, Laura Kraut, reserve rider Beezie Madden, and her coach and mentor, McLain Ward - she was part of making history within the sport of show jumping. And in this case, history-making comes with a gold medal.
Team USA takes gold at the World Equestrian Games. (From left to right - McLain Ward, Adrienne Sternlicht, Laura Kraut, Devin Ryan)
In a competition where scores come down to hundredths of seconds, a jump-off for gold is almost unfathomable. But like we've seen time and time again here in Tryon, North Carolina, when it comes to the WEG, nothing is impossible. Sweden and the United States emerged from the final round of team competition tied for first, and an unprecedented jump off - all four participating members of each team going head to head in a battle royale - was in store. Luckily, course designer Alan Wade had a jump-off course on hand in case of this (very unlikely) situation, and just to further amp up the fervent crowd, it was one that invited a whole lot of speed.
"This is our sport at its best. The sport doesn’t get any better than [this]" - Robert Ridland, USA Chef D'Equipe
An electric crowd buzzed with palpable energy under the blazing southern sun, hotly anticipating a showdown unlike any seen in recent history. With both teams sporting a mix of seasoned veterans and young up-and-comers, it was truly anyone's game - and all eight riders came ready for a fight.
And fight they did - down to the last two seconds.
Henrik von Eckermann and Toveks Mary Lou.
But before this epic battle came a full day of tough competition - the leaderboard shifting and changing consistently as the world's best riders navigated the course, which managed to effortlessly balance delicate design with imposing 1.65m fences.
"I’m so proud of that and to be an American today. This is truly who we are." - McLain Ward
Round two, day three of competition began later in the afternoon than the previous two days, leaving no horse/rider pair safe from the rising North Carolina heat. The trials of yesterday's first team qualification saw the Top 10 nations and Top 60 individuals advance to round two today. The first wave of athletes to take to the new course was the 23 sole individual competitors. Among them, the overnight leader, Lorenzo de Luca of Italy.
Lorenzo de Luca and Irenice Horta.
Lorenzo and the 10-year old Belgian Warmblood mare Irenice Horta, owned by Stephex Stables, had an unfortunate four faults but still find themselves within the top five heading into Sunday's final.
Today's course was, by rider accounts, less technical, but nevertheless proved nearly as difficult as the tracks that came before.
"We expected a bit of everything. [It's a] big course, a really long course, 14 jumps [with] big oxers [that were] really wide," De Luca says of today's course. "Luckily, we have a day off [tomorrow] so that the horses can recover a little bit. Alan is building for a championship, I think he's doing a great job."
Max Kühner and Chardonnay 79.
Max Kühner of Austria, who laid down one of the best rides of the day on Thursday, followed it up in style today, producing another clear with the 11-year old Holsteiner stallion Chardonnay 79 to sit in tied first with Germany's Simone Blum.
"I say ride step-by-step, so I [rode] from the beginning, first class, and then the second and third. So far, it's [gone] really well and now we have the final's first round and hopefully the second."
Other notable clear individual riders were Nicola Phillipaerts, Jos Verlooy, and Danielle Goldstein.
Dani, who shot straight to the top of the leaderboard early on with a smashing clear round aboard her 12-year old AES mare Lizziemary, now finds herself among the top three individuals who will return for world title glory on Sunday.
"Alan is building for a championship, I think he's doing a great job" - Lorenzo de Luca
As the final individuals completed their rounds, attention was turned to the battle of the nations. With less than a point separating them [0.95], the initial face-off looked to be between Switzerland and USA, but as we've so often seen, medals can be won and lost at the drop of a hat or more appropriately, the drop of a rail.
The gold eventually seemed to belong to Sweden or the USA, with Germany close behind. With the final American pair McLain Ward and Clinta dropping a rail, it was time for Mr. Wade to pull that jump off-course out of his bag of tricks.
Peder Fredricson and H&M Christian K.
When the time came to jump off for gold and glory, the teams kept pace with each other - clear matching clear, and just a single rail for each team, during the rides of veteran Swedish rider Malin Bayard-Johnsson and new kid on the block, Adrienne. Clear rounds by WEG first-timer Devin Ryan and veteran Laura Kraut - who provided clutch rounds twice in today's competition - set the stage for an American victory, although each was closely matched by their Swedish counterpart.
In the end, it once again all came down to McLain Ward aboard the crowd favorite, the ultra-careful Clinta. With just two seconds to spare, McLain clinched the victory for the USA with a masterful turn and jump to the last oxer - thank goodness the man performs well under pressure.
McLain Ward and Clinta.
"It was unbelievable," remarks Team USA Chef d'Equipe Robert Ridland, just after cracking a joke that McLain 'could've made it a lot easier on all of us' if he'd just left the fences up in his first round today. "To start with, this is our sport at its best. The sport doesn’t get any better than [this] - I think Adrienne said it best, she said 'let’s not wake up from this dream.'"
USA Chef d'Equipe Robert Ridland.
While Laura Kraut has been part of many a victorious team, this particular experience was something to log in the record books. "To be here in our own country and to win against such great competitors [is amazing]," she exclaims, a huge smile across her face. "[It] was hard fought all the way to the last ride. It was amazing for our sport - I don’t know if we’ll ever see something like this again."
Laura Kraut and Zeremonie.
While each victory is special, to be a part of an event that will go down in history is a unique opportunity. When the elements come together just right - as they did today in Tryon - magic happens, and it won't be something that the riders from the United States, Sweden, and Germany will soon forget.
"I’ve been going on and off crying tears of joy," says Adrienne, tearing up again as she talks about the monumental day. "My best friends and family are here and I’m looking at them and I’m like 'what just happened?'[...] I’m so grateful that Robert trusted me enough to put me on this team. To be with [these] riders who I’ve looked up to my entire life, it’s an invaluable experience and I can only grow from, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity."
McLain Ward and Adrienne Sternlicht.
Aside from their obvious talent, one thing Team USA has going for them is a true sense of camaraderie. For each of the riders, the team comes first. "You’re not just jumping for yourself out there," says Devin Ryan, "you’re jumping for your team."
McLain wholeheartedly agrees. "I’m very grateful to Robert and the confidence he had in this team, the team has a lot of meat on it, and I’m very proud," he exclaims, the pride evident in his voice. "These guys [Devin, Laura, and Adrienne] came out brilliant - this team, this group, the people behind us all the way through – this is what’s [great] about America. Many different personalities, many different people trying to be great – fighting trying to be their absolute best. I’m so proud of that and to be an American today. This is truly who we are."
Devin Ryan and Eddie Blue.
As riders absorb today's results, they'll get a day to refocus before the finals of the individual competition commence. With many of the day's top riders qualifying for Sunday, they're aiming to keep sharp.
"Yes, there's pressure," says top seated Simone Blum, as she soaks up the last few moments of Germany's bronze medal placing and prepares for Sunday's individual finals, where she's gunning for gold.
Simone Blum and DSP Alice.
"I was actually not wishing to be in the first position on Sunday, maybe I was too good over the three rounds. I’m going to have to fight on Sunday. It doesn’t matter how it will go [though] since today was the best experience of my life."
Full results of Friday's Show Jumping Team Final here.
Photos by Shannon Brinkman.