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Raining Medals in London

By Margaret Freeman, July 31, 2012

I wrote most of this Monday night, and it is now Wednesday morning, the first chance I've had to send it.? We were so busy yesterday with two medal events, and then I encountered connection difficulties again, not to mention the need for sleep, so now I will play catch up.

Monday?s cross country was amazing on several levels ? hope you got to see it.? I understand coverage in the U.S. was good.? The course wasn?t high, but the terrain was hilly and tight.? It blew my mind that there were a dozen falls out of 74 riders.? We heard no one?horse or human--was hurt, but I am going to check for updates.

The cross country course set up in such a way that you either got around with no jump penalties or else you fell.? I think there were more falls than refusals. ?It was clear that experience made a real difference.? The crafty older riders got around fine.? The Germans, British, Kiwis and Swedes were smokin? round the course, and the Americans rode really well.? Only a few faults, but a few faults made a big difference.?? It was wonderful to have the event in the center of the city and feel the city was close but that the venue and cross country course were still a separate green island.?

At past Olympics the horses have been separated from the media and public areas, so at times We've had limited access.? This time, our bus rolls right by an exercise track where there are horses galloping maybe 10 feet from where I'm sitting and there are horse crossings everywhere.? There are still a lot of fences and barriers, but at least it still feels like a horse show.? Jen Bryant mentioned that you can take a deep breath and actually smell the horses, which is comforting.

Yesterday was a very long day ?? horse inspection before the eventing show jumping, then two rounds (team? and individual) of jumping plus medals of course, and finally the trot-up (Brit-speak for the vet check) for the grand prix dressage due to start Thursday, much it in the rain. I felt deeply sorry for the American riders, who mostly just made small mistakes, but any mistake is costly in the current format that no longer includes roads and tracks and has smaller cross-country fences.? The winners pretty much finish on a low dressage score, plus they are clean cross country and clean, or nearly so, in jumping.

With the Americans out of the running for medals, I was rooting for the British, both because it was on their home turf and because the whole British Olympic team hadn?t won gold yet.? If the eventers won gold, with Zara Phillips on the team, it would have given eventing a boost not only in England but as a worldwide story.? As it is, they were terrific with their silver.? The Germans keep on rolling, team and individual gold both here and the last time around in China.? And Michael Jung ? who seems very quiet and unassuming ? is now currently Olympic, world and European champion.? To top it off, his two gold medals came on his 30th birthday.?

By the way, Zara's family, as they say here, was just a few rows below us, but we mostly saw backs of heads or umbrellas.

As a side note, Tom Curley, who is the outgoing president and CEO of the Associated Press decided to come out to Greenwich Park to see the eventing final.? For any of you who have done the stats on eventing, much less a team competition, it can be daunting.? With Nicole and I writing and chasing quotes, we put Tom onto the job of stats.? He figured out, with several horses left to jump, that there was no way the Germans could be caught for the gold, so we were able to jump ahead of our competition onto the wire.? It was our own little gold medal moment, with some very special help.

I keep thinking about the folks back home in Tryon NC, which is a town (very horsey area!) at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.? There are easily more people here in London in a square block than there are in all of Tryon, maybe even more in just our hotel.
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Rainy Day in London

By Margaret Freeman, July 29, 2012


We experienced the changeable London weather in a dramatic way today.? Skies were perfectly clear when we started the second dressage day for the three-day event (called ?eventing? now but that's hard for me to say).? By late morning it was raining.? By noon there were drenching downpours, plus serious thunder and lightning.? There was only one brief hold in the dressage, however.? We had a piece of heavy plastic we could sit under with all our equipment ? phones, laptops, notes, etc.

We finally gave up and moved inside the media center where there were monitors. I could receive email but not send it.? Weird. ?We began to wonder if the lightning had caused the difficulties ? whatever the cause, the stories have to be filed, and you have to find some way to do it, which is hard for my non-tech brain to deal with sometimes.

I am working at this Olympics with a great partner, Nicole Winfield, whose usual Associated Press beat is the Vatican in Rome.? SHe's terrific at all the unusual stuff we have at this Games ? royalty, politicians, etc. ? and is a whiz at all the various ways to file stories electronically, including with a smart phone. My responsibility is the technical horsey stuff.????

So, today some riders got to ride their dressage test in perfect conditions, and some had, well, horse-show weather.? Zara Phillips rode early.? The U.S. riders were solid but not sparkling, but tomorrow is definitely another day.? My husband passed along the info that NBC will be showing four hours of the cross-country tomorrow morning.? The feed will be a delay, so you may find a website or get results in real time.

Every time I walk a cross country course and then see horses on course from a monitor, I think that the people watching ?on TV don't get the real effect of the terrain and the scope of the jumps.? I think that will be the case tomorrow as well.? So, if you think the jumps are beautifully designed or the terrain looks tricky, ratchet that impression up several notches.? Most of the riders are saying that the course and the jumps are easy (IIII''') if you go slow and of maximum difficulty if you go fast.? it's likely that few if any will get around without time penalties, especially if it rains.? This will really put a premium on skill, balance and bravery.

I got a note from Ann Nunn ?to say hi to Tiana Coudray (of the U.S. team) if I ran into her.? Tiana is based in England, and she stayed with the Nunns for several weeks when she was back training in the U.S.? Well, there she was when I walked the course, putting on her boots after walking through one of the water jumps, and we had a nice conversation.? ?(Tiana sends a ?Hi!? back, Ann).

I also walked a good way of the course with Melanie Smith Taylor, who won team jumping gold in L.A. in 1984, and who does the color commentary for NBC.? She was really studying the course in detail, so I expect you'll hear some good insights from her. ??I am going to schlep into the Main Press Center in London now to see if I can get a better internet connection and send this along.
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Jumping the Moon Over London

By Margaret Freeman, July 28, 2012

I am going to try to write something daily, but I may be writing something longer and less frequently, because it's a matter of technical opportunity.? When you cover the Olympics, as equestrian writer Nancy Jaffer says, it's usually a choice between eating and sleeping.? I haven't gotten enough of either the last couple days.? Also, it's a technical issue, because I only have the capability to log in at the equestrian venue itself or the Main Press Center, and that's after the work I do for the Associated Press is finished.? If I could write during the 2 to 3 hours a day I spend on a media bus, my life would go more smoothly right now.

As you may have seen from the media feeds online and on TV, the equestrian events are being held right in the heart of London, in Greenwich Park, which is an amazing accomplishment.? From my media tribune site (100 steps up in the stands, and yes I counted ?good aerobic workout, but I'm glad there are handholds, and I wasn?t the only one using them, or supplemental oxygen) I could see the skyline of London, cathedrals, factories, and even jumps from the cross country course.? My favourite is shaped like a crescent moon, giving real meaning to the phrase: ?He could jump the moon.?? it's in honor of the Greenwich Observatory nearby.

(And, I just realized, I spelled ?favourite? with a ?u,? after just three days here.)

Karen O?Connor said today that she originally thought Greenwich Park would be too restrictive, but she said it doesn't feel that way.? The stables are great, under trees with lots of grass where the horses can graze..? They designed the cross-country course to twist and turn so it can be situated in limited space, but there are also lots of hills.? It will be very difficult for the riders to make the time without penalties.? An unfortunate side issue is that admission for cross country Monday will be limited to 50,000.? They could have sold three or four? times that number. ??

Karen said she was walking the cross country course yesterday and was standing in the middle of the water jump when she ran into Frank Ostholt of Germany, who competed her horse Mr. Medicott on the German team that won gold in China four years ago.? She has been riding the horse for 8 months and they had a long (damp) discussion.? She had a good dressage test today, but the horse broke twice on the centreline.? He must be eager!? She said she replaced his usual snaffle with a double this morning so that she could ?keep pushing.?? it's a thought I wish more people understood about the double, who often just think it increases braking power.? It actually allows a good rider to use lighter, more-effective leg aids.
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London's Olympic Scene

By Margaret Freeman, July 26, 2012

I ?made it to London!? it's Thursday evening, and so far I've had too little sleep and food and too much coffee.? Forgive me if I dither.

Getting here on time took a little bit of luck on my side, because when I arrived at Charlotte early for my flight, the connection to Newark was delayed.? I ended up flying through Atlanta on another airline with no delay.? Turns out my friend Jen Bryant of the USDF was on that Newark flight.? Darn.

If dressage judges obsess about travel issues, journalists are even worse because the frustrations and issues are different for every Olympics.? No learning curve there.? I'll try not to bore you with details but I'm not promising.? But typical, a scheduled walk of the cross-country course for eventing tomorrow is at 2 p.m., while the last media bus back is at 1:15.

I never realized how enormous and varied London is.? You will get a sense of it watching on television.? Riding on the top of a double-decker bus, my first thought was that everyone in London is thinner, younger, and dresses better than I do. ?My usual ?Talbots/Chicos/LLBean uniform is hopelessly ?80s here.? ?The streets are a polyglot of languages like NYC, and that's not just because so many people are here because of the Olympics.? The British volunteers I have met have been amazingly cheerful and gracious, as have been the Army people manning the endless TSA-type security checks.? Many volunteers are here spending their own funds for housing and transport just to be part of the Olympics.

You will be able to see much of the equestrian events live online (maybe in the middle of the night ? remember there is a 5-hour ?time difference if you are on the East Coast, 8 hours on the West Coast.? Eventing dressage starts here at 10:30 Saturday (5:30 a.m. EDT). ??THere's schedule on the NBC website, if you want to check.

Okay, all horse people care about shoeing and footing.? I was wearing sneakers today but still slipping and sliding on all the temporary walkways laid down in Greenwich Park, so I may just change to my Muck Boots for the duration.? I think I'm the only person in history who broke a leg judging at a show, rather than riding, but it's a precedent that I don't want to revisit, especially thousands of miles from home.

Everything at Greenwich Park is temporary.? And thus tricky to negotiate at times.? It seems just amazing but the rings, grandstands and stabling have all been set on platforms so that the cultural value of the park won?t be disturbed in any way and can be set back to rights after all the horse stuff has been erased.? ?Knowing that, I was surprised to see the press center there is in a beautiful museum, the maritime museum of all things, at the edge of the park.? We have to go through the Titanic memorial ?rose garden to get to the arena.? Hope that's not an omen.

My position in the arena is 36 rows up, near the very top, and it's a climb because these are the most vertical stands I have ever seen, I guess to save space.? It will be an aerobic workout every time I go up there.? Should make my doctor happy.? I was taking serious hold of the handrails as I got near the top.

Because space is at such a premium, the horse stabling and exercise areas are closer than usual.? I can't count on seeing specifically who I want to see, because access is very limited, but you can see riders and horses everywhere.? Literally the first rider I saw as the bus arrived was Britain?s Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth and daughter of U.S. eventing team coach Mark Phillips.? I was able to watch some of the schooling in the main arena.? Lots of noise and loud music planning, and I suspect it was to get the horses used to arena commotion here. The jumbotron is much further back and out of sightline for the horses here, good news for those of you who remember the problems with that 4 years ago in Hong Kong.

it's just the eventers on site now.? They will leave after their competition ends Tuesday and the dressage/jumping horses will arrive.? That will keep the need for stalls at a minimum.? I hope to tell you all more after the course walk and vet inspection for eventing tomorrow.
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On the Road Again

By Margaret Freeman, July 23, 2012

I judged at two completely different types of dressage shows over the past couple weekends.? First was the Youth Dressage Festival, organized by Lendon Gray, in Saugerties NY.? It felt weird to me on Sunday to be driving north to the airport in Albany, so I could fly to my new home in NC.? When I lived in Westchester County NY, Sunday would involve a cross country jaunt to avoid the always clogged NY Thruway.? If I was driving home from New England, I-95 would be jammed, and if I was driving from New Jersey, it would be a half-hour wait to get on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Sometimes I think the NY Thruway has never really recovered from its notorious meltdown during Woodstock in 1969.? Woodstock is just over the hill from Saugerties.? it's a beautiful part of the country.? However, I now live in different hills, at the foot of the Blue Ridge in NC, so a trip to the Hudson Valley for me now includes planes rather than trucks and horse trailers.

On Sunday at the YDF (where we had 300 kids competing in dressage at all leves, from leadline to FEI!), I got to judge a dressage trail class before my more-usual gig of judging freestyles.? Adding trail-type obstacles to a dressage test creates an interesting phenomenon ? it becomes clear which riders are good at solving problems from horseback and which don't plan ahead for dealing with the unexpected.

Those who felt they could go with the flow found themselves in awkward situations:

--going from a halt to a flowered ground line in two strides.

--carrying a ball on a circle one-handed and then finding it's in the wrong hand to drop it into a bucket.

--crossing the diagonal at a canter and finding they've picked a bad line, with rails and barrels in the way.

Those who clearly planned ahead had little trouble, even if their horses made a grab for a flake of hay, topped with carrots, on top of a barrel.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with riders who use readers during a regular dressage test.? The riders who go off course are often the riders with a reader.? Even if you are going to use a reader for security from a memory lapse, you still have to know the test cold to help your horse prepare ahead for an upcoming movement.? If you rely too much on a reader you'll find yourself in a bad spot too late to make a course correction.

Anyway, I love judging the Dressage Trail class at YDF because sooner or later a child and pony are going to get in a tug of war over those carrots and the pony is likely going to win.

Last weekend I judged at Dressage at Lexington (VA) in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.? This is a private show run by Debbie Rodriguez, and it is a huge undertaking.? She levitates her extended family, friends, clients, etc. from the Williamsburg area all the way across the state.? The show is eight rings for three days and includes a breed division and all kinds of parties, team events and a trade show.? I'm not sure, but it may be the largest privately run dressage show in the country.? The competitors love it, and they return in droves every year.

I'm now looking forward to my next out-of-town trip, waaay out of town, to London for the Olympics, where I will be covering the equestrian events for the Associated Press.? Later this week, I'll be starting a daily blog, at least I hope it will be daily.? We're working so hard that sometimes we don't have time to eat or sleep.? This will be my seventh Olympics, and even though I never watch my diet over those three weeks, I've never come home weighing more than when I left.? On the other hand, there are those British pubs . . . .
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