Behind the Scenes in Rio with Team USA

Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin hack back to stabling following this afternoon's ring familiarization. Photo by Jenni Autry. Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin hack back to stabling following this afternoon's ring familiarization. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Bom dia from Rio! We’re counting down the hours to tomorrow’s early morning first horse inspection, and with the competition about to kick off, there’s definitely a perceptible air of anticipation at the Olympic Equestrian Center in Deodoro.

All the members of Team USA, from the riders and support crew to the owners and grooms, are pumped to be here; it’s an infectious excitement you feel as soon as you walk into the venue. Lauren Kieffer succinctly summarized the feeling: “We’re at the Olympics, man!”

Indeed, we’re finally here. The team has had all week to settle in since arriving on Saturday night, and we caught up with each of them to hear their impressions of Rio and the equestrian venue, plus their thoughts on seeing Pierre Michelet’s cross country course for the first time today.

Clark Montgomery, who comes into these Games as a strong contender to win an individual medal with Loughan Glen, really encapsulated the intensity of competing in the Olympics when he said that Glen’s season has been all about peaking at precisely the correct time in Rio.

“The whole year has been about continually increasing his work and prepping him so he peaked at the right moment. We definitely are getting there. We’re right on track,” he said.

“The venue is gorgeous, and we’re really starting to feel the pressure of the competition now that we’re getting to the day before the jog. The course is very beefy, not necessarily in that all the jumps are huge, but it’s extremely technical. It’s a lot more twisty than I expected, with even more terrain that I expected. The time is going to be hard to make as well. I believe cross country is going to be very influential.”

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen. Photo by Jenni Autry.

‘A Serious Course’

We’ll be posting a fence-by-fence preview of the course from a variety of different angles tomorrow, and in the meantime you can check out photos courtesy of our good friends at Horse & Hound. Lauren Kieffer agreed with Clark on two key fronts: The facility is lovely and cross country is poised to shake up the leaderboard come Monday.

“The venue is great, and the footing is amazing. It feels like the Olympics. The course is serious; it’s not soft by any means. We brought good cross country horses to Rio, so we just need to go out and do our jobs,” she said.

“It feels like a Pierre track for sure. We didn’t necessarily know what to expect, but we know what he tends to do because we’ve been around Pau and some of his other courses. We’ve been schooling those types of questions, so hopefully we’ve dotted all our i’s and crossed all our t’s coming into this.”

As for how Team Rebecca’s Veronica has settled into her home away from home in Rio, “Troll” is thriving in the beautiful weather conditions, with low humidity and temperatures hovering comfortably in the 70s.

“She loves Brazil. She’s such a good traveler. I’ve never met a horse that loves traveling as much as she does. She came off the plane with her ears pricked,” Lauren said.

“I think going to Ocala was a great prep to prepare the horses for the weather. It’s warm here, but there’s a great breeze. The horses feel so fresh, and they really like it here. The grass areas around the venue also have really great footing. We got to go on a gallop yesterday on the same footing that will be on cross country, and it feels super.”

Emma Ford, Joanie Morris and Shannon Kinsley on the move. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Emma Ford, Joanie Morris and Shannon Kinsley on the move. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Super Grooming

As for Veronica’s head honcho Shannon Kinsley, she said the grooms have also been very pleased with everything from the roomy stalls for the horses to the quality of their accommodations, which have them staying just a stone’s throw from the venue.

(It’s worth noting that the housing conditions at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio are somewhat legendary due to the fact that the grooms lived in shipping containers. Rio has come a long way since then!)

“The venue is set up really well, and the USEF and USOC went all out to make sure we have everything we need,” Shannon said. “The stalls are monstrous, and the horses are happy because the weather is better than what we came from in Florida. I flew over with them, and they all shipped great.”

With the Olympic dressage horses now moved into the venue and the show jumpers scheduled to move in soon, Shannon said the venue has a real international feel to it, similar to what you see in Aachen with so many different disciplines running simultanously.

Super groom Emma Ford agreed what that assessment. “For us grooms the big thing is having the dressage horses at the venue with us, and soon the jumpers will arrive too,” Emma said. “Now we’ve got the dressage grooms to add to the mix, which has been great. You get to chat with them and meet new people while you’re out hand grazing the horses.”

Having a spacious grassy area at the venue to hand graze the horses is another major improvement over the 2007 Pan American Games, Emma said. “We weren’t allowed to hand graze the horses at all then, so this has been so much better. The horses are also really relaxed in stabling.”

In fact, Emma said this is just about the most relaxed she’s ever seen HND Group’s Mighty Nice, who cheerfully cruised through his flat school and ring familiarization this afternoon. (I really can’t emphasize enough how happy and relaxed all the U.S. team horses look. Rio has been very good to them thus far, and we also have to give a shout out to team sports therapist Jo-Ann Wilson for working her magic with massages.)

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Trailblazer and Anchor

If you missed EN’s interview with Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin that went up earlier in the day on our Facebook page, you can click here to watch it, or read on for their comments on what they think of the whole Rio experience this far.

“The facilities are much much better than I expected, Phillip said. “The horses are really happy in the big stalls. The weather is perfect. As far as how Happy’s doing, he lost a bit of weight coming over, but he’s put it all back on now. He’s gained 20 pounds since we’ve been here.”

Phillip schooled different parts of his dressage test today and has more time than any of his teammates to put on the final bits of polish, as he is currently slated to be the last out of the startbox as the team’s anchor on cross country. If that plan stands, Phillip will do his dressage test Sunday afternoon.

As for Phillip’s first impressions of the course (remember he’s about to compete in his sixth Oympic Games): “It’s tough. I think it’s the toughest Olympic course since Sydney (in 2000) that I’ve been to. I definitely think that if you win a medal here, you’re going to deserve it. It’s a proper four-star.”

In contrast to Phillip’s anchor status on the team, Boyd is currently slated to be the trailblazer with the Blackfoot Mystery Syndicate’s Blackfoot Mystery, who also looks to be in beautiful condition. (I promise I’m not exaggerating when I say the horses look fantastic. All credit goes to the super grooms!)

“He trained really well in Ocala and he got here in one piece. He lost a bit of weight, but we seemed to have got that back on him pretty quickly. He’s been working well. We did a gallop yesterday and have done a bit of dressage every day. He’s going as well as he’s ever gone on the flat, so I’m quite pumped,” Boyd said.

“The word is I’ll be going out first for the team, which is a bit nerve-wracking for me just because we walked the cross country today and it’s a proper, proper test. It’s probably the toughest course I’ve seen since (the 2014 World Equestrian Games in) Normandy. I’m quietly nervous, but the moment’s nearly here, and it’s time to execute.”

Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. Photo by Jenni Autry.

‘Get the Job Done’

Coach David O’Connor said the team’s strategy this week has been progressively building to the final day before the competition begins. “We had a quiet couple days early in the week literally playing around. The horses had a little jump and then had a dressage day today, like we would on a normal week. I think they all look happy,” David said.

“I think everyone is comfortable with what they’re doing. The big thing is you don’t go over the top. That’s why in the first few days we keep it simple. We go for a hack in jumping saddles, then we get the riders to do some tourist things. Yesterday we started to focus and narrow it down more. I feel very comfortable mentally with where we are.”

A strong mental game will be critically important considering the steep task Pierre has laid out for these horses and riders. “It’s going to be very technical. The time is going to be very tough. It’s very Pierre Michelet with a lot of three-stride combinations and a lot of forward distances to a big angle. Getting the horses’ eyes on the jump and getting them understanding it is the number one job,” David said.

“I agree with Phillip that it’s probably the toughest Olympic course since Sydney as far as how much influence it will have. And that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for us, and it’s a good thing for the competition. You’re going to have to be very smart and very much in the moment the whole way around and know what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

As for how David feels about being at his first Olympics as U.S. coach: “You force yourself to think of it as just another show. I couldn’t be more honored to be here with these people. It’s special to coach your own team after your athletic career,” he said.

“But now it’s a job. It’s a job for all of us. We realize that job, and we take that job very seriously. We know the responsibility, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Everybody in this group has the respect of everyone else. That’s why you see the camaraderie — because they respect each other. They’re here representing the country, but they’re also here to get the job done.”

Phillip Dutton and Mighty Nice. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Phillip Dutton and Mighty Nice. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Back to the Olympic Village

If the horses seem happy and relaxed, then Team USA seems to be in an equally good place mentally. One has to wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that the team is staying in the Olympic Village this year for the first time since Atlanta in 1996.

While Joanie Morris, USEF Managing Director for Eventing, said the logistics of navigating a traffic-burdened Rio largely influenced the decision to have the team stay in the Olympic Village , it also has the added advantage of ensuring the riders have the full athlete experience.

“We felt like there could be some real challenges with transportation, so it was a decision we made after London,” she said. “But you also have to consider that it’s the Olympics. It should feel a little different. It’s not a normal horse show when you stay in a hotel and have the same routine you always do. The Olympic Village is a huge part of the experience.”

Having stayed in a hotel for his Olympic debut in London, Boyd said he has really enjoyed the experience of staying in the village with the other Olympic athletes.

“I’ve been playing beach volleyball at night with the New Zealand team and going to the gym and keeping an eye on the weightlifters and boxers,” Boyd said. “It’s been very inspiring watching everyone prepare for their events.”

U.S. team traveling reserve Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry.

U.S. team traveling reserve Lynn Symansky and Donner. Photo by Jenni Autry.

‘The Ultimate’

“Inspiring” is a good word to sum up the whole experience of being in Rio so far. There’s something almost sacred about an Olympic Games. As riders, it’s something we all dream about at some point in our lives. This common competitive drive and love for these amazing animals binds us together.

Caroline Moran, one of the members of the HND Group that owns Mighty Nice, candidly captured the emotions we’re all feeling on the eve of the first horse inspection here in Rio.

“To be here not just with the top riders in eventing but also the top riders from the other disciplines that I’ve only ever read about makes it a totally different experience,” Caroline said. “As someone who came into eventing not that long ago, Rolex was always the ultimate for me, and I never thought that I would be at an Olympics. This is definitely the ultimate.”

I’ll be adding more photos to this post, so keep checking back. The first horse inspection starts at 8:30 a.m. local time, 7:30 a.m. EST. There is no live stream, but EN will be live tweeting @eventingnation. Orders of go will be released following the first horse inspection, so keep checking back to EN. Go Eventing.