A magnificent performance all week from Henrik von Eckermann with King Edward, Malin Baryard-Johnson and Indiana and Peder Fredricson with All In. They brought the ultimate honour back to their country for the first time in 97 years.
As the final competition played itself out it came down to a head-to-head with the feisty American threesome of Laura Kraut with Baloutinue, Jessica Springsteen with Don Juan van de Donhoeve and McLain Ward with Contagious, and they wouldn’t be handing anything over without a fight. The two sides completed today’s first-round with eight faults apiece, and the battle lines were drawn.
Belgium was already assured of bronze when collecting 12 faults in the opening round. Team France looked set to be the biggest threat to all others when single time faults from both Simon Delestre and Berlux Z and Mathieu Billot with Quel Filou, in the opening round left them sitting pretty before Penelope Leprevost set off. But elimination at the third fence for Vancouver de Lanlore shattered the French dream of repeating the glory they enjoyed five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
So Pieter Devos (Claire Z), Jerome Guery (Quel Homme de Hus) and Gregory Wathelet (Nevados S) could sit back in the knowledge that the third step of the podium would belong to Belgium, and the stage was set for one last roll of the dice for the Americans and Swedes.
With all three team members returning to the ring for the final showdown it was Kraut who led the way for the USA with her 11-year-old gelding, scorching through the finish in 41.33 seconds to set the pace. And although Sweden’s von Eckermann took a new route he was a little slower when breaking the beam in 42.00 seconds with King Edward who, sensationally, never lowered a single pole in five rounds of tough jumping this week.
Springsteen returned clear for USA in 42.95 seconds so when Baryard-Johnsson was quicker, crossing the line in 41.89, the Swedes already had a small advantage. But Ward was next to go, and shaving seconds off all those ahead of him he raced through the finish in 39.92 to really put it up to Swedish anchorman Fredricson.
But how cool is the man who took his second successive Individual silver medal, and with the same horse, just three days ago.
As he set off you could read the complete determination on Fredricson’s face. Did he feel the tension as he galloped down to the last fence, knowing what was hanging in the balance?
“Oh, the pressure was on!”, he admitted. “My god, in these situations when you have two teams like this you really want to win. McLain was fast, I saw his round and I knew what I had to do, and today the poles stayed up and the time was on my side!
“I had the speed and I gave him (All In) a lot of room. He’s in super shape, but I was really worried he would take the front pole with his hindlegs, but he came up!” he said after breaking the beam in an amazing 39.01 seconds to seal the victory.
In the end just 1.3 penalty points separated the two sides, but the joy in the aftermath for both teams was palpable. They’d been in a fair fight and the best side had won. No hard feelings, just delight in great sport played out between great opponents.
Ward enjoyed every moment of it. “It was great to be in the battle!”, he said with a big smile. “Sweden’s win wasn’t unexpected here but they took it to another level, we would have had to have an incredible day to beat them. I think we pushed them right to the limit, and in competition when you push them to that limit and they still win you’ve got to be proud of the fight!”
“We just didn’t give up!”, agreed his team-mate Kraut. “It was hard-fought and Sweden were incredible all week, so if you’re going to lose you’re going to lose to them, and we can live with that!
Springsteen said, “it was wild, watching the last couple go, wondering if we would have to jump-off or not, you really got the jitters, but it was very exciting!”
But it was even more exciting for the new Olympic champions. There was no-one begrudging their success today. They won fair and square and they were immensely proud of their achievement.
“Yes it’s a dream come true – to win an Olympic gold medal I think that’s every athlete’s dream for sure!”, said Baryard-Johnsson. We’ve been so well prepared for everything at this championship, we’ve not missed out on anything, we have a team behind us that’s incredible. All of us, the way we’ve ridden shows how confident we’ve been and how they’ve all made it possible for us to totally focus on what to do in there. We knew it was very possible for a jump-off because it was only one round and we knew we didn’t want the silver medal this time!”, said the rider who was a member of the Swedish side that took Olympic team silver in Athens (GRE) 17 years ago.
Von Eckermann just missed out in the Individual Final on Wednesday night when finishing fourth, “so that’s why it’s even more special tonight!”, he said. “It was a frustrating fourth place but I’m so happy that I pulled myself together and told myself to leave what I can’t change behind me and focus on this. No one can say we didn’t deserve it!”
And he added that there should be medals awarded to the horses as well as the riders. King Edward certainly deserved a medal having jumped through the entire week without ever dropping a pole.
Fredricson’s last round was the stuff of champions, and Ward, who has won plenty of accolades himself, acknowledged that. “He’s one of the best, and his record with that horse is spectacular. What horsemanship and what planning, and all the people around him. But he’s also been at the top of the sport with other mounts too which is testament to his riding, it’s not just one horse”, he said.
Typically modest, Fredricson was thoughtful when asked what tonight’s glorious victory meant to him. “It’s unbelievably satisfying to get this gold. And my horse deserves it also for the way he jumped, I’m so happy for him and his owner and groom and the whole team and my team-mates. This is a great feeling!”, he said.
Photo by Hippo Foto