Ben Maher and Explosion W. (FEI/Arnd Bronkhorst)
There was an edge-of-the-seat start to Jumping at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with fluctuating fortunes in the opening first Individual competition. Only 30 of the 73 starters could qualify for the Individual medal-decider, and with many horses finding the atmosphere electrifying and the fabulous course of fences more than mesmerising, even the best of the best admitted that the 14-fence challenge was a big one. The colour and creativity of Santiago Varela’s course was nothing short of spectacular, and he gave them plenty to jump too.
Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs was partnering his superstar Clooney, who carried him to Individual glory at the European Championships in Rotterdam two years ago, but he still found the opening competition a big test.
“The course itself wasn’t super tricky, but what makes it difficult is that it’s the Olympic Games; the pressure is there; Clooney feels the pressure and I feel it; the rideability wasn’t as it should have been. But usually, he gets better from day to day and I think now we have the most difficult round of the week behind us,” Fuchs said.
Roar of approval
The was a big roar of approval when Japan’s Daisuke Fukushima produced the first clear of the competition when seventh to go with Chanyon, and the host nation were hugely impressive when all three of their riders made the cut to the Individual showdown. Other nations who also have three riders through are Belgium, Great Britain, Ireland, and Sweden, while Fuchs will be joined by Swiss compatriot Beat Mandli and both Egypt and The Netherlands will also have two representatives.
Britain’s Ben Maher produced the fastest round of the night with Explosion W so has the best of the draw. “We’ve been waiting a long time and we’ve been edgy to get going. It was a big enough course today and a lot of horses are a little bit spooky. I don’t know whether it’s the new jumps or the lights and I felt that with him. This is my most nervous round of the week. He’s a horse that improves as the rounds go on, so he was having a little look today, but he’s naturally a fast horse and he did everything he needed to do,” Maher said.
Second-fastest of the night was Ireland’s Darragh Kenny riding Cartello. “Not a lot of people know the horse – this is only my sixth FEI show with him; I’ve only had him since May,” Kenny pointed out. “He was with Irish riders before so he was in Irish ownership for the Olympics. Cormac Hanley and Lorcan Gallagher rode him and they both had great success with him; he’s been a good horse for everybody. He jumped great in Rome (ITA) and Madrid (ESP) over the last couple of months, but this week will be a big ask. But he feels up to it and we’ve had a great start,” he added.
There were four eliminations and four retirements during the competition, with the turn to the white vertical at fence 10 proving costly for several riders, the large Sumo Wrestler holding up the left-hand wing possibly something of a distraction here.
Penelope Leprevost, a member of the gold medal winning French team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, was one of its victims when Vancouver de Lanlore had a run-out. “I was trying to relax the horse on the turn and he was maybe surprised when he found himself so close to the vertical,” she said.
The only French rider through is Nicolas Delmotte with Urvoso du Roch, but for Team USA this was a bit of a shock. The side of Jessica Springsteen, Kent Farrington, and Laura Kraut were expected to be major players at these Games but none of them have qualified for the next stage of the Individual competition.
As Farrington said, “A harsh reality of our sport is one rail down and you’re out. In the new format tonight, it was all or nothing and unfortunately for the American team right now it’s nothing!”
Olympic pressure is nothing new, and Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs talked about that.
“I was feeling a little nervous Sunday and Monday night, and yesterday I had a good talk with the sports psychologist for the Swiss team and he really helped me to ease the feeling a bit. I told him I’ve never had this feeling before, being nervous: it’s totally new to me. He gave me a few small but good advices and it helped me a lot.
“He asked me what was the problem. I told him on Sunday after the warm-up, I felt so excited because Clooney felt so good and thought, OK now we can win a medal. This carried me through the night and woke me up a couple of times and he said, Martin, what are you here for? I said to win a medal. He said, no, what are you doing here? I said, I ride. He said, exactly, you ride. You don’t need to think; we have other people to think; the Swiss team brought you here to ride and not to think, so just get on your horse and ride and leave the rest to the smart people!”
Great Britain’s Ben Maher, talking about his recovery from surgery last year and his return to competitive sport:
“I struggled for a long time after a couple of falls in 2018/19. I had to have a physio travelling with me all the time and couldn’t walk very well; actually, on a horse I felt more comfortable, but life wasn’t much fun. So it was planned six months in advance and I had lower back surgery in London in January 2020, and I’m a new person now.
“I was nervous for a while if being healthier might make me worse in the ring, but it’s all good! I was in the gym a week later and back in saddle about nine weeks later. I rode two classes and then Covid kicked in and very little happened last year, so I’m really happy to be here.”
Results here: https://tokyo2020.live.fei.org/
by Louise Parkes
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