The U.S. Equestrian Team traveled home from the Sydney Olympics in 2000 with three medals – a gold and two bronze. Two of those medals were won in Three-Day competition. David O'Connor's individual Gold marked an Olympic record-setting Dressage score and gave the Americans something to celebrate.
O'Conner was the leading U.S. contender to medal, but he faced stiff competition from several riders – namely, New Zealanders Blyth Tait and Mark Todd and Australia's Andrew Hoy. O'Connor, together with wife Karen and teammates Nina Fout and Linden Wiesman, galloped off with the Dressage team's bronze medal, in spite of Wiesman's elimination on cross country after two falls.
The U.S. Dressage team rallied to garner the bronze medal after being in second place right up until the end of the competition. In a real nail-biter, America's Christine Traurig rode Etienne in the final test to edge out the Danish.
The United States boasted a better-than-expected performance in Dressage, considering the inexperience of most of the team horses. Sue Blinks and Flim Flam turned in the top performance in the individual competition, leaving her eighth overall after finishing sixth in Sept. 29th's freestyle.
In the total medal count, The Netherlands and Germany tied for top honors with four medals each – the Netherlands won two gold and two silver, while Germany won two gold, one silver and one bronze. The United States was third with its three.
United States Snares Gold in Individual Three-Day Event
O'Connor, piloting Custom Made, clinched a gold medal in the individual Three-Day contest, besting favorites Hoy and Todd, who took silver and bronze respectively. That was the second prize for O'Connor, who galloped off atop Giltedge with a bronze medal on Sept. 19 in the Three-Day team competition.
On Sept. 22, Americans collectively held their breath when, during his Show Jumping round, O'Connor uncharacteristically lost his concentration on course, looking around for the next jump. The pair knocked down a rail when they crossed the finish line under the 90-second optimum time. But with only five jump penalties they snared the top prize.
Fellow Americans Robert Costello and Julie Black also turned in noteworthy performances, with Costello finishing sixth on Chevalier and Black ninth on Hyde Park Corner.
Australians Take Three-Day Team Gold
On Sept. 19, the Australian Three-Day equestrian team took home the gold in the Olympic competition. It was Australia's third consecutive team gold medal and a decisive win after the Aussies nabbed the lead on Dressage day and never looked back. Great Britain took the silver medal and the U.S. rode off with the bronze.
O'Connor and Giltedge led the U.S. Three-Day team to the bronze medal after the third-placed New Zealand team suffered injuries before the Show Jumping began and the team was scratched.
Nina Fout on 3 Magic Beans and O'Connor on his silver medal mount from the 1996 Atlanta games, rode careful, clean rounds. Even though Karen O'Connor lowered two rails on Prince Panache, the U.S. remained well ahead of fourth-placed Germany.
Except for O'Connor and Giltedge, none of the U.S. teams included both a veteran Olympic horse and rider combination.
The battle for Olympic Gold in the individual Dressage competition came down to two of the greatest Dressage horses ever to enter the ring – Germany's Gigolo and Dutch mount, Bonfire. After years of rivalry between the two, Bonfire edged out Gigolo in both horses' final competitive performances.
The Netherlands' Anky Van Grunsven began the last round of competition, the freestyle, 1.14 points ahead of Germany's Isabell Werth, so all she had to do was hold her ground. But she and Bonfire did much more than that. They gave new meaning to the term "dancing on horseback," to the Dressage competition, which is likened to "ballet on horseback."
Bonfire seemed to know that this was his curtain call, floating above the ground in piaffe and passage in graceful, elegant movements to Neil Diamond's 'Song Sung Blue.' Gigolo, with movements rated the highest degree of difficulty for the day, executed an extended canter to pirouettes, then two sections of trot half-pass to piaffe half-pirouette.
This was the first championship competition where Bonfire bested Gigolo in the two horses' nearly 10-year rivalry. The bronze medal was claimed by Germany's Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty, despite an unfortunate problem with her musical CD which necessitated stopping and restarting her test. Sue Blinks turned in the best American score with Flim Flam, ending the day in sixth place to finish eighth overall with one of the most fluid tests Flim Flam has ever performed. Blinks shed tears of joy when she finished.
Teammate Christine Traurig and Etienne ended the competition in 11th place overall, with a lovely, but less than energetic, test. Traurig admitted that Etienne was not at the top of his game, but was pleased with his Olympic performance.
The U.S. Dressage Team rode to the bronze team medal on Sept. 27, edging out a last-minute threat by Denmark. As expected, the Germans took the gold for the fourth consecutive time, and the Dutch the silver.
The German Show Jumping team garnered their second consecutive gold medal on Sept. 28, with a one-fault lead over the Silver medal Swiss team. Brazil took the bronze medal after a jump-off with France.
Neither of the odds-on favorites for the individual gold, Ludger Beerbaum of Germany, nor Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil, made the medal podium. The individual gold was won by Jeroen Dubbeldam and Sjiem of The Netherlands. The silver medal went to Dutch teammate Albert Voorn and Lando; the Bronze to Khaled Al Eid of Saudi Arabia with Khashm al Aan.
The technical and challenging Show Jumping courses proved to be too much for the Americans and they were not quite up to snuff. Laura Kraut atop Liberty ended the first round with 12 faults, tying them for 19th place. But they later withdrew from competition. Lauren Hough and her mount Clasiko rode both rounds, racking up eight faults in the first round and 12 in the second. They tied for 15th place.
Margie Goldstein-Engle riding Perin only lowered one rail in the first round, but took down two in the second, finishing in 10th place overall.
In the team competition, the U.S. was tied for fourth place with Brazil after the first round of jumping, but was overtaken by Brazil, France and the Netherlands in the second matchup. After his fall on Sept. 25, Nona Garson's Rhythmical didn't regain his confidence, and was the drop score. Engle and Perin posted the only clear round for the U.S., leaving the team to finish in sixth.