On Saturday, the U.S. Show Jumping Team captured the team silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games following a thrilling jump-off with Sweden. We caught up with chef d’equipe Robert Ridland after his return stateside to discuss the historic night and the historic Games. Ridland discussed his strategy, his opinion on the format and where the team is headed next.
Congratulations! You must be thrilled with the team performance. How does it feel to have another team silver medal?
Well you can imagine it feels pretty good! It’s what we strive for – ending up on the podium. This was a hard one for sure with all of the complications leading up to it. It was a slug, but it all worked out. What a team – those guys were rock stars!
Talk about the team competition – what was your strategy and did it play out how you wanted?
The first day was exactly what we wanted. All along with all four of the riders, we had the strategy weeks and weeks out. We agreed we were going to be at our best knowing it was a no discard score Olympics. We were very aware of how much gas we were going to need left in the tank and the plan along was to focus on Saturday, the final day of the team competition. As I reminded everybody, from the get-go we wanted to be sure we had the staying power for two rounds on Saturday.
It was very clear that the format was set up for a probable jump-off. We went into the last day knowing we had two rounds, and knowing that makes a big difference in the athletes preparation and how they flat the horses in the morning, and warm up. If you are preparing for two rounds the preparation isn’t necessarily the same as if you are preparing for one round. You will do whatever it takes so you are at your very best when it really counts. We felt that we had to be at our best when it really counted, which would be the jump-off. We were hoping to be in a jump-off when it really counted and not having used everything up. That was part of our strategy all along, that’s why Kent and McLain split the duties – one in the team, one in the individual. That was planned way ahead of time. Not all the teams did that, but we wanted to do that and made it a priority in our planning. We realized there were some teams that might be running out of gas at the end.
We weren’t at all disappointed with Friday’s rounds. The only priority for Friday was to get to Saturday. We didn’t consider Friday the ultimate day. It’s not like you go in and plan for a rail down, but we wanted three solid performances and we knew that would get us in. We weren’t going to stress out if a horse had a rail down. We wanted to avoid a big score and we wanted to position ourselves well for the next day. We didn’t want to take anything out of the horses on Friday that we might regret come Saturday night when we were in the round, which we knew would be bigger. There was no question the course was going to be tougher on Saturday than it was on Friday.
The standings going into Saturday reflected what I think a lot of observers would say were the way it should be. We were fifth going into the last day and it could be argued that’s where we should have been. We have said all along that we need to go into the last day and EXCEED expectations. Of course, you always strive for a podium position, and because we were fifth, we assumed we were going to have to pass a couple teams at minimum that were ahead of us, and not let any that were behind us pass us. Even though we were starting on zero. We knew going in, we knew two years ago that we would be going in on zero. Nothing that happened was thrust upon us at the last minute. We were very well organized.
Talk about what was going through your mind when Penelope Leprevost had the refusal and it was clear there was going to be a jump-off.
We were prepared for that – not prepared for exactly what happened, but prepared for a jump-off. It’s similar to what happened in Tryon, but we had all our riders ready. You need to have a “matter of fact” mindset that if there’s a jump-off, we are ready. If it doesn’t happen so be it, it doesn’t hurt to be ready for the jump-off. If what happened happened, we weren‘t going to be surprised, we weren’t going to celebrate, it was just back to business.
Talk about having the same jump-off results as Tryon with all clear rounds and time as the deciding factor.
That’s what made Saturday night one for the history books. It was our sport at its very best and most exciting. It was quite something that the same two teams that battled for the World Championships were in a rematch. What was as big a factor in both of those jump-offs, was the order of go. You clearly have a little bit of an advantage if you are going second. We had the advantage in Tryon. Every rider that preceded our riders we were able to strategize how much faster, how much slower whatever the case may be, just to make sure we stayed even on faults. Sweden had the advantage this time. That was an advantage they earned.
What was amazing to watch is you have six great riders on six Olympic horses. These aren’t speed horses, these are championship, Olympic show jumpers. They were selected to jump clean rounds over huge courses – that’s what the Olympics and World Championships are all about. So to see everybody go as fast as they did in a no discard score event where neither team wanted to let the other team in through the back door – unlike a grand prix where you might have 8 or 10 in the jump-off and you’re only shot is to take a risk. Here you have two other teammates and no drop score, a rail down here is huge in the negative column obviously. But you also don’t want the competitors you are trying to beat by getting in through the back door by having such a slow time that all they have to do is not put the pressure on themselves.
Laura, who was on a horse she’s only had a partnership with for four and a half months, she obviously doesn’t know her horse as well as the Swedish riders knew their horses. She’s been in a few jump-offs with him over the last few months, but for sure she wasn’t going to go flat out. She was going as fast as she possibly could go and be assured a very strong chance of a clean round.
Did you have a specific plan for the course?
We weren’t going to leave out strides. There was a possible seven strides from the wall. We had walked the jump-off course several times earlier in the day because we were planning for it. As the lead off rider she was going to do eight strides to the double, that wasn’t going to be an option, and after the wall eight strides and then book it to the last fence. That’s what she did, that’s what the plan was. It had the desired effect by putting enough pressure on Sweden’s first rider. Jessie had to pretty much repeat the same thing with the same pressure – don’t have a rail down, but don’t have a saunter in the park either. She went for it and that was a great round, and it forced them to do the same thing!
They had an advantage with cumulative time. I let McLain know how much that was so that he could strategize. He needed to not only be clean, but make up that differential, which he did. His was a really fast round, and that of course put the pressure on their last rider. That’s when you saw the first one leave a stride out and [Peder Fredricson] took a flyer, a heck of a shot a couple times, including back to the wall and just did the seven down to the oxer. That momentum carried them to the last fence. He needed to do all that because McLain had the edge on him. If Peder didn’t take those chances, Sweden wouldn’t have won.
It was really a jump-off for the ages! Nobody lost in that jump-off. Every rider was absolutely superb. It was the challenge we were looking for. If we were going to go for the gold it’s always nice to beat the best, and the Swedish riders and their horses proved themselves to be the best throughout the whole Games. If we were going to pull off an upset it was the best scenario possible – a rematch of the World Championships and going against the best. All six riders have to be commended for amazing performances and there were no losers. They won the gold and we won the silver, nobody lost anything.
During both the Individual and Team Finals we saw top sport, but as McLain [Ward] said in the press conference, that was because of the horses and the athletes, not because of the format. We knew the format going in, but talk about your reaction now that you have seen it play out and what changes you might like to see in the future.
No one likes the fact that the team event followed the individual. Although it’s been done both ways at different Olympics, we like the other format better. I certainly think most of the riders would like the drop score to come back. I don’t feel that way to the same degree. I understand people’s opinions on it. We’ve known the format for two years and one of the pluses to the format with no drop score is that it’s simpler to do the computations, it’s simpler for those that are watching, many of whom are watching the sport for the first time. It’s similar to most other sports in that the running total is the running total, and a high number is not what you want and a low number is what is going to win. The format was set up for a jump-off, it was set up for excitement, and I said all along through this week, ‘Let’s not evaluate it until we see the whole Games and how it all unfolds’. It ended up that we were involved with it, which made it even better for us. That final was show jumping at its very, very best on a world stage. I’m not as negative about it as some people are.
One of the goals was to simplify it for television, but another reason was to allow more nations to compete. Do you have concerns that if they continue with that goal that potentially it will lower the level of the championship or do you think other countries will step up to the higher level?
The hope is that other countries will step up, but we can’t rely on it. That aspect of generating more flags for the team competition, I don’t particularly like. I think most riders would agree with that, because there is such a variance between the top teams and the bottom teams on the first day of the team competition. If more flags need to be added, in my opinion, and I think the opinion of many of the riders, ideally it would have been better if you did that on the individual side as opposed to the team side. I’m not so against the system and it was a tremendous final, but I do think it needs to be discussed and I do think it needs to be tweaked, but I don’t think it needs to be thrown out.
Talk about the clean slate that is unique to the Olympics because of the “heat” format. If Sweden hadn’t ended up on top or on the podium at all, do you think that would have been the result when we have horses that are jumping day after day. Swimming for example, your time from a previous event doesn’t carry over, but you don’t have errors that accumulate.
I would not have felt badly at all because that’s not the nature of the competition. Everyone knew the nature of the competition going in and that was part of our strategy all along. We would have had a different strategy if the slate wasn’t wiped clean going into Saturday. That scenario puts more pressure on the Friday and you potentially would be taking more out of the horses on Friday if you knew those scores were going to carry over on Saturday. That wasn’t an accident, that’s the way it was set up. The fact that they jumped all those clear rounds of course you tip your hat off to them, but they knew going in just like we knew going in that it was the back to zero on Saturday. I personally liked that – it was not set up to be a marathon and it wasn’t. Part of the reason they made that formatting decision was because many of the viewers that are tuning just for the final round of competition could see all the action. They wouldn’t be looking at all of these scores that came from a different previous day’s competition and say, “What’s that? We didn’t get to see that.”
You brought up swimming. They don’t start a staggered start in the 100m Freestyle because they have time coming in from the other day. Almost all sports wipe the slate clean. The 100m dash, to get to the final, you intentionally don’t put your maximum effort in the semi-final. You know what it is to qualify and you do that, you intentionally do as much as it takes to qualify and no more. If you do more, you are wasting energy that you sure might need on that final day. That’s the way most sports are in the Olympic Games, and so that’s the way this was setup to conform more like the other sports.
Most other sports that are equivalent to this don’t have discard scores. Some do, but there’s a difference between a no discard score and say diving where you have so many scores and they don’t count all of them – there’s a different nature to the whole thing. That would be like saying in golf if the golfers all got a mulligan every 18 holes, that would be like a discard score. If you hit the ball in the water, you pay for it. You can’t say, “Well that’s my discard score.” This conforms more to the other Olympics sports and the slate being wiped clean makes a whole lot of sense and you play according to the conditions and what the rules are. That’s how we came up with our strategy and that’s why it worked so well.
Let’s talk a little bit about the courses. For the most part, you saw the teams and athletes you expected for both the Individual and the Team Finals at the top. Santiago did a great job separating the different nations without having disastrous results for the developing nations.
I agree 100%. I thought he did a brilliant job – he had a very, very difficult job to do. There was such a variance between the top and the lesser countries in the team competition. He’s known since he accepted the job that aspect would be difficult. You want to make it legitimate, and pretty much the top 10-teams, most of them were the ones you would predict ahead of time. But we also said going into this weeks ago that there’s a chance that a couple teams that should be in the top 10 based on records and everything else won’t be. This happens every year when we go to Barcelona for the Nations Cup Finals. We’ve been on the other end of the stick there, where cumulative times bounced us out of the Final in Barcelona. That’s where we needed to be as much on our game without putting too much into it and wasting effort. The last thing we wanted was to be in a place where cumulative times would knock us out of the final day.
Now that you are home, I am sure you are already planning for the World Championship in Denmark?
We need to be in the top six coming up in Denmark next summer. That will be upon us sooner than we expect because of the missing year with COVID. We are technically already in the selection process for the World Championships in Denmark. July 1st is when the ranking list started for that.
So you are watching and the riders need to be on their game!
Yes! We have a lot coming up right now. We have the Nation’s Cup at Spruce Meadows coming up,. We have the Nations Cup at Aachen coming up and we of course have the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona. So we have three major competitions with team riders in the next couple months.There is rest for the weary! Of course, this will lead into next year and Florida where qualification for the World Championships will be in earnest.
Anything you would like to add about these unique Olympic Games?
Upon reflection, it’s unfortunate for the world and for the Tokyo organizers that they were not allowed to have spectators. They did a tremendous job under the circumstances. The facilities and the venue were second to none. Everybody that has been to multiple Games has said the same thing, that it was the best equestrian facility ever.
It’s true that the stabling was air conditioned?
It wasn’t just air conditioned barns, there are a lot of air conditioned barns, but everything was first rate. Everywhere that the horses walked, whether it was outside on the way to the practice rings or through the tunnel, in the barn, all the rubberized material. Everything was first class. The footing was first class. It was an amazing facility and I know the other sports had the same thing. The organizers did a magnificent job and the Japanese were wonderful hosts.
The weather, we knew it was going to be hot, we were there two years ago for the pre-Olympics, and we were there for the exact same week. The high of the day is the low 90s with 80% humidity. For us, that really wasn’t an issue. During the daytime, the horses were in the climate controlled barns. We rode them either in the morning or sometimes a couple hours before the evening round. The breeze always seemed to pick up at night, which was really nice. Overall the temperature at night and holding the events at night was great on the horses. I don’t think it really affected them negatively at all. That was a relief. We were expecting the worst but the weather was just fine.
And many of our horses compete in Florida in the heat and humidity…
Yes, most of our horses are used to that. On reflection, Laura pointed this out, there were days that were hotter, or at least seemed hotter, in Tryon the week of the World Championship. There were a couple days in Rio that felt hotter than at any time during Tokyo, so that was a pleasant surprise. The organizers certainly did a wonderful job with the Games!
That is great to hear! Thank you so much for your time and congratulations again!
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