The USEA is pleased to present a series of stories that chronicles Eventing in the U.S. from 2000-2010, written by Joe Verga.
The 2000-2010 decade was, in many ways, a renaissance for Eventing. It was filled with great moments and incredible accomplishments featuring some of the greatest riders the sport has ever known. Some events would capture our imagination because of the magnitude of the accomplishment while others will never be forgotten despite the fact that the story didn’t end with a blue ribbon. With that, I present the biggest stories in U.S. Eventing from 2000-2010.
2000: David O’Connor Wins Olympic Gold...and Makes Us All Gasp
Led by veteran riders David and Karen O’Connor, the 2000 U.S. Eventing team, consisting of four riders from Northern Virginia, had high hopes. After a solid dressage round, the wheels of the team’s gold medal hopes literally came off as Linden Wiesman’s horse threw a shoe at jump six and was eliminated soon after. The team recovered to grab the bronze, making David and Karen the first husband and wife combination to medal together twice after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Things got interesting when the individual rounds began; in those days you had to ride one horse for the team and a second for the individual medals. Thanks to this new, nifty gadget called the Internet, I was able to follow the Eventing competition in Sydney, Australia. No, in those days we didn’t have the luxury of live scoring or streaming video, but we were at least able to get the results sooner than waiting for the evening TV broadcast.
Day one didn’t disappoint as David O’Connor and Custom Made set an Olympic record with a dressage score of 29.0. Watching the prime-time telecast of the 2000 Sydney Olympics was disappointing to say the least. Of course, they didn’t show a single second of the ride, instead choosing to show the test of New Zealand’s legendary rider Mark Todd (who was retiring and has since come out of retirement).
“[Custom Made] was just beautiful to ride today," said David after his record-setting Olympic dressage test. "This has been coming for about six months. He's been getting stronger and everyone has done a great job. Today he felt good in his mind and he was good in his body. He's really quite special when he comes together like that."
The cross country course for the individual medals was more technically challenging than course that was ridden in the team competition, but that didn’t faze Custom Made. “It was his course, and he was perfect,” David said.
This left David with nearly two rails in hand going into stadium on the last day. By the time David entered the arena, the stadium course had knocked second place Heidi Antikatzidis of Greece all the way down to sixth, giving David and Custom Made even more breathing room with a whopping 10.8 penalty lead.
“Before going in, I knew exactly what I had to do. Two rails and no time faults," David said. "All kinds of thoughts were running through my head."
Clean several fences into his show jumping round, Custom Made rubbed the rail of the seventh fence hard and David peaked back to see if the rail held. Relieved to see it still standing, he faced forward again but nothing looked familiar. He had lost his way in the middle of his course.
''I was worried about the green gate,'' he said, referring to the fence that the horse had bumped. ''I got so wrapped up, I got a little lost. There was a moment there for words that can't be printed. I was so upset about my mental lapse, it took a while to get over it.''
Those two seconds in course limbo must have felt like an eternity for David as he slowed Custom Made and glanced around looking for the next fence. With target sighted, David pulled his horse to the right and headed off towards the fence known as “the wall” and then onto Olympic Gold with a record 34.0 penalty points.
Ever the perfectionist, David could not get his mental gaffe out of his mind. The American contingency celebrated wildly while David circled around the ring, but not David. He could be seen looking over and then lifting his hands in the air as if to say apologetically, “I don’t know what happened.” A documentary film by Olympic chronicler Bud Greenspan caught O'Connor muttering, "stupid, stupid" to himself as he exited the arena.
“It was an amateur mistake,” he said. “I teach all my students never to worry about what is behind you and to concentrate on what is in front of you.”
But none of it mattered at all when all was said and done. In the end, the only thing that counted was the gold medal around David’s neck.
I have to say, one of the most heartwarming and patriotic scenes that I can remember seeing in Olympic history occurred after David received his gold medal. During his mounted victory lap, David picked up an American flag tied to a crop from the USET’s Jim Wolf and circled the arena waving it high in the air, much to the chagrin of Olympic officials who had warned contingents against doing such things.
Jimmy Wofford recounts, “Jim [Wolf] later said that as he stepped into the ring, an enormous security guard said, ‘Hang on, mate, you can’t go in there.’ Jim replied ‘You’re not big enough to stop me,’ and performed a baton pass with the flag that would have made our 4x100 meter relay team jealous.”
"I was so upset about the missed turn that I still thought about it during the victory gallop," David commented afterwards.
It had been twenty four years since an American won an individual Olympic gold in Eventing. David’s victory set the tone for the next ten years of Eventing. It made Americans believe that we could be a force on the international stage once again.
"I'm not sure it has sunk in yet, but it doesn't get any better. This is the one you dream about."
And it created an Eventing icon. His individual gold cemented David O’Connor’s name alongside the names of the greatest riders in Eventing history. All good stories have a hero but without a little drama and peril, the story just isn’t as interesting. Those two seconds, which could have completely changed the outcome the competition, transformed his 2000 Sydney Olympics victory from a good story into a great story.
Editor's Note: David and Custom Made were both inducted into the USEA Hall of Fame in 2009.