Friday, August 15, 2008

Ups and Downs of Sport

It is Thursday the 14th of August. Well, the short version of this installment would be $^&**&! The longer and more insightful version, will note that the beauty of sport is that, after all, it is a sport and it wouldn’t be, if not for the ups and downs associated. The longer version will also talk about the heart of McKinlaugh.

Okay, the events of cross country, if you haven’t heard, went sort of like predicted, i.e. time was impossible to make. What didn’t go to plan was the actual riding of cross country. Amy was up at 3:45 to get to the course by 5am to walk it one last time. She comments now that apparently it was not all that helpful. The day dawned cool (only in the upper 70s low 80s) and various amounts of rain coming down. Given the dire predictions of the weather, all lucked out.

As Amy finished her preps for the ride, Pogi was completing his final preparations as well. Allyson went about diligently getting Pogi ready for cross country by gearing up with studs (really big ones), saddle, bridle (plus various spare versions depending on the mood of Pogi in warm up), rear leg protection made from an REI sleeping pad, front leg boots with tuba-grip underneath to prevent rubs with color-coordinated electrical tape to secure the combination, plus various other accoutrements to denote he is a US Team horse.

With calm demeanor, Amy and Pogi rode out to the warm up ring. Since there are not enough wrist bands to allow access to the vet box (10 minute box, D box, warm up, whatever term you prefer) we found some wrist bands that looked similar, so the husbands could assist their riders (wives) as they would normally do. Allyson and I followed behind with burghley cream, bridles, blankets, wrenches, etc so that any change could be accommodated with minimal effort. It never fails that whatever we didn’t bring is what is needed. What we needed was a timer who could actually tell the time.

The horses were sent off on cross country at 3 minute intervals. As the rider ahead gets ready to go, the next rider is assigned a “timer” or a person who is supposed to provide the countdown to the rider so they know when they actually will start. This is critical since the warm up area for cross country gets a little hectic, and each horse needs a different amount of time to get ready. Amy usually only jumps a few jumps to allow Pogi to stretch a bit, after that it is usually more flat work to continue the warm up and stretch. She plans for a leisurely stroll to the start box to maintain a calmness that usually disappears after Pogi starts to hear the starter countdown to “Go”. Again, in order to help reduce stress, Amy likes to stay away from all the warm-up jumps that happen to be near the start area since there are usually quite a number of horses getting ready and controlled chaos is the norm. This is where the timer comes in, by the information the timer provides she would decide when to move to the actual start area.

So, knowing that the time is drawing near, I move our gear over to the finish area (connected to the start area by a gate in this case). I arrive to watch the former World and Olympic Champion Mark Todd just completing the course on his grey horse. About this time, I see Amy cantering up to the start box, enter it, and take off in a flash. Apparently the timer was a minute off on his or her watch, so Amy entered the start box with 5 seconds to go. This is normally something that each rider handles on their own, but like a number of other items at the Olympics, they get managed by others, but in the end it is our responsibility to make sure it is being done correctly. Oh well, they are off.

I find the US tent in the finish area and start to set up for the cool down process that happens after the cross country ride. Given that there is only 8 minutes on course this time, it will be quick, famous last words on my part. The cool down area has three large misting tents established. Each tent is approximately 30 feet by 50 feet with at least 16 high-tech misting fans flowing chilled water through them to help reduce the ambient air and body temp of all those entering it.

Of course Allyson runs inside the tent to watch Amy on the TV screens, I per usual choose to stay away from such frontal images. It is not so much about injuries, I just personally live the ups and the downs of this sport on Amy a little too much. Since I choose not to chew my nails, smoke, drink, do heroin or anything else of that ilk, I just find it easier not to watch the monitors. Days later? Sure, I’ll watch the video, no problem. Live? No thanks, I’ll pass.

Well, it didn’t take long for the announcer to make a comment about fence 9 being a little ugly (she was apparently the last person to go the straight way there) but they were moving on. Whew. She passed the two minute marker and the next thing I heard was the announcer saying something about parting company, an euphemism for rider and horse going separate directions. Having been through this before, there is a moment when you want to throw something or verbalize displeasure, but the need is to remain calm. Is she okay? Is Pogi okay? The quick report is that all appears well, with everyone on their feet. I’m a firefighter, and I know just because someone is walking around that is not enough to indicate that all is well, but it is still nice to hear over the loudspeaker nonetheless. Besides there are enough others who are verbalizing their feelings at the moment, so I might as well remain quiet and calm. There will still be a horse and rider to take care of, eventually.

She may have only been two minutes out on course, but that is still over a kilometer away. And although it may be that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, there is never a straight line in getting home (in life, or Eventing, I am discovering.) Now this group (Olympics) planned and prepped for just about anything (typhoons, bugs, terrorists, etc.) except for the scenario where the rider walks back to the start with their horse in tow and all appears to be fine. No one could tell us where Amy was and if everything was okay. You want to see a frantic and ticked off groom? Just play dumb and say you do not know what happened to your rider, and more importantly, your horse.

There was an air of disbelieve and frustration in the US camp after the fall. This clearly wasn’t in the game plan, after all, that was the reason Pogi went first. Not to mention that his dressage was supposed to be the least likely to provide a great score for the team. Knowing Amy, I was able to make the statements to the support members of the Team that I knew she was thinking, sorry, we didn’t get the job done today. As nice as the response was, “she’s bailed us out enough”, it still doesn’t cover the fact that we wished we would have been better today.

Amy finally made it back to the finish/start, with Pogi and Laura Kraut in tow. Allyson, the good groom and better friend, ran to Amy to provide a hug and kiss. The only response from her rider was tears and an “I’m sorry” (for letting you down.)

Off comes the tack, and a quick check by the US Team Vet, as Pogi gets cooled down. There is a small avulsion on his leg from what appears to be an overreach (a wound from his hind leg striking his front leg.) A quick wrap by the Vet and Pogi is approved to return to his stall for some rest and fluids. Pogi got his carrots, lunch, and plenty of attention by the vet staff. He, like his rider, just wanted to be left alone for a short period. Amy was back at the finish area helping the Team track the other riders and try to make new decisions about riding the course.

I will not cover the rest of the day in detail. To be honest, it sucked from my standpoint. It rained. The US riders had some challenges at times. As for the entire field, there were riders who rode the course well and others who too had better days. And some of each of those are people I consider friends now. I witnessed a wonderful horse (Pogi) get dejected because he clearly knew something didn’t go quite right. The coach, and others, will tell you Pogi made a mistake today, a first for them to witness. Amy will tell you she should have put him in a better spot at the jump. Either way she ended up on the ground, and with the new FEI rule, they were eliminated from the competition for fall of rider. As it turns out, they wouldn’t be the only ones, just the first.

I will let the bulletin boards go wild for whatever they wish to say. She will tell you Pogi was going the best he has ever gone and never more happy in his performance. Come glory, or otherwise, the plan was to retire Pogi from this level of competition after the Games. And the lawn ornament plan still stands. We just have to find a buddy so he will not drive us nuts. I know my 5 year old niece is eagerly awaiting his return so she can continue her lessons on this wonderful horse (and I believe he is looking forward to it as well.) Thank you Pogi for doing what I asked in taking care of Amy (just watch the video of him avoiding his rider falling.) No, I still haven’t watched the video yet either, heard enough of it from others watching online and at the venue.

To top it all off, Amy and I were interviewed by a local journalist regarding the death of two Hong Kong firefighters the night before (just down the street from where we are staying in Kowloon as it turns out.) We would like to send our condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers of those two firefighters and wish them the peace their hearts are looking for.

I do love the translation of languages. Imagine this coming over the loudspeaker, “thank you for coming, now please go home…” I am sure that the Cantonese version was a bit more elegant.

Again the efficiency of the moving process was amazing. They had the 70 or so horses and gear packed in under an hour and shipped back to the permanent stables in Sha Tin. As for the rest of us, we made the last bus back to the train station, in time to head “home.” All were tired, all were frustrated (okay, pissed-off may be a better term). We went from the only Team having all 5 riders in the sub-fifties for scores; to, well, being beat by others we shouldn’t have allowed to catch us.

Somewhere that night I finally really got to see Amy. There were a number of bruises in new places and the usual no response about the back. This is where I usually throw in the line “you know, you are supposed to model the communicative behavior you would like me to practice so I know what it looks like…” Yah, that’s actually what she said too, how’d you know?

Guess who jogged sound that night? No, it wasn’t Amy, yes Pogi. Unlike most events where the final vet inspection (jog up) is early the next morning, this one was scheduled for the following afternoon around four, with Team jumping starting at about 7:15 in the evening. This gives either enough time for horses to work out of being sore, or their riders and teams a lot more time to fret.

There was some drama at the final horse inspection. McKinlaugh who clearly has a very big heart, got through the jog with some delay. An Australian horse was held as well, but eventually was passed. The evening jumping time brought a new sensation, that of actually being able to watch the competition without too much angst.

The final part of the event was the way it was supposed to be. Well, other than we as a Team weren’t in the hunt for medals. At the end of the night after two rounds of jumping, the top seven riders were within a rail of each other (3.4 points to be exact.) The US Team finished 5th, up two spots from where they finished after cross country. hillip Dutton and Gina Miles made it into the final round in contention for individual medals.

At the end of the night, with luck, toughness, and coolness, Gina was standing on the podium with a silver medal around her neck. She and her horse saved the day for the US Team. Her husband, mother, sister and two kids got to watch her take part in a victory gallop around the stadium. No time to celebrate though, it is off to the drug testers for horse and rider (and all the medalists tonight.) I imagine having to pee in front of a bunch of people is a great buzz kill.

We got back to the room at about 4 in the morning, with Amy having to be back out at the venue by 10 am for the Team picture. Mark Hart, an owner of Pogi, and now head of the Eventing Horse Owners Committee, put together a little sight-seeing trip for the grooms. Since, they had basically been cooped up in the barns for two weeks. He arranged a small bus to take the 5 grooms, the horse physio Tina, and the Canadian Vet Dr. Oberg (an American), to Victoria Peak and some traditional shopping in Stanley on the south end of Hong Kong Island. We also had a minder from the State Department with us as well. The riders were left in charge of their horses once again; a bit of panic could be seen in the grooms eyes.

The tram up the side of the mountain was fun; especially considering the thing was well over a hundred years old, give or take a day. The view from the top was amazing; hopefully the pictures will do it justice. The weather was perfect, sunny and clear with a cool breeze at the top of the hill. Our driver met us at the top. Eddy, a great guy who speaks very good English, yet doesn’t understand a word of it, made the day interesting. He showed us where Jackie Chan lives. Hey, the event may have been a bust for us, but at least I can tell my crews I have seen Jackie’s place.

We continued on to Stanley were we had lunch. Emma, Phillip’s groom, ordered something simply American, since it had been a while. She smiled as her stomach thanked her for something a little less exotic for once. We ran out of time so it was a race back to the barns to allow the riders to be released for some additional duties they had to perform back in Hong Kong. All the ponies still accounted for, and even fed, prior to the return of the grooms.

The best part of the return is that our driver managed to drive his way into the venue, passing by several check points, without ever having more than the simple card on the front of his bus saying “Mr. Hart.” Who knew Mark Hart (an owner of Pogi) was so powerful? The State Department security officer just shook his head turning to the grooms and remarking: “And this is why we are assigned to protect you guys…” He added further, “…guess I do not have to do to much probing to see where the security gaps are today, jeez.”

The Olympics and the 2010 WEG group threw a get-together for all the countries to come to. The Riders had to show up in their jog up gear, i.e. in order to look presentable. There was a beautiful view, but not much food. Again, I am reminded why I call this fat camp. I had last seen Amy at about 10 am. I thought something was up then, but her typical stoic self said all was fine.

I arrived at the party after her by an hour or so. Her right knee was battered and bruised; surpassing the left knee that I thought had taken the brunt of Monday’s fall. A little later, things got more interesting.

This is the part where I leave you hanging in suspense as there are several things I need to attend to this evening. Bear with me. Let’s just say there were cabs, and foreign languages involved, not to mention just a little bit of confusion.

Best wishes to all.
- Greg


natb said...

I've been following you blog and its been great getting the behind the scenes view from the husband.
Its been great.
I am glad to hear the Pogi will be enjoying his life back home as a pasture puff. He seems like quite a character.
This time wasn't their day but they've been a great pair for our country and they should be proud of their partnership.

OnTheBit said...

aww...I was hoping you post that "Amy is out of the hospital". I am hoping that she is feeling better and my thoughts go out to her (and you because I am sure you will be a gopher for a bit once she is back on her feet). I am amazed at how well she rode before the DQ, and if we all know how events would end we wouldn't have to ride anymore. She put in a great dressage test and I really hope that she is not feeling too down on herself. Accidents happen...that's why they are called accidents. I hope she gets well soon!

Celene said...

Promise not to tell anyone else over there, but you have the best Olympic blog! Now, stop writing and go wait on Amy hand, foot, and knee! When you are finished playing nurse, go give Pogi a giant butt skritch or two!

Then congratulate her from all of us for representing us with such class and talent!

Now, relax and schedule another appointment with the marriage counselor!



Jessica said...

Hello! I really hope Amy is doing better when you read this little note. This blog has been great! Make in us part of and downs! We will miss hopefully you keep it up telling us the great adventures of our Amy! We are so proud of her! She rocks! Jessica

Tweedle Dee said...

This is one of the funner to read blogs! Or should I say more fun? Anyway, thanks for sharing the ups and downs. The fall really sucks and I hope Amy heals up quick like a bunny.

anon said...

Just catching up with your blog now. Best wishes for a speedy recovery to Amy. Tell her we are very proud of all the great results she got with Pogi in all these years and not to let anyone tell her otherwise. An accident is an accident, it was unfortunate but not her fault, not Pogi's fault. Give him a pat and a carrot for having a great heart!