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A Medal-Winning Trip For Team USA

It was that time again—World Cup time, that is. The United States Saddle Seat Equitation Five and Three-Gaited teams were headed to compete in the 2002 International Saddle Seat World Cup. After a week of intense competition and marked by weather from seemingly all four seasons, the US teams brought home gold and silver medals respectively.

The event was held October 2-5, 2002 in Robertson, South Africa. Robertson, located in the Western Cape province some two hours from Cape Town, has been the site of many international competitions, dating back into the 1980s when the exchanges of riders between the US and South Africa first began. The beautiful scenery of the Breede River Valley is not unlike that of California’s wine country as the area is well-known for their many outstanding wineries. It made the perfect backdrop for the competition.

The gracious South African organizers of the event saw to it that the teams were well entertained, perhaps almost too much so as the schedule was fairly tight. Although the competition has always included several days and featured two rail and two individual workout sections, this time the four events were stretched over four days. This expanded format fit in better with the horse show’s existing class schedule. It did, however make it hard on the riders and the horses, who had to prepare for the show ring on four consecutive days.

Five nations, including the US, Canada, Great Britain, Namibia and South Africa competed in the Three-Gaited event while the US and South Africa were the only teams to participate in Five-Gaited competition.

The US Three-Gaited team included Matthew Williams (Captain), Kristen Ahern, Tate Bennett, Devon Garone, Brooke Jacobs and Melinda Young (alternate). Sarah and Rob Byers served as the Coach and Manager of Three-Gaited Team USA respectively.

The US Five-Gaited team included Jonelle Chovanec (Captain), Ashley Birdsong, Lucinda Hartley, Abby Reising, Kelcy Smith and Rachael North (alternate). Scott and Carol Matton served as the Coach and Manager respectively for Five-Gaited Team USA.

Neither of the alternate riders made the trip to South Africa, as the International World Cup rules prevented them from stepping as of the final arrival date for teams as issued by the hosting nation.

The team members, coaches and officials arrived in waves. A group of about 30 Americans, including Coach and Manager Sarah and Rob Byers, team members Jonelle Chovanec, Brooke Jacobs, Abby Reising, Kelcy Smith and Matthew Williams, had arrived in South Africa the previous week for a fantastic week-long safari tour led by Anne Judd of Zebra Ltd. The group visited locations in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia and had numerous opportunities to sightsee. Some of the highlights of the tour included a hot-air balloon ride at daybreak, a visit to Victoria Falls, river cruises on the Chobe/Zambezi River, and numerous day and night game drives.

The remainder of the US contingent arrived in Cape Town on Sunday, September 29. The already lengthy 15-hour flight had extended to 18 hours after fueling problems in Atlanta caused a three-hour delay for the already loaded Delta flight. The delay added to the worry that the team members would not have time to fully recover from their jet lag before beginning their practice less than 48 hours later.

The group was met by South African trainer/instructor Martin Pienaar, a former SA team rider (1990) who last year served as coach for an Invitational team that traveled to Florida to compete. Martin was assigned to the US team as their official liaison, which meant that he was their chauffeur, social director and general problem solver. After the two-hour scenic drive to Robertson, the team arrived at their residence for the week. The riders from all five countries were housed at an orphanage located just blocks from the show facility.

Although the spartan accommodations were initially a bit of a surprise to the team members and their coaches and managers, the group quickly pulled together and began to settle in. Members of the US World Cup committee surprised the teams with new linens, towels, and lots of snacks for their temporary home. The linens and towels were then left behind for the children who reside in the orphanage. Many of the riders and their family members also made personal donations to the orphanage prior to their departure.

Everyone gathered in the orphanage’s dining hall on Sunday evening for an informal welcoming barbecue. It was a chance for team members to get to know the riders from the other teams, and for many of the officials renewing international friendships established years ago. The barbecue was also the host of the team drawings for horses and order of go. As the evening wore on, coaches stayed busy inquiring of local trainers about the horses their particular teams had drawn.

Monday and Tuesday mornings held the practice sessions for the teams. Coaches experimented with various combinations and made adjustments as they saw fit. Despite their tiring trip, the team showed all the remarkable resilience of youth and were fresh and ready to go when the first practice began on Monday morning. They seemed relieved to be getting down to the riding. It was clear that the US team would have their hands full with their selection of horses, but the riders remained positive and rode well overall.

Monday evening held a major change of atmosphere as an elegant formal Welcoming Dinner was staged at the show grounds. The gorgeous concrete block dining hall area had been transformed into an African wonderland, with the walls and ceiling covered by yards and yards of draping. The tables were graced with sophisticated floral arrangements including such exotic items as ostrich feathers and porcupine quills. Various individuals spoke, including the Mayor of Robertson, representatives and sponsors of the Robertson show, and International Saddle Seat Equitation Association (ISSEA) President Denise de Wet. Special commemorative 2002 World Cup brow bands created and donated by Freedman’s Harness, official saddler of the US Saddle Seat World Cup teams, were distributed to the teams, coaches and various officials.

Wednesday marked the opening of the event. A moving ceremony was the official starting point, with the teams, parading on foot, led into the show ring by uniformed flagbearers on horseback. Each nation’s team, coach, and manager was introduced to the crowd, followed by the raising of their flag as their national anthem was played and accompanied by a soloist. The wind was steady so the flags of all five nations were soon proudly waving in the breeze.

The riders then left the ring to begin preparations for the competition. Wednesday was slated for the rail work for all teams. The three-gaited group of 25 riders had been split into two groups to make it easier for the judges to fully evaluate each rider. The same groups would stand for the second rail work segment on Friday afternoon. The five-gaited group would work as a single class on both days as there were just 10 riders in all.

At the conclusion of the first day, the three-gaited team was second behind South Africa by just over one hundred points. The five-gaited team was trailing South Africa by less than 40 points. Of course, the rail scores from both days were not publicly announced, so the standings were not known to the general attendance.

After a long day of competition, the team and many US officials were treated to a spectacular private dinner hosted by Paul Chovanec at the gorgeous Fraai Uitzicht 1798 estate. This working wine farm is one of the oldest in all of South Africa and the rustic facilities were charming. Framed by the Klaas Voogds mountain backdrop, the evening opened with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. What followed was a culinary extravaganza—nine courses of local Kontrei and African delicacies, accompanied by wines carefully chosen to compliment each course. 

The evening was highlighted by entertainment provided by the People of the Xhosa Heritage Nkqubela. Their program, interspersed between courses throughout the evening, included singing of traditional and contemporary pieces, dance presentations and information about the history of the Xhosa tribal culture. The weather, which had turned quite cold and windy, forced the guests inside the main house for the majority of the evening, but the warmth of the Xhosa entertainers and the camaraderie apparent among the US contingent kept things toasty. While the team members and their coaches departed a bit early to rest up for the following morning’s competition, the dinner carried on well into the evening.

Teams USA came into the workout phase on Thursday ready to rumble. At the conclusion of the day’s events, the three-gaited team had dropped another sixty points behind the South Africans, but were comfortably ahead of the team from Canada by a margin of nearly 150. Team Namibia was just 40 points behind in fourth place, with Team Great Britain improving greatly over past years to stand just 41 points off of Namibia and just over 80 back from medal contention. It was clear that the competition was getting deeper across the board. In Five-Gaited competition, the US was aware they had scored higher than South Africa on the patterns but were unsure about their overall margin. In fact, they were only 13 points ahead of the South African team when the two phases of Five-Gaited Competition One had been completed.

A lovely dinner was held for all of the teams at the beautiful De Wetshof winery on Thursday evening. Owned by Danie and Lesca De Wet, the estate produces some of the top wines not just in South Africa, but in the world. Everyone enjoyed the winery tour and the delightful dinner and hospitality of the De Wet family. Johan De Wet, eldest son of the family, is a member of the Five-Gaited Team South Africa.

Friday afternoon it would be back to business as the riders began Competition Two with the rail phase of the event. Again the scores were not made public, so the element of mystery returned. Several American riders on the three-gaited team were riding different horses from the previous competition, due to veterinary issues that necessitated the use of substitute mounts. ISSEA administrated the handling of this glitch and the competition continued smoothly.

At the conclusion of the final railwork, the standings found the US three-gaited team off the pace by just over 200 points, a margin that would clearly be tough to close. Canada was nearly two hundred points behind the US, with Namibia in fourth by 77 points and Great Britain just over 100 points behind them for fifth place.

Saturday it was time to wrap things up. The competition was strong, with the US scoring well in their workouts. The three-gaited team finished the patterns 47 points behind South Africa, but again the total margin was not known as the railwork scores had not been made public. The five-gaited team finished the patterns ahead of South Africa by 89 points, encouraging them that they were strong candidates for earning the gold.

The announcement of the final results would have to wait until the closing ceremonies. Before a packed crowd that evening, the teams were again paraded into the show ring in their team uniforms. The three-gaited medals were presented first. The introduction of the medal-winning teams was made by the announcer directing the spectators to watch the field of five flagbearers on horseback, each of whom carried the furled flag of a competing nation. As the flag was unfurled, the crowd learned which team had won the medal. First to appear would be the familiar maple-leaf flag of Team Canada, coached by American trainer Jan Lukens, signifying they had earned the bronze with a final score of 4804. The team, coach and manager would mount the award podium and receive their medals and bouquets of roses from the organizers as their anthem was played.

The stars and stripes would unfurl next, announcing that Team USA would finish the Three-Gaited World Cup competition with the silver medal. With a total score of 5079, the US had finished behind the South Africans by a margin of 264 points. They proudly ascended the podium and received their medals and bouquets before the playing of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.

Finally the rainbow-hued flag of South Africa was unfurled to introduce the gold-medal and World Cup winners, Team South Africa. Obviously overjoyed with their successful title defense, they took their places on the podium and were presented with their medals, bouquets and the coveted World Cup trophy, designed and created in South Africa. The gorgeous trophy was donated by Mr. and Mrs. P. Botha who were present for the ceremony.

The teams from Namibia and Great Britain earned the fourth and fifth place finishes respectively, but the margins were closer than they have ever been in World Cup history, indicating the general improvement and depth of these newer participants.

When the teams had returned to their places, the medals for the Five-Gaited competition were next. The US fan contingent gave a tremendous cheer when the South African flag began to unfurl first, indicating that the US had indeed defeated South Africa and won the gold. The US team finished the event with a total of 5278 points, topping the hosting South African team’s score of 5195 by a margin of just 83 points.

This marks the first gold medal for the US in World Cup-level Five-Gaited equitation competition since it was first featured at the event in 1998. During that year, the US team earned silver against the hosting South Africans at the competition held in Paarl, Republic of South Africa. When the US hosted the 2000 Saddle Seat World Cup in Madison, Wisconsin, Team USA again finished with silver.

In contrast to the Invitational status it has carried for both the 1998 and 2000 events, this year was the first time that the Five-Gaited competition received full official status as a World Cup event.

The riders were elated as they stood on the podium, having been presented with their medals, bouquets and the Five-Gaited World Cup trophy by Brent Jacobs. The trophy, a beautiful large silver bowl on a hardwood base, was designed and created in South Africa at the request of Jeff and Chris Thompson of Saddle & Bridle magazine.

The evening concluded with yet another gala dinner to congratulate all of the competitors on a job well done. It afforded a final chance to seal the friendships that had been forged during the week and to bid everyone farewell.

The US has had a strong record overall in international Saddle Seat competition, earning the gold in the first multi-national World Cup competition in 1996. The US would earn back-to-back gold medals with a repeat win in 1998. Team USA fought hard to defend their gold medal title in 2000, but finished with the silver by the slimmest of margins.

The International Saddle Seat Equitation World Cup is held every two years, alternating between venues in the US and South Africa. The highly organized event began some 15 years ago as an informal exchange of riders between the US and South Africa. Since 1996, the competition has become multinational. The Saddle Seat World Cup is now administrated by ISSEA. Members from all five competing nations comprise this sporting body, which is dedicated to the promotion of Saddle Seat throughout the world. 

US World Cup Chairman Nancy Becker was pleased with this year’s competition overall. “Of course I would love to have seen two gold medals for the US, but our riders represented us well both in and out of the ring. I also think that winning the gold in the five-gaited division will help further that division here at home.”

The US teams consist of some of the top athletes in the Saddle Seat discipline. Many of the riders representing the US this year have held spots on previous teams engaged in international Saddle Seat competition. Riders are selected for the teams by a selection process that includes evaluation of applications and the extension of automatic bids to winners of selected National Finals events. After narrowing the field to 20 Three-Gaited and 10 Five-Gaited finalists, a comprehensive trial event is held at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri early in every competition year. In the trials, riders compete both on the rail and in individual workouts on horses they have never before ridden. At the 2002 trials event, the finalists were also given a score on a personal interview.

The concept of team Saddle Seat competition is less familiar to the riders in the United States than to riders from South Africa and Namibia, who regularly compete as a team and even receive national colors and government subsidy for their achievements. But the unique challenges of team competition sat well with the members of the 2002 Team USA.

"Equitation riders are individual competitiors who are asked to become a team, riding not for individual honors but for the success of Team USA.  Our riders were champions in every sense of the word at the 2002 World Cup Competition.  They displayed outstanding horsemanship but more than that, they displayed true sportsmanship," said Vicki Gillenwater, Vice Chairman of the US Saddle Seat World Cup.

The sacrifices made by all of our team members, coaches and managers to participate in the event have been great. Three-Gaited team captain Matthew Williams, for example, elected to sit out for Fall Term of his senior year at Furman University in order to compete in the event.

“We were extremely proud that he wanted to try out for the team and that he was selected as a team member,” said his mother Lynn Williams. “It had been a goal of his since he was a member of the Junior World Cup team in '94 to make the team that would travel to S.A. to compete. We never knew how important the World Cup competition was to him, until he made the decision to sit out a term at Furman to pursue his final goal in equitation. The fact that his team members selected him as their captain was truly special. His love of the American Saddlebred and his support of the breed is apparent to anyone who knows him and the opportunity for him to be an ambassador for the sport was one of the highlights of his career in equitation,” she continued.

And so another World Cup drew to a close. The participants all returned home and got back to their studies and jobs. Many departed almost immediately for other shows. But the memories of the experience will surely last a lifetime for everyone involved.

The US World Cup Council will set about the task of organizing the next event, as the US is slated to host the 2004 Saddle Seat World Cup, although the dates and location of the event have not been finalized.

But one thing is certain—the US three-gaited team will be committed to the task of bringing the Three-Gaited World Cup trophy back into their possession, while the Five-Gaited team will mount a strong fight to retain their first ever World Cup title.

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