The final verdict of the 2018 WEG? It was a hell of an adventure and I loved nearly every moment.
There were some brilliant bits, some awesome adventures, some trying times, some run-of-the-mill results, and of course the hurricane and the heatwave!
But do I regret going? Hell no. Would I regret it if there were no more WEGs? Hell yes. Would I recommend Tryon International Equestrian Centre as a place to visit? Hell yes. Would I go back if there was to be another WEG held there? Hell-double-yes!
I was asked to write about the good, the bad and the ugly, so here goes, let’s get the ugly out of the way first.
The ugly for me personally was the endurance competition. There were ugly scenes, and much has already been written about the controversy that erupted when the event was restarted, and then abandoned altogether. But the worst was yet to come, when the news came through that it was New Zealand horse Barack Obama who had been euthanised. In the brief time I knew the horse, he showed what a character he was, what a great athlete he was, and how much he was loved by so many people. This was my first endurance competition I had ever covered or attended, and it will be my last as well.
The bad? I am feeling rather jet-lagged and disorientated as I write this, so perhaps there were more negative points that could be written about, but I can currently only come up with two – oh and perhaps that I didn’t allow another few days to sightsee and visit the outlet malls!
The first ‘bad’ was the hurricane which caused havoc and many deaths on the coast in North Carolina, but was practically a non-event at Tryon. It was bad for WEG as it caused the cancellation of not only the freestyle dressage, but the exhibition events too. As for the extra day between cross country and show jumping, we will never know how much of an influence that was on the results, but in my mind, the winners all really deserved their medals and the glory. Hurricane Florence was also bad as it put so many people off coming to North Carolina as the mainstream media was saying keep away from North Carolina as most of the roads were closed. Yes, this was the case in parts, but it wasn’t the case near Tryon. The organisers had no way of countering this coverage. The people stayed away.
The second ‘bad’ was New Zealand’s disappointing results. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great individual performances, and by no means did any of our riders look out of place on the international stage. Perhaps even putting this in the ‘bad’ category isn’t quite right, but unfortunately, the results were not as good as we’d hoped. Efforts were first-rate, but the results, unfortunately, were not. For Tim Price, it was a case of ‘if only’ as he would have come away with a silver medal if only that rail had stayed up. There were plenty of other ‘if only’ situations, as there are at every competition, starting right back with what if Clarke Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation had made it to compete?
And yes, the eventing team salvaging an Olympic qualification was some compensation, but unfortunately, the past few Championships (WEGs and Olympics) have not been up to what the Government funders expect for a High Performance sport. Whether this has ramifications for future funding remains to be seen. The ESNZ High Performance staff now have to go through the debriefs and prepare their application for the next round of funding. Let’s hope the many recent four-star wins give the eventers enough credit to keep their funding through to the next Olympics.
The two show jumpers who really impressed were Daniel Meech and Samantha McIntosh. While Samantha retains the ride on her wonderful Check In, and ditto for Sharn Wordley and Casper, it isn’t so for Bruce Goodin with Backatorps Danny and Daniel with Fine. Both of their horses now go on the market, and the riders’ quest for more top horse-power starts again.
Julie Brougham says this would be her last championship, as it’s time for another dressage rider to step up to this level for the next Olympics. Sir Mark Todd was cagey about continuing, and perhaps it may be the last we see of the legend at this level. Jonelle Price openly expressed the need for more eventers to step up for future representation. There are definitely opportunities for the next generation of Kiwi riders. Whether they can replicate anything like what Sir Mark has achieved remains to be seen, but let’s hope so!
The good? There were so many good things about this WEG. In no particular order, these were my WEG highlights:
The sport and the competition was fantastic. Every competitor was there to do their very best – there were no training runs at this competition! There is nothing like being there and seeing the horses up close, walking the courses and see how big the jumps are, seeing the world’s best riders, coaches and grooms in action, seeing the elation or disappointment on their faces (and their supporters) as they rode out of the arena and then being able to talk to them afterwards as they recalled what went well, what didn’t and how they felt about it – always with so much grace and professionalism.
The tension in the stadium as the last riders jumped was almost palpable, and the place erupted when German Ingrid Klimke knocked the last down to give the eventing gold medal to Ros Canter, and then again when Ingrid’s country-woman Simone Blum cleared the last to be the well-deserved jumping winner, having had no rails all jumping competition. And speaking of German women, Isabel Werth is so impressive, both on and off a horse, and made the stadium erupt a number of times. What a shame we didn’t get to see their freestyle. And should I mention at this point that two chestnut mares won individual gold medals?
A personal highlight was that one of my favourite jumping riders, Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, delivered a medal-winning performance, and my favourite horse from the Rio Olympics, Clooney, also showed just how good he is, for fellow Swiss Martin Fuchs, winning silver.
The fact that all the competitions were within walking distance and easily accessible was a huge bonus, especially after the last WEG where it was logistically impossible to see all the different disciplines due to their locations. At Tryon, it was an easy walk from the media centre to the indoor arena where the vaulting and reining were held, and not even very far to the start of both the cross-country and the driving marathon, with the two main arenas having the media centre and VIP area in between. The huge fleet of golf-buggies meant you never really had to walk that far. I therefore got to see some amazing driving and also even a bit of vaulting and quite a bit of the para-dressage which was so very impressive and inspiring.
The people – I made new friends, saw old friends, and strengthened existing relationships. The opportunity to work with the world’s best equestrian journalists and photographers is definitely a highlight, and the bonds and friendships that develop between us belies the fact that we work for competing organisations. There are some very special people working in equestrian media, and while the media centre was incomplete and definitely work in progress – they never did get the toilets finished – we had the best wifi, electricity, air conditioning, coffee and food; all essentials for us as we worked our long days and into the night to bring you the stories, the videos, the podcasts and the photos. The team who ran the media centre, the mixed zone, the photographers and the press conferences were also first rate.
Then there were the characters there, whether they be the riders, the supporters, those behind the scenes, the organisers, or the mixed zone co-ordinators. One who never fails to impress is Pedro Cebulka who is the ringmaster / gatekeeper extraordinaire. He is so respected by the riders, makes sure everyone is safe and on time, and never lets an opportunity to entertain go by. He is also able to converse with the competitors in their own language, being the master of many languages!
The adventures that unveiled themselves every day was another highlight. There was so much going on, it was like being in a WEG bubble. Keeping up with what was going in the rest of the world was beyond me. From being apprehensive about being in the path of a hurricane, to looking forward to seeing what work was finished overnight, no day was ever the same. The hurricane reports varied, depending on who you listened to, from those who feared for our lives to those who reassured that it would be next to nothing. There were dirt tracks one day and sealed roads the next. Near our spot inside the media centre were two empty ice-cream freezers that we were always hopeful would one day be full, but hopes were dashed after the eventing when the freezers disappeared overnight, never to be seen again. I never did get an American ice-cream! But the frozen margaritas…
The American people were beyond welcoming, especially in North Carolina. They were truly happy to help in any and every situation, whether it be selling you a t-shirt or jump-starting your car when you got back to the carpark at dusk to find you had left your park lights on all day. The customer service was phenomenal, whether it be within the Tryon centre, at the local supermarket, through to the airline staff as we checked in to leave.
We were in rural America, and we were amongst real people who cared so much about ensuring we had the best time. Every Kiwi I spoke to who was there said they had the best time. While it wasn’t perfect, I hope that this WEG is remembered for a truly Herculean effort on the part of the organisers and American equestrian community.