Work in Sports
Custom Made showed his skills in equestrian
HORSLEY PARK, Australia -- The best all-around athlete at the Games has no endorsement contracts coming his way, no girls swooning at his glance and no autograph hounds baying at his door. With all due respect to Ian Thorpe, Marion Jones and Andreea Raducan, the best all-around Olympic athlete to emerge from the first 10 days is ... a horse.
Custom Made is his name, a 17-hand high, 16-year-old, 7/8ths Irish Thoroughbred gelding who, ridden by David O'Connor of The Plains, Va., gave the U.S. its first equestrian gold medal since 1984, a dry spell that was beginning to make the American horse set wonder how the West was won. "It's huge," says O'Connor, who also won a bronze in the team eventing competition with his wife, Karen. The couple also won a silver in Atlanta. "I'm not sure it's sunk in yet, but it doesn't get any better. This is the one you dream about."
Three-day eventing is a brutally difficult test that requires the horse to have endurance, courage and grace. "Our horses are like decathletes," says O'Connor, who got his first taste of the meaning of endurance when, at age 11, he rode from Maryland to California in 3 1/2 months with his mother and older brother. They averaged 30-35 miles a day, riding eight hours then knocking on strangers' doors along the way to ask if they could spend the night sleeping on the lawn. "They're all-around athletes, not specialists. Custom Made's nickname is the Iron Man, because at 16 years he's quite old for this event."
The first phase of the competition is dressage, the equine version of the compulsories formerly used in ice skating -- intricate steps which must be performed with effortless style. It was in this stage Custom Made took the lead, scoring an Olympic-record 29 points. (The lower the score, the better.) "He has a lot of presence when he competes," says O'Connor. "A lot of movement and flair and pizzazz that even a layman can't miss."
The second phase is the endurance test, a 15-mile course that involves four different stages, the last a 4 5/8-mile section which has 29 jumps and is run at a gallop. It's by far the most dangerous part of eventing, which in the past year has seen an astonishing 10 riders die worldwide during competitions. Of the 38 riders who started in Sydney, 13 were eliminated or retired on the cross-country course, five fell and two were hospitalized -- Brazil's Roberto Macedo with a broken pelvis and Denmark's Nils Haagensen with a bruised shoulder. One horse, Bermuda's Gold, was put down after it broke its left front leg a stride after successfully clearing the second fence. It was the first equine fatality in an Olympics since 1968.
"It was tragic, but it had nothing to do with the course," says O'Connor, who finished second to Bermuda's Gold, which was ridden by Mary Jane Tumbridge of Bermuda, in the 1999 Pan Am Games. Connor served on a blue-ribbon safety panel that earlier this year delivered a report suggesting improvements for the sport. "You had a situation where the horse took a bad step and had a tragic thing happen, some sort of stress fracture that just let go. It could happen to any horse. You can't make any sport safer than life."
O'Connor and Custom Made completed the cross-country course without any missteps, which gave them a 7.6-point lead entering the show-jumping stage on Friday. "He's not the greatest show jumper in the world," O'Connor said, "but I gave myself a cushion." Custom Made knocked down one rail in the final phase, but the resulting five-point penalty was his only miscue, and O'Connor had his first Olympic gold. It was just the second time in Olympic history that an American won the individual three-day event; Tad Coffin finished first in 1976.
The reward for the best athlete in Sydney? A bucket of oats.
Sports Illustrated senior writer E.M. Swift is in Sydney covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Swift's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.