Story and Photos By Darlene Ricker
Vaulting doesn’t tend to get as much attention as the Olympic equestrian disciplines of Dressage, Eventing and Jumping, but let me tell you, it’s a beautiful sport to watch – especially at the level of performance this week at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy, France.
These legions of strong and nimble vaulters, many of them still teenagers with tender self-images, are as dedicated as any of the combined drivers, and as fiercely competitive as the riders in the mounted disciplines. A medal is as exciting, and a loss as devastating, for a vaulter and his or her lounger and chef d’equipe as it is, for example, for a show jumper. (Driving and show jumping are also competing this week.)
During a break in the Vaulting action, I wandered around “backstage” (probably where I wasn’t supposed to be; reporters have a habit of doing that) and saw what life is like for vaulters when they’re not under the bright spotlight in the competition arena. In the warmup area, hidden away under a large white tent, vaulters were practicing their moves, sometimes two or three of them working with their horses in different sections of the spacious, inviting schooling area.
What I saw in their eyes was deep concentration and focus – and an ever-present drive to win. While the competitors were practicing, unnoticed in a distant corner of the arena was a crowd of about a dozen people in Team Italy attire surrounding a young woman who had just come out of the competition arena. She was inconsolable, crying and saying something over and over again in Italian at warp speed. Her compatriots were trying to comfort her, but to no avail. Then the chef approached, put his arms around her shoulders and whispered to her, leaning down toward her diminutive form like a father. The others slowly backed away to give them privacy. Suddenly the vaulter shook her head and ran off, still crying. I had no doubt she’d be back to vault again, and indeed she was, with a giant smile on her face. These vaulters are tough cookies, and moreso, they are professionals who, even at their young ages, know the meaning of the saying, “Tomorrow is another day.”
Back in the arena, I resumed watching the rest of the women’s compulsory competition. In particular I noticed a vaulter who by appearance and litheness seemed to be a teenager but turned out to be almost 30 years old. After her performance, which looked super and drew thunderous applause from the spectators, she confided to me that she had made a small mistake. I told her I certainly hadn’t noticed any mistakes, and she sighed in relief, smiling. “Oh good!” she said. “That’s how I try to make it look when something happens.”
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The next day, I spoke with Simone Jaiser, a Swiss vaulter who had taken third place two days in a row. Simone competed as an individual at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010 in Lexington, Kentucky, and rode as a member of the Swiss team at the 2006 Games in Aachen. Here in Normandy she was stunningly turned out in a bright red bodysuit with silver accents that sparkled in the darkened Zenith Arena. The dramatic round facility was specifically built for the 2014 Games vaulting events.
“In this arena you can hear the cameras going ‘click-click-click,’ and at first the horses noticed it,” said Simone right after her round. “But once my horse saw what it was, he didn’t care.” (Games organizers also took notice of the sound. The photography policy was promptly changed, now requiring photographers in the vaulting arena to use special equipment that mutes the sound of the shutter clicking.)
Jaiser said she felt “great,” adding that she hopes “to always bring my best to the competition.” She clearly loves her horse, Luk, who is 11 years old. “We’ve had him since he was 6 years old. Kentucky (the 2010 Games) was his first international event, so he was off to a fast start,” she said. “In the beginning he was a little nervous sometimes, like he was thinking, ‘hmmm, what’s happening here?’ But now after five years, I absolutely know he’ll be great (when he goes into the arena). He’s so easy. He knows the atmosphere, so I know he’ll go right in and do his round.”
Luk’s previous owner had purchased him as a jumper prospect, Simone said, “because he’s a big, strong horse. But it didn’t go that way, so they offered him to us to see if we wanted to try him for a vaulting horse. When he came to our stable I liked him from the beginning. He became our buddy. I also rode him in the field – he loves to go out there and sometimes he’s running around like, ‘Bing, bing!’ But in the arena he is a different horse. He does his job.”
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Having reported on international equestrian sports for decades, communing with competitors like Simone is always more interesting than the outcome of the competition. Results are results; there is always a gold, silver and bronze medal. But it’s the journey along the way, seeing the hearts and fabric of the athletes and the horses, that I find fascinating and deeply meaningful.
Still, these competitors have earned their places in history, so here are the results thus far (Thursday morning ) from vaulting:
Germany holds a close lead (only 0.47 points) over Switzerland in Team Vaulting. Austria, which had been the overnight leader, dropped to third at the end of the day Wednesday. The top 12 teams will advance to Friday’s final competition.
Individually, Switzerland is sitting in third place after two days of the women’s vaulting competition. One of its top assets is Simone, who is competing as an individual and took third place two days in a row. In round one of the Women’s Freestyle, she scored 8.439 with her horse, Luk, longed by Rita Blieske. That came on the heels of an equally impressive performance the previous day, when Simone scored 8.577 in the women’s compulsory first round.
First place in Women’s Freestyle went to Joanne Eccles of Great Britain (8.888), followed by Rikke Laumann of Denmark (8.652) and Anna Cavallaro of Italy (8.645). All Freestyle scores for teams and individuals are combined with the compulsory scores, and an average is taken to create the leaderboard for qualification into the next respective rounds.
Vaulting continues for two more days, and who knows what the standings will be by the time the medals ceremony comes around. But one thing is for sure: These athletes are dedicated to their sport and more importantly, to their horses. As just about every athlete at these Games has said to me after an interview that has focused on them and their performance: “I am proud of my horse. He did great.”