Tokyo 2020: Dujardin rewrites Team GB legend
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With all three Team GB riders in the starting line up for the Individual medal contest, it would be reigning Olympic Champion Charlotte Dujardin to exceed the odds, claiming the bronze medal to become Britain’s most decorated female Olympian of all-time.
The final day of competition for Team GB’s equestrian dressage athletes in Tokyo 2020 yielded success beyond the expectations of any in the sport; as three skilled riders took three inexperienced but talented horses to new heights. With the draw based on the results from the initial Grand Prix qualifier (23 – 24 July), Britain achieved representation in each group, with the maestro Carl Hester first to compete under the Union flag.
Presenting his own, Charlotte Dujardin, Sandra Biddlecombe and Lady Anne Evans En Vogue in the Jazz gelding’s first International Grand Prix Freestyle, Carl set the Bajikoen arena alight to take an early lead with 81.81%. For their test to brand new music from the reputable Tom Hunt, delivered just five days before the Games, Hester was able to follow yesterday’s spectacular performance with more eights and nines on the score sheet. The highlights came in small, balanced pirouettes and punchy tempi-changes, with enviable straightness and power; a polished technical performance allowed for lofty artistic marks, with the judges offering due praise for harmony, choreography and music interpretation. The degree of difficulty score, an element of key importance in freestyle success, achieved a high note of 9.3 from the judges H and C, Susan Hoevenaars (AUS) and President of the Judges panel Katrina Wuest (GER). An outstanding score propelled the British Dressage patron into the lead, leapfrogging Team Silver medallist Steffen Peters (USA) and dancing Dane Nanna Skodborg Merrald who both reached the 80% barrier early in the day, setting the bar for the medal showdown. The class would see no less than 13 riders achieve this mark, with Hester’s own noble effort delivering an eighth place finish for this magical combination of youth and experience.
“I’ve never done a music on him and we all know he’s very sound sensitive so he did a good job," Carl praised his latest star in the mixed zone following his test. "Standing next to the speaker the music when it comes on in there is incredibly loud and his heart shot through his head, I felt him, so the fact that he got better as I went along was good. All you want a horse to remember at the end of a show is “I had a good experience.” I just thought after yesterday’s ride “please don’t let it go wrong”, but he didn’t, he tried hard, I rode him a lot slower tonight, to calm it all down and make sure he was relaxed, and he walked out the arena fine.”
“It’s a difficult programme, it has a 9.5 on it, so there’s quite a lot to do in there for a horse that’s tense, and a bit nervous, but I thought I’ve got one chance to ride a freestyle this year and this is it, unless I go to the Europeans. So I thought I may as well do the biggest job I can, have a go at it, but don’t put too much power in. I am thrilled with him, for what he’s come from reversing out of the ring and that sort of thing, in the early days, he’s come a long, long way. I can only be happy.”
With team work key to success a continuous theme, Carl praised creative musician Tom Hunt for his work on this latest triumph: “I love it, I absolutely love it, I got this five days ago – I made my programme a long time ago but I got the music five days ago, I haven’t had a chance to ride through the programme and I didn’t want to run through the programme because I thought yesterday was the important day and being part of the team.”
Following her breakthrough performance in the Grand Prix test on Saturday, Lottie Fry earned a start in the second group to take centre stage in the Freestyle to Music contest. The Dutch stallion Everdale (by Lord Leatherdale x Negro), exudes presence in the arena and his young rider presented his powerful paces with experience beyond her years. In their debut Olympic individual medal final, the combination rode a highly technical floor plan achieving admirable degree of difficulty marks - 9.3, 9.5, 9.6, 9.1, 9.8, 9.0, 9.1 – contributing strongly to an overall artistic percentage of 85.51%. For their technical work today, an abundance of eights were given for passage, piaffe-passage transitions, piaffe and one-tempi changes, with just a small moment of exuberance from the sensitive breeding stallion resulting in a temporary loss of harmony at the opening of the canter tour. Their overall mark, 80.61%, placed the combination in 13th overall, an impressive Olympic debut for a partnership with much to look forward to.
“It’s going to take me a long time to come down from this and realise what’s happened," Fry reflected after her test, "the main thing I’m going to take away is just how much I love being in that arena and how much Everdale loved it. I can’t wait to get back in the arena at the next Games hopefully!” For her test today to Tom Hunt music she continued, “I never wanted it to finish, I just wanted to keep going forever."
Lottie has replicated the achievements of her late mother Laura with her appearance at this Games and told the media how it felt to wear the Team GB kit, “it was a really proud moment. I feel so honoured to be able to be here representing my country and being able to do what we love.” Carl Hester was also on the same team with Laura, both aged 25 making their Olympic debuts in 1992. “Carl has literally been there from the beginning and he’s just influenced the sport so much and built it up; he has won medals at his last three games now. He’s so inspiring, he’s really helped my career a lot. He’s just an incredible person! He just told me I’ve done the difficult bit now, all I have to do is just go in the arena and do what I do best.”
No doubt inspiring the next generation Lottie concluded, “it’s probably not until I get home I’m going to really realise the whole impact of it. I’m just hoping that I can inspire the younger generation and show them that dressage is actually amazing.”
The final group of six riders, with two former Olympic Individual Champions among them, would have a score of 84.30% as the mark to beat set by the United States’ Sabine Schut-Kery and Sanceo. It did not take long for the high marks to roll in, with the greats of Europe throwing down the gauntlet in a battle challenging the physical and mental strength of rider and horse. Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and TSF Dalera brought forward their La La Land programme to post an astronomical 91.73% at the top of the leaderboard. German compatriot and former Olympic Champion Isabell Werth kept up the pace with 89.65% rewarded for her classical inspired waltz with the 17 year old Bella Rose. Cathrine Dufour for Denmark held a provisional Bronze podium spot with Bohemian following an inspired Les Miserables Freestyle programme, 87.50% the score to beat.
Reigning Olympic Champion Charlotte Dujardin faced the steep task of topping her previous International personal best freestyle score with her own and Renai Hart’s Gio by more than three percent if the dream of a sixth Olympic medal were to be realised. The bright chestnut, at just ten years old and 16hh, has performed above and beyond his age and stature in Tokyo, and today’s dance in the sand was testament to his temperament and talent. To another standout Tom Hunt creation, Charlotte combined complex lines with the highest quality work, with the double coefficient elements the standout marks as nines fell in for the canter pirouettes, piaffe and passage work. A clean, convincing technical performance earning 83.00% led to a breathtaking artistic mark of 94.08%, with the ground jury awarding four tens for the music and interpretation of the music, a ten for harmony and an average degree of difficult of 9.7. The overall score, 88.54% for a provisional third, reflected a herculean effort by Britain’s most successful rider and her small but mighty partner; a true David and Goliath story playing out in the sporting theatre.
Germany’s Dorothee Schneider and the impressive Showtime would give their all as the combination to close the equestrian dressage in Tokyo, but it would not be enough to top Charlotte’s score and take the Individual Bronze medal away from the 36 year old Briton.
An emotional Charlotte spoke to the media after her medal winning performance, "I’m absolutely over the moon. That’s the first time I’ve actually ridden that freestyle, it got finished about three days ago so coming here we really didn’t know what to expect. He’s a horse with very, very little experience, that is actually his second freestyle he’s ever done, so I just went out there and I knew I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I just wanted to go out there and enjoy it and have fun. And I really did." Her connection with Gio has been evident all week, captured as she continued, "This might be bronze but he gave me absolutely everything and he’s a winner in my eyes. I’m just so proud of him, of what he has done tonight, to go in that arena and perform the way he did.”
Discussing her preparation, final thoughts and feelings on entering the arena she said, "outside I didn’t really know what to think, I thought “I’m going to go wrong, I’m going to go wrong”, because this floor plan was literally done just before we left, the music’s been being put together and finished whilst we’re out here, so have been trying to deal with that and competing. Pumpkin’s only done one freestyle in his life, which was at Hagen, so he has no experience at all of doing freestyles either. And then I set a really hard floor plan with new music, for me to learn and to get him used to, which I couldn’t do because I was here, so tonight was the first time I actually rode the whole combination again with the music and the floor plan.
"I’ve always said to myself when I get to these gates, no matter what it is, no regrets, I knew going in there I didn’t want any regrets. I finished and I was on the biggest buzz," Charlotte continued speaking about her experience with a new partner at the greatest challenge in equestrian sport, "the biggest adrenaline rush ever; he just gave me so much. He didn’t make any mistakes, he had no idea what he was doing – I was literally throwing him from one thing to another and he just keeps going and just keeps trying. What he’s done for the last three days is phenomenal, a horse that’s 10 years old that hasn’t even done one year Grand Prix, I just can’t ask anymore.”
Charlotte's story has inspired thousands, from young riders new to equestrian to those taking up the sport after years away from the saddle, and her achievement today reached new heights for the most successful rider in British dressage history. Having equalled Dame Katherine Grainger's record five-strong Olympic medal haul, this Pumpkin-hued Bronze takes Charlotte into the record books as the most decorated British female Olympian in history. "It’s so surreal, people say it and I can’t quite believe it. To level with Katharine Granger was good enough and now I’ve actually beaten that, I was like “oh my god!”, I don’t really know what else I can say, I’m so, so happy. I’m so proud of myself actually, with what I’ve achieved; to come to each Olympics and medal in both combinations – team and individually. I’ve done it twice with Valegro, to then to come here with a new dance partner that’s very, very young and very inexperienced, to come away with two medals again – I couldn’t be prouder.”
British Dressage congratulates Team GB, all three riders, horses, grooms and support staff on an outstanding Games, as well as the new Olympic Champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and all participating nations.
Words by Camille Peters | British Dressage
Photos by British Equestrian | Jon Stroud Media