Monday, April 28, 2014

Lauren Kieffer: Nine Years to An Overnight Sensation

So, my dears, I'm atypically at a loss for words. I've been both eager to write this blog post and puzzling over how to do it. The short form of the reading: Lauren Kieffer rode brilliantly in both cross country on Saturday and showjumping on Sunday; she finished on her dressage score, which is the best you can do; she finished in second place behind William Fox-Pitt, who I think is the number-one ranked eventer in the world, or if not should be, and if he'd had the grace to knock down just one showjumping rail Lauren would have won it. It was her second four-star and pretty much her horse's first (Veronica started Rolex two years ago with a different rider but was eliminated at the fifth xc fence).

On Saturday, my daughter and I watched Lauren through the first water complex, a series of three jumps. She rode it beautifully: steady, even strides and perfect lines. Our plan was to then go down to the finish line, watch her cross it, and head to the vet box where uber-groom Max Corcoran was scheduled to give a presentation. Vet boxes are only featured in international events and pony club rallies; my daughter, heading to pony club championships this summer, wanted some tips.

While we walked along the end of the course, we listened to Lauren's progress via the announcer. Clear through 7, the coffin complex. Clear through 13, the tobacco stripping barn. Through 14, the Hollow, though she took the long route there. (Why? Trouble?) Clear through 16, the devious offset brush. (Good girl!) Then, "hold on course," over the speakers.

Oh crap. Hold on course meant that riders were being stopped because either a horse or rider, or both, had fallen and was not expected to be able to get out of the way in time for the next rider. At Rolex riders are sent out at five minute intervals, which meant there are typically 3 on course at any one time. Oh crap. You never want to have a hold. Then, "Lauren Kieffer being held before the Head of the Lake," and it became an oh crap of a different kind. First, worry about the rider in front of her (it turned out that the rider was fine, but the horse had suddenly pulled up lame; it was loaded into an ambulance and later had hoof surgery at the vet hospital across the street, and is expected to make a full recovery). Second, being held is a completely lousy thing to have happen--the horse is in full gallop at this point, with a lovely rhythm, and suddenly is being asked to stand still for an indefinite amount of time, and then, hey! gallop on. Third, she was being held right before the Head of the Lake, the infamous Rolex water complex that is always just about the hardest thing on course. To have to go straight there from a stop, on an opinionated mare who probably was not thrilled about being held--ouch. Poor Lauren!

The hold went on long enough that we gave up on the finish and went to the side of the vet box (a roped-off field) where a woman with a sign about the presentation was looking around impatiently for Max.

"Do you know what Max Corcoran looks like?" she asked, scanning the crowds.
"Yes," I said, "But she's not going to come over here until Lauren gets in."

The woman gave me a puzzled look, but I knew I was right. Max used to be Veronica's groom. She loves the horse. Also, Max and Lauren both lived on the O'Connor farm for years. Max loves Lauren, too.

A few minutes later the hold was lifted. The announcer said, "Lauren Kieffer a bit sticky through the drop into the Head of the Lake, but she's made it out," and my daughter and I cheered. "A bit sticky" means "very nearly fell off," but you don't get style points in eventing. If you did, Lauren might have gotten some: I've since seen video and several photos of that drop--a jump that lands, in this case in the lake, several feet below the take-off. Veronica caught a back leg on the jump, which threw Lauren onto the horse's neck, her right foot out the stirrup, and threw Veronica to the left, making her very likely to miss the next jump, which was in the lake only three strides away. Lauren's reins were out to the buckle, because you've got to let them slip through your hands over a big drop. In the first stride after the near fiasco she had gotten her butt back in the saddle, her right leg, stirrupless, clamped to the horse's side, and both her hands behind her right hip, steering. Remarkable. Sometime after the next jump she put her foot back into the stirrup. It was, in the words of my daughter, "big levels of badass;" more refined pundits called it, "clutch."

My point is that she rode the snot out of that course. From the vet box we could see her cross the finish line, though in the distance. We saw her friends and groom swarm the horse, taking off saddle, boots, shoe studs as fast as possible. Heard Lauren let out an echoing war whoop. Saw Hannah Sue Burnett, still wearing her own xc gear, tackle her in a hug. "There's Max," I said to the woman with the sign. "In the green shirt, sponging off the horse."

My daughter and I drove home Saturday night, but we watched Sunday's showjumping on our laptops in a live feed. Allison Springer and Arthur, who'd led after dressage, had a mishap on xc, so Lauren was in second place. This meant she had to showjump second to last--plenty of pressure.

She jumped perfectly. I've been working hard to improve my own showjumping, so I notice details I missed before, and I'll tell you--Lauren did it exactly right. It's not easy. She was superb.

But now I come to my real point. Right now Lauren Kieffer sits at the top of the world. Team selections are always shrouded in mystery, but I'd guess she's getting strong consideration for this year's World Championships. If she makes the team, she gets to wear a red U. S. Event Team coat for the rest of her life. She'd be, to a large extent, made.

It didn't happen this weekend. It happened over the last nine years.

Lauren has always had talent, courage, and ambition. Anyone can see that. But what she's also had was dedication. Making a living riding event horses is the dream of a whole bunch of teenage girls, but is also unbelievably hard to do. You don't start out riding Veronica at Rolex. You start out shoveling manure, cleaning tack, taking horses on one-hour walk sets in which neither you nor the horse learn a thing and both of you are bored out of your mind. You get the occasional lesson. You work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, at minimum, and you get up at 6 or 5 or 4, depending on the day, and you never have enough money. Usually you hurt somewhere. Then you get the chance to ride some medium-talent horses, and you ride them as well as you possibly can every day even if it's raining or cold or you just got back from working 10 hours at a show grooming for people higher up the food chain. You do this for years. 

When people from your barn go to the World Equestrian Games, you stay on the farm keeping all the horses fit. When people from your barn go to the Olympics, you do the same. When your friend and roommate earns her red coat, you cheer for her, hoping that someday she'll tackle you with a hug at the Rolex finish line. You keep your head down and you keep working and you learn.

Eventually you get your chance. But it doesn't come wrapped in paper with a bow. It comes, as Thomas Edison once said, "Dressed in overalls, looking like work."  The horse is still somewhat unproven. You get to ride her, but due to qualification rules you've got to take her back down the levels, work your way up. And you do.

It takes nine years. Not nine years from the day you first dreamed of riding at Rolex, riding beautifully in front of cheering crowds, nine years from the day you started the serious work of getting there.

This, in the end, is why I understand Lauren Kieffer. Writing is like that, too. It took nine years from the first manuscript I sent to a publisher to the publication of my first novel. I call that my apprenticeship, and I don't regret it, and I don't think it's at all atypical. I always knew I had writing talent. I knew, too, that every year I didn't sell a book I still got better as a writer. And, in the end, the nine years would have passed, whether or not I worked hard all the way through them. A lot of people--a lot--tell me that they've got this great idea for a novel but they don't have time in their busy lives to write it, or they started to write it and it didn't come out they way they imagined, and what should they do? Get to work, buttercup. It's a privilege to make your living in a way a lot of people would like to be able to do, if only it weren't so hard.

After Lauren's dressage, I said to her, "Some day, I'm going to be able to say I knew you--"
"--when I was just a baby!" she finished for me, with a grin.

You bet, girlfriend. Kick on.