Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bliss. The Olympics.

Her middle name is Bliss. It's the best middle name ever; if I'd known her before I had children I might have borrowed Bliss for my daughter's middle name.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer. Olympic eventer.

 I promised not to blog about her until the Olympic eventing competition was finished. Lauren rode for the U.S. Team.

She was 17 when I first met her. She's 29 now, grown up entirely, with strength and poise and self-control. I was thrilled when she made the team for Rio. I wanted to blog about her right away, but my husband said, "She's superstitious, she won't like that." He and Lauren have never actually met, so I wasn't sure why he felt that way, but I asked Lauren and she agreed. Olympians in general and eventers in particular are a superstitious bunch. A thousand things can go wrong between being named to a team and finishing a competition, and often many of them do.  This year one of the horses had to be scratched because the day before the first horse inspection in Rio it cut its face on a pipe in the stabling, and the cut got infected. Horse flew all the way to Rio and got hurt there. Happens all the time.

Eventing is a triathlon: dressage, cross country, show jumping. Lauren and her horse Veronica had their dressage test on Sunday. It was solid. Monday was the real test: cross country, which separates eventing from every other sport. At yoga Monday morning I asked my class to set as their intention the safety of all the horses and riders. "It's the most dangerous day of the most dangerous sport in the Olympics," I said, which is true.

My daughter and I watched the first section of riders in our family room via the live internet feed. The course was considered hard, and it rode very hard: in the end, only 40% of the riders completed it without major jumping faults; only 70% completed it at all. Every team of four riders drops the lowest score. The first rider for the U.S., Boyd Martin, did well, but second rider Clark Montgomery's horse stopped at several fences and was eliminated.

Lauren was scheduled to ride at 12:27. My daughter had a doctor's appointment at 1:00 a half hour's drive from our house. She and I packed up her laptop and drove to a Panera Bread right next to the doctor's office, where we connected to wifi and ate soup, waiting.

Lauren's face at the start was calm and intense. Her horse was so eager that the tips of her ears, pricked forward, nearly touched. They began.

Eventing is a tiny sport in the US. I actually know several of our Olympians. Most people who event do. I've competed against Olympians. Boyd Martin complemented my mare in warm-up once, then trounced me on a very classy young horse of his own. Once at a horse trial that went very badly for me, I was stalking around the showgrounds trying to regain my temper when I ran into a Very Famous American Olympic Rider. "Hey, Kim, how's it going?" the VFAOR said.

"Terrible," I said. "I just got thrown over the first fence in showjumping." Hit the ground and you're eliminated. That's the rules.

The VFAOR laughed. "You asshole," she said, "that was really stupid."

I've given up telling this story to non-horse people, or even to people who are horsey but not eventers, because they get all horrified and feel indignant and sorry for me, that an icon of the sport would call me an asshole. Even the VFAOR worried for a microsecond that maybe I wouldn't take her words as she intended them--I saw a spasm of concern cross her face. She stammered and started to say something else. I held up my hand.

"That," I said, "is the only thing you could have said that wouldn't have made me more angry than I already am." Because at its bedrock eventing is a sport of honesty. Things go well, or poorly, but they go how they go. You don't make excuses. You say, wow, that sucked, and you move on.

So my daughter and I are in Panera, holding our breaths because Lauren's on course. She looks so, so good. Controlled and athletic and thinking hard. They're nearly halfway through, going the straight route through a difficult combination, and Veronica catches a hoof on a fence and falls. She lands on her knees, sliding. Lauren shoots off over Veronica's shoulder.

Neither one of them is much hurt, but just like that, they're done. Eliminated. The United States will have two riders in the top six after cross country day, Boyd and Philip Dutton, who rides last, and Philip will showjump brilliantly to win the individual bronze, but the US will not get a team score.

Lauren gets up. She goes to Veronica and untangles the reins from the horse's feet. Veronica stands. Lauren pats her, briefly, runs the stirrups up on the saddle and starts the long walk back to the stabling. In the Panera Bread in east Tennessee I put my head in my hands. My heart aches for her. I'm sure she's saying you asshole in her head--all eventers do--sure she's replaying over and over the last few strides before the fall.

Eventing is a tough sport. It is so, so hard to make it to the top, and even then sometimes things go badly no matter what you do. It sucks and we move on.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer still got to ride in the Olympics. She still represented us well.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer, Olympian. You can never take that title away.