MILL SPRING, N.C. — Adrienne Sternlicht completed her round in the Thursday morning heat, and as the crowd roared, she galloped around the ring and pointed at her horse, Cristalline.
In the second day of jumping at the FEI World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, Sternlicht had only a one-point time penalty — one of only nine riders who did not knock down any rails.
It made up for a tough start yesterday, where she scored 4.26 after knocking down a rail and adding a small time penalty. She moved from 45th to 12th in the individual standings.
“I’ve had an array of emotions all over the map,” Sternlicht said. “Today, I knew that what I did yesterday, the intensity that I was trying to channel, like gritting my teeth when I went to the ring, wasn’t productive for me. So I took a new approach, to relax and trust my horse and the love we have for each other.”
Sternlicht is only 25 years old and riding in her first World Equestrian Games. Her score today helped boost the U.S. team from fourth to silver-medal position with 12.59 points, less than a point behind leader Switzerland and far ahead of third-placed Germany (18.09 points).
McLain Ward and his new mount Clinta led the team, moving from eighth to second place in the individual standings with a clean run and only a 1-point time penalty. He sits behind Lorenzo de Luca from Italy, one of five riders to have clean runs in the second day of jumping competition.
Four riders compete for each country in jumping, but only the top three each day score for the team competition. Yesterday, Sternlicht and Olympic veterans Laura Kraut and McLain Ward scored for Team USA. Today, Sternlicht, Ward and Devin Ryan carried the team after Kraut’s horse, Zeremonie, knocked down two rails with the lightest of touches. Ryan’s horse Eddie Blue cleared all the rails, but one hoof touched the water jump.
The team competition wraps up tomorrow. The U.S. won a bronze medal in team jumping at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games. They have not won the world title since 1986 — back when it was the show jumping world championships (equestrian disciplines were aggregated into the World Equestrian Games in 1990).
“Devin and Adrienne were just phenomenal [today],” said a disappointed Kraut. “Devin was so unlucky. Adrienne just rode the round that we were all hoping for her to ride, and she was brilliant.”
“If we can all come back tomorrow and go as well with a little bit more luck,” added Kraut, “I think we could wind up with a medal.”
For the Americans, Ward and Clinta carried the (hot) day. But Ward’s student, Sternlicht, and her horse Cristalline were not far behind.
From Greenwich, Connecticut, Sternlicht has taken an unusual path to the top of the equestrian world. Unlike many top riders, she did not focus solely on equestrianism as a child. She grew up doing a range of activities, riding among them. Her parents insisted that she have a well-balanced upbringing, she told Heels Down Magazine. Her father, Barry Sternlicht, is the founder of Starwood Capital Group, an investment firm specializing in real estate and hotels. Her mother, Mimi, is also an entrepreneur, co-founding two companies.
For high school, Sternlicht attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut boarding school, and stopped riding altogether. Instead, she competed in alpine skiing and played varsity squash.
It was at Brown University where she began riding again. She graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and decided to focus full-time on the sport.
Key to her success: She acquired Cristalline in 2016. The Bavarian Warmblood mare had finished 10th at the 2016 FEI World Cup Final with Australian rider Chris Chugg, and Sternlicht quickly bonded with her.
“We’re so close,” said Sternlicht after her stellar round on Thursday. “Actually, my sports psychologist is here, and he met her yesterday, and he said he’s never seen two beings that love each other so much.”
In 2016, Sternlicht also began working with Ward, a four-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist. And she soon made an impact in jumping. In May 2017, she made her Nations Cup debut aboard Cristalline, and the pair helped the U.S. team win a silver medal at the FEI Jumping Nations Cup in Mexico. Since then, she has continued to place near the top of results.
She was so good that Israel was soliciting Sternlicht to ride for them.
“She was riding with McLain already, and I said, ‘Listen here, you’re going to ride on our team, so you stick with us!’” said Kraut, who also worked with Sternlicht a few years ago and saw her drive and potential.
But how would Sternlicht do on the big stage?
Not as well as either she or Ward hoped, at least on Wednesday. It was Ward who helped turn his student around.
“McLain and I are really close, so that means that at times it’s quite tense between us,” she said. “He knows when to support me when I need that love and also when I need to be yelled at, honestly.”
After her 45th-place finish on Wednesday, he chose the yelling route.
“She’s tough, and the reason that I was confident to stand behind her selection to this team was I knew she can take pressure,” Ward stated. “I’ve tested her over the last two years and put her against the wall. This isn’t amateur hour, right? People’s lives are changed by this, this is serious. People put their life’s work into it.”
“She was a little green yesterday and a little frozen,” Ward continued. “And I was very clear that I was not impressed and didn’t think that was as good as she can deliver.”
Sternlicht was exhausted after her performance on Wednesday — “from not only mentally preparing myself and jumping, but being disappointed in myself,” she said.
“I went to bed at 9 o’clock, slept, woke up refreshed and just thought, ‘All right, how can I handle this better today?’”
Then she had “an epiphany.” She needed to relax. Ward’s talk also fired her up. And by the end of her round, student and coach were proud.
“Today she came roaring back as I know she can,” he said, “and she was as good as any rider in the world.”
The team competition concludes Friday. Then the top 25 athletes and their horses move on to the individual final on Sunday, where Ward hopes to win his first individual world title.
And, hopefully, his student won’t be far behind.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.