By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 21, 2018, 5:46 p.m. (ET)

McLain Ward competes at the FEI World Equestrian Games on Sept. 21, 2018 in Mill Spring, N.C.

 

MILL SPRING, N.C. — It came down to the most intense finish. A jump-off for the gold medal, the world title. The NetJets U.S. Jumping Team versus Sweden. And the Swedes were on fire.

But the American riders held it together when it mattered most.

Going clear-round to clear-round in the jump-off, with only Sweden’s Malin Baryard-Johnsson and the Team USA’s youngest rider, Adrienne Sternlicht, knocking down one rail each, the gold-medal dual came down to seconds on the clock.

In the end — with the final rider, four-time Olympian McLain Ward, jumping clear and tearing around the jump-off course as if it were a derby — the U.S. won its first gold medal in team jumping at the World Equestrian Games.

The three fastest American riders circled the jump-off course in 100.67 seconds, 2.06 seconds ahead of Sweden’s 102.73. 

In front of a home crowd at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, the Americans had claimed gold, Sweden silver. Germany rounded out the podium with the bronze medal.

“This is our sport at its best,” said Robert Ridland, the U.S. chef d’equipe. “The odds were miniscule that there would be a jump-off for first place when the points go to the hundredths. But when we were looking at the points going in [to today], we saw Sweden lurking behind, 8.00 points away. We realized that this is a possibility. It wasn’t what we were looking for. But the sport doesn’t get any better than that.”

“Adrienne said it best,” he added. “Let’s don’t wake up from this dream.”

It was the first time that a jump-off decided a world championship title. But it has happened at the Olympic Games. The U.S. team won Olympic gold at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 in a jump-off with Canada. Ward was on that team, as was Laura Kraut, who also competed for the Americans here at the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

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Just as important, the U.S. jumping team qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and will have a chance to go for another team medal. At the Rio Games, the U.S. jumping team earned an Olympic silver medal.

The top six teams earned quota spots for their countries. Riders for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team will be determined at a later date.

It’s the United States’ third team medal since the World Equestrian Games began in 1990. Before then, each equestrian discipline had its own world championships, with show jumping worlds beginning in 1953. The World Equestrian Games, like the former world championships, are held once every four years (although from 1953-1956, they were held annually).

The U.S. had only won the team world championship title once — in 1986.

The jumping competition began on Wednesday under a hot Carolina sun, with Switzerland taking the lead. The U.S. sat in fourth after Sternlicht and Devin Ryan — competing in their first World Equestrian Games — each had a rail down. Ward, who has three Olympic medals and was the 2017 World Cup Finals champion, was the team’s top performer.

The top three riders per country score for their team each day.

On Thursday, the U.S. jumped into the silver-medal spot behind Switzerland after both Sternlicht and Ryan rebounded in the second competition. And Ward, on Clinta, whom he only started riding in March, rode clean for the second day in a row. 

Then on Friday, Kraut — a two-time Olympian — stepped up, riding clean after both Sternlicht and Ryan dropped the same rail on the same jump. With just Ward left to ride, the U.S. sat in first, four points ahead of Sweden.

“My hat’s off to Sweden today,” said Ward. “I didn’t expect that charge at the end. When they logged their third clear round of the day, I thought we’re in trouble.”

“We’re on edge right now because if McLain has one [rail] down, we’re in a jump-off,” said Kraut before Ward started. “If he has two down, we’re silver. If he’s clear, we win.”

Ward had yet to drop a rail in this competition, so chances looked good.

Then in the middle of his round, Clinta nicked a rail. Ward had to ride the rest of the course clear for the U.S. to have another chance in a jump-off.

“McLain made us all work a little harder,” said Ridland with a laugh.

In the jump-off, Sweden’s Henrik Von Eckermann rode clear; so did Ryan. It’s a breakout year for Ryan, who’s 36 and spent his career building a stable and developing horses. This is his first championship team.

Then Johnsson had one down, as did Sternlicht, who followed. Swede Fredrik Jonsson followed and he was clear – as was Kraut next. Finally, Peder Fredricson closed it out for Sweden and was perfect. They were tied. That meant Ward has to be clear and, if so, it would come down to time.

Clinta had only had a short rest.

“I thought going into the jump-off that I was going to be my best,” said Ward. “Sometimes if you go in and try to do just enough, or halfway, you end up making a mistake. That was my approach. I know how much quality [Clinta] has. In that moment, you’ve got to do your best.”

Ward looked as relieved as he was happy after he finished a clean, fast round in the jump-off and pulled off the team win. He pumped his fist in the air and looked at the crowd.

“I’m very grateful to Robert and the confidence he had,” said Ward after he had had time to absorb the win. “This team has a lot of me on it. I’m very proud of the people here, my student [Sternlicht], I also believed in Devin, and Laura has always been brilliant.”

“I have to be honest, on Tuesday night, I was getting into bed with my wife and I looked at her and said, ‘What the hell have I done here?’” he added. “But these guys came through brilliant.”

The individual jumping rounds conclude on Sunday. Ward is aiming for his first-ever world title. Only Beezie Madden has won an individual World Equestrian Games individual medal for the U.S. (silver in 2006 and bronze in 2014). Ward came close with his horse Sapphire twice.

But it will be another battle. Ward fell to fifth in the rankings here after adding 4 penalty points to his score on Friday.

“We’re always knocking on the door, and I’m determined, and I hope one day, just like the World Cup Finals, I hope we get through,” he said, then added, “I’m going to try to stay focused and look forward to a rest day and maybe a few temperature drops.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.