MILL SPRING, N.C. — In his long equestrian career, McLain Ward has won three Olympic medals and three world championship medals. But they all have come in team jumping, including the gold medal the U.S. won Friday at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. An individual medal in jumping at this level has eluded him.
The 42-year-old four-time Olympian will have to wait until the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to try again — and four more years for another go at an individual world championship medal.
After four days and five rounds of jumping, Ward and his horse Clinta finished fourth, just one fence short of the podium.
His final penalty score of 11.08 was just over three points behind a European podium led by Germany’s Simone Blum and her long-time partner DSP Alice. Blum, 29, did not knock down any rails in the run to their first world title (with only 3.47 points for time faults). [Riders receive four penalty points for each rail that’s knocked down, plus more points for time penalties.]
Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs and Clooney landed in silver medal position with 6.68 penalty points. His Swiss teammate Steve Guerdat, aboard Bianca, rounded out the podium with 8.00 points.
This is Ward’s best individual finish ever at a World Equestrian Games, climbing up one spot from his “usual” fifth.
Although he walked away without a coveted individual medal, Ward’s performance was a highlight in a week of highlights for the NetJets U.S. Jumping Team.
For starters, the team won a historic gold medal in the team event on Friday — the first world championship team title since 1986 and the first since the World Equestrian Games debuted in 1990. That performance also qualified the U.S. for a spot at the 2020 Olympics.
“The main goal was reached,” said Ward. “Little bittersweet not to be in the medals individually, but I’m thrilled with Clinta. I’m proud of this team, it was a great championships for us.”
On another hot afternoon at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, the team also had four riders in the final 25 on Sunday. From this round, three riders moved onto the final round of 12 — Americans comprising a quarter of the field.
“I don’t know how many championships where four [American] riders made it on to the final day, then to have three in the final 12 was good,” said Laura Kraut, a two-time Olympian riding in her third world championship. “That just goes to show we had a really good week. And Devin [Ryan] was 16th, so four riders in the top 16. That’s really impressive, out of 124 starters.”
“We have a lot to be proud of,” she added, then joked, “I’m going to take a nap after this.”
In the final round of 12, the competitors rode a course that the announcer said was of “championship dimensions” — with four of the 12 fences rising to 1.65 meters, or 5-foot-5, high. And one was almost 7 feet wide.
“As big as I’ve ever seen, it’s huge,” said Ward of the course. “It just shows the level. Fifteen years ago, you’d be lucky to get one clear over this. Now, there are so many good ones, so well-schooled, so well-seasoned, just one star after another at this level.”
Five of the final 12 riders cleared the course, although four received a point or two for time penalties (clocking a time over 67 seconds).
It was a breakout world championship for 25-year-old Adrienne Sternlicht at her first World Equestrian Games. Riding Cristalline, she squeaked in as the 12th-ranked rider into the final round.
After knocking down one rail in that round, she ended up 11th.
“The top 12 was never in the realm of possibility in the world that I was living in,” said Sternlicht, crying from relief and joy. “But I knew my horse could make the top 25 if I left her alone and didn’t get in her way. I don’t know what else to say but thank you to my amazing animal.”
Kraut, 52, rode Zeremonie in a faultless round in the morning and became the top-ranked American in the standings. She stood sixth going into the final round. But then in the afternoon, Zeremonie — whom Kraut affectionately refers to as Moose in the barn — clipped two rails. The pair ended up 10th.
She has ridden Zeremonie for six years, but this is the mare’s first major championship.
“I hate to put a lot of pressure on, this is sort of the selfish round,” said Kraut after her morning round. “The other day, [the win] was more for our country. Today is a selfish round. I thought, ah, if she’s under the weather, it’s OK. Then for her to come out and be the way she was, it’s just a bonus.”
In the morning round, Ward’s horse Clinta nicked a rail, dropping them from fifth to seventh. To win a medal, they would have to jump a clear round in the afternoon. But, the current top three would have to drop two rails each for Ward to make the podium. And that was unlikely.
Ward and Clinta held up their end, jumping a clean afternoon round, only taking one point for time. But it was not enough to finally win a medal.
This was Clinta’s first major championship, and Ward consistently praised her for “brilliant” jumping. The two partnered in March after Ward was impressed with her carefulness.
In addition to riding a new horse, Ward came to his fourth World Equestrian Games with a lot on his plate. He was both a competitor and a coach — to Sternlicht in her first world championship. He lobbied Robert Ridland, the team’s chef d’equipe, to put both Sternlicht and Devin Ryan on the 2018 World Equestrian Games team. If the team did not perform, Ward would likely take the blame.
But he thrived under the pressure, claiming to both love it and hate it.
“It’s like taking the ball in the last 10 seconds,” he explained. “You either want it or you don’t, and I do. And I’m proud that they delivered, this is a great moment for the U.S. show jumping team and the United States in sports.”
Looking ahead, Ward is optimistic about his chances for an individual medal at a major championship.
“I think with a little bit of fortune, this mare is going to win a gold medal in Tokyo,” he said of Clinta. “I think she’s on the way up.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.