With a family tradition in the saddle, a wife who is also his teammate, and a barn full of talented horses, equestrian David O'Connor seemed destined for eventing success. A longtime representative for the United States in international competition, O'Connor reached a new peak in 2000 when he took home an individual gold medal at the Olympic summer games in Sydney, Australia, having posted record scores in the demanding, sometimes dangerous, three-day event.
Born in Gaithersburg, Maryland, O'Connor got into riding through his mother, the British-born dressage judge Sally O'Connor. Sally put David and his brother, Brian, on their first ponies as young children; at age eight, David made his eventing debut mounted on his pony mare, Bramble, who got him disqualified from a dressage class when she ran out of the ring. Just a few years later, the O'Connors embarked on a memorable mission: Sally, Brian, and David rode horseback from Maryland to Oregon, a three-month trek that provided invaluable riding experience. Just as important, O'Connor has noted, the trip exposed the eleven-year-old to all facets of American life.
Eventing's New Star
As an adult O'Connor rose through the ranks of international eventing's CCI trials, graduating to the elite CCI*** ("three-star") and Olympic-qualifying CCI**** events such as the Fair Hill and Rolex trials in America, and the esteemed Badminton trials in England. Along the way he met and married Karen Lende, a world-class rider like her husband and a fellow member of the U.S. Equestrian Team. O'Connor also had the fortune to be paired with gifted eventing horses, including Wilton Fair, On a Mission, Rattle & Hum, and his two Olympic mounts, Giltedge and Custom Made.
After being named an alternate to the 1988 eventing team at the Olympic summer games in Seoul, Korea, O'Connor rode for the U.S. at the 1996 games in Atlanta,
where he partnered Giltedge to a team silver. High placements in the World Equestrian Games and the Pan Am Games led to another Olympic berth, in Sydney, Australia, September, 2000.
Olympic equestrian competition dates back to 1900, when military officers entered jumping classes. Dressage and the three-day event were added for the 1912 summer games in Stockholm, but it would be another forty years before civilians, and then women, were encouraged to participate. Today, equestrian competition is one of just two Olympic sports in which men and women compete as equals (the other being sailing, which features open competition as well as men-only and women-only races). Team and individual events are offered to qualified riders; O'Connor chose Giltedge as his team partner, and Custom Made as his individual mount.
In a three-day event, each rider must stay with the same horse for all three days. Day one belongs to dressage. A discipline derived from a horse's training for military purposes, modern dressage is often compared to ballet on horseback. Following a set pattern, horse and rider execute intricate changes of direction, gait, and tempo. Judges score the pair on fluidity of performance, correctness and obedience of the horse, and the pair's ability to meet each portion of the test.
On day two, horse and rider tackle the cross-country portion. The pair will cover as much as twenty miles in that one day, divided into four different classes of varying difficulty. The day culminates in the cross-country jump, considered the ultimate challenge of horse and rider. It can span several miles and contain as many as thirty-six jumping efforts. Because the obstacles are as solid as they are imposing, this phase is considered the most dangerous of all Olympic sports; a misjudged approach, imperfect takeoff, or awkward landing can send horse and rider sprawling. Day three of competition involves show-jumping, a test of timing and endurance after the rigors of the cross-country.
A Custom Made Victory
O'Connor's strong performance with Giltedge helped the four-member American squad secure team bronze in Sydney. As he did in Atlanta, David shared the podium with his wife, Karen, a formidable competitor on her horse, Biko. Then O'Connor readied himself for the individual title. With Custom Made (known fondly as "Tailor"), a towering thoroughbred, O'Connor entered the dressage arena. Intended to highlight the horse's suppleness, strength and obedience, dressage—French for "training"—in its quiet way is a demanding equestrian sport. When they completed their pattern, O'Connor and Custom Made had set a new Olympic record, posting the best-ever score, 29 penalties, for three-day event dressage.
Day two found O'Connor and Custom Made continuing their streak, posting a clean (no-penalty) round over the roads-and-tracks, steeplechase, and cross-country jump. Not everyone was so fortunate; only 23 of the original 38 eventing duos remained for show jumping on the final day of competition.
Going into show jumping as the leader, O'Connor knew the gold medal was within his grasp. His main competition came from Australia's Andrew Hoy, a veteran rider. Jumping in reverse order of standings, Hoy preceded O'Connor into the stadium and moved from fourth place to provisional first with a clean jumping round. To win, O'Connor would have to complete the twisting, thirteen-jump course with no more than 10.8 penalty points, which can be accrued through rail knockdowns of five points each. Points could also accumulate if the horse and rider exceed the course's 90-second time limit.
O'Connor vs. the Wall
Navigating the technically demanding stadium, O'Connor jumped clean over the first five fences. Clearing fence six, the big horse brushed the top rail, which made a rapping noise but did not fall. Then O'Connor made a potentially disastrous tactical mistake: He turned to glance back at fence six. When he faced forward again, O'Connor had temporarily lost track of his place in the course. He slowed Custom Made as he looked about. Members of the capacity crowd, sensing his distress, shouted, "the wall!," cueing O'Connor to the fence seven, a breakaway wall. He did not hear them.
|1962||Born January 18, in Gaithersburg, Maryland|
|1973||Completed cross-country horseback trip with mother and brother|
|1986||Began competing internationally with the United States Equestrian Team|
|1986||Named alternate, World Champion CCI***|
|1988||Named alternate, Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea|
|1990||Represented U.S. at World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, Sweden|
|1991||Moved to England to continue training|
|1993||Married teammate Karen Lende|
|1994||Relocated to The Plains, Virginia|
|1994||Named alternate, World Equestrian Games|
|1996||Represented U.S. at Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia|
|2000||Represented U.S. at Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia|
|2002||Represented U.S. at World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1986||Named alternate, World Champion CCI***|
|1990||Winner, Rolex CCI***|
|1992||Highest-placed American (seventh), Badminton CCI****|
|1993||Winner, Fair Hill CCI***|
|1995||Winner, Fair Hill CCI*** and Rolex CCI***|
|1996||Team silver medal, Olympic Games, Atlanta, Georgia|
|1997||Winner, Fair Hill International CCI*** and Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI****|
|1998||Team bronze medal, World Equestrian Games, Rome, Italy|
|1999||Individual silver and Team gold medal, Pan Am Games, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada|
|2000||Highest-placed American (second), Rolex CCI****|
|2000||Individual gold and Team bronze medal, Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia|
|2000||Named American Horse Show Association Equestrian of the Year|
|2001||Winner, Fair Hill International CCI*** and Rolex CCI****|
|2002||Team gold medal, World Equestrian Games, Jerez, Spain|
To have bypassed that jump—going "off course"—would have resulted in O'Connor's elimination. In a matter of moments, though, he had regained his bearings, leapt cleanly over the wall, and continued the pattern correctly, accruing five points with one rail down.
Though the slip had cost him valuable seconds, O'Connor had still completed his round in the time allowed, and the gold medal was his in a new Olympic record of just 34 penalty points over three days. It was the first individual gold for the U.S. in that sport since 1984.
A documentary film by Olympics chronicler Bud Greenspan caught O'Connor muttering, "stupid, stupid" to himself as he exited the arena. "My head is still sore from being on a swivel looking for the next fence," he was quoted in an Associated Press article posted on ESPN.com. "There was a moment there of words that can't be printed." To make such an error with the stakes so high continued to dog O'Connor even after he accepted his prize: "I was so upset about the missed turn that I still thought about it during the victory gallop." Still, O'Connor's gallop, gold medal around his neck, American flag waving in his right hand, was a widely seen image of the Sydney summer games.
Subsequent to his Olympic victory, O'Connor continued to dominate international eventing. In 2001 he again took the Fair Hill CCI*** aboard The Native. And in September 2002 O'Connor (on Giltedge) joined Kim Severson, Amy Tryon, and John Williams to take the U.S. team's first gold medal at the World Equestrian Games held in Jerez, Spain. However, the future of Olympic eventing lay in doubt. The International Olympic Committee Programme Commission issued a recommendation eliminating this sport, citing cost, danger, and other factors. O'Connor spoke up for eventing, telling Practical Horseman that "horse sports are growing in popularity, and we're growing with them." He added: "You have people who're there and supporting you just because you're from their nation. They don't know a lot about your sport, but they're going to support you just because you're an American or a Canadian or whoever you are. And that's quite a special feeling." In November 2002, the IOC accepted the International Equestrian Federation's proposal to retain eventing in a modified form. For the 2004 games in Athens, the competition will retain dressage, cross-country and show-jumping, but eliminate the roads-andtracks and steeplechase courses.
For O'Connor, the fascination of his sport begins and ends with the horse. "I really like the communication with the horse," he noted in his O'Connor Event Team Web site. "Watching them become confident and discover the amazing things they can do. There's definitely a personal kind of closeness between you and the horse. There's a connection between your personalities."
Eldridge, Annie. "An Eventful Life." Horse Illustrated. (May, 2001).
"Forecasting Eventing's Future." Practical Horseman. (January, 2003).
"How Sweet It Is." Practical Horseman. (November, 1999).
Jaffer, Nancy. "This WEG Was a Wow." Practical Horseman. (December, 2002).
"David O'Connor Is Cool." HorseDaily. http://www.horsedaily.com/olympics/9-6-diana8.html (December 16, 2002).
O'Connor Event Team. http://www.oconnoreventteam.com (December 16, 2002).
"O'Connor Loses Just One Rail." ESPN.com. http://espn.go.com/oly/summer00/news/2000/0921/765067.html (December 18, 2002).
Sketch by Susan Salter