In four short years, Canada's three-day eventing equestrian team has gone from zero to Olympic contender.
Four years ago at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, Canada didn't qualify a three-day eventing team, and sent two individuals who did not finish.
On Sunday, the Canadian crew won a silver medal at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., and, with it, a berth at the 2012 London Olympics.
The team was composed of Stephanie Rhodes-Bosch of Summerland, B.C. (ninth individually), Selena O'Hanlon of Elgin, Ont. (12th), Hawley Bennett-Awad of Langley, B.C. (17th), and veteran Kyle Carter of Calgary (34th). Two other Canadians rode as individuals.
The World Equestrian Games serve as world championships for eight equestrian disciplines every four years. The Canadian three-day eventers hadn't won a medal at a world championship since 1978. A top-five finish at the World Equestrian Games qualifies a team for the Olympics.
The Canadian team exceeded all expectations. It defeated teams with storied histories in the event that combines dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping. The Canadians fell short of catching only the British (winner of more eventing world championships than anyone), whose riders amassed just 139.4 faults. Canada finished second with 151.5 faults, while New Zealand was third and the United States fourth.
Canada's rise is not surprising to consultant David O'Connor, whose magic touch transformed the team into world-beaters when Equine Canada brought him into the fold four years ago. O'Connor is president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and won an eventing Olympic gold medal for his country at the Sydney Games in 2000.
At the World Equestrian Games, a formidable cross-country course felled many big-name entries. But all six Canadian riders finished without a fault, and at least half of them finished within the tight time constraints.
"I can't remember a team doing that at a major championship, ever, ever," O'Connor said. "[The Canadians]made history."
O'Hanlon, who rode 16-year-old Colombo, said the Canadians' secret weapon was the jumping ability of their fast horses, which helped them in two-thirds of the competition. O'Connor said their next step is to become proficient at dressage.
O'Hanlon said O'Connor has helped her immensely with dressage, and helped the entire team with training camps and team dinners. "He's also very big into sports psychology," she said. "He didn't want us to go just to be there. He wanted us to go to compete."
O'Connor said one of the first things he talked about with the group was that "everybody needed to change their expectations of what they can do. You get used to being average and there's no reason." He got young riders to hone their skills, and after three years of education, he turned them loose in Kentucky.
O'Hanlon hopes the silver medal will help pave the way for the team to get more financial help from horse owners, sponsors and Equine Canada.
"We do it all by a shoestring," she said. "Most of the horses on the team are owned by the riders and families. A lot of the Americans have a string of top-level horses, and if one of their horses is injured, they can ride a different horse. We really need that backing, because we've got the talent."