We caught up with Olympic Gold Medalist Laura Kraut this week as she was competing at the Royal Dublin Horse Show in Ireland.
We wanted to get her perspective on the just completed London Olympic Games for any number of reasons.
First of all, we’ve always been a huge fan of Laura’s and she’s a tremendously articulate horsewoman and one who has never been afraid to express her opinion. So, it’s always fun to chat with Laura.
Secondly, with her relationship with Great Britain’s superstar Nick Skelton, who better to talk to to find out what it was like to be a part of the amazing Gold medal win by the hometown team in London?
And then there’s this. What about a U.S. Gold medalist from the 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games (and a member too of the Sydney and Barcelona teams) sitting in the grandstands in London? Of course it's easy to say now and hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back, wouldn't it have been nice to have her experience and Cedric’s firepower in the ring in London?
What are her thoughts on all of this?
Let’s find out.
Hi Laura. Nice to catch up with you. How are you?
I’m well. A little wet here in Dublin, but I’m doing great.
Excellent! Well let’s get started, I’ve got a lot to talk to you about (laughs). First of all, can I get your overall reaction to the equestrian events in London? They seemed to be completely sold out for every performance, the crowd seemed totally pumped and very knowledgeable. Was it as perfect a facility and venue and setting as it appeared to be on the TV and online?
It was absolutely the best Olympics I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to three others and this was just second to none. I think they did an incredible job organizing it. The facilities for the horses were beautiful. All of the behind the scenes stuff was just great. And then, being in the middle of London, I know a lot of people, including me, were very skeptical about being in the city. But, as it turned out, it was almost perfect. We were all within walking distance of the venue and there were tons of restaurants, a great atmosphere, so much history, it was just really beautiful. I feel bad for Rio (laughs).
A tough act to follow huh?
Yeah, very tough.
It appeared to be an especially fun venue on cross-country day for the Eventing, with the compact course and so many people and everything very convenient, it looked like great fun…….
Yeah, it was amazing. The park is not that big, so it was a tight course. I think there was something like 50,000 people on the grounds that day. And the weather was miraculously decent, so it worked out beautifully.
Speaking of weather, and considering the dire predictions going in, I’m guessing overall, people were happy with the London weather?
Yes, you’re exactly right. I think the Show Jumping really got lucky. Other than the second day, when it rained a bit, the weather was not bad at all.
I’m guessing, because the American team was fairly quickly out of the Gold medal picture, it became a little easier for you to cheer Great Britain on to their Gold medal?
That’s kind of a bittersweet way to look at it. Obviously, I didn’t want to see us out of the picture. And really, nobody was completely out going into that second day. They were one rail out of second and two rails out of the medals and anything can happen at the Olympic Games. I didn’t feel it was a lost cause coming into day two, but it certainly became a struggle fairly quickly on day two. I was rooting for Nick and for Scott and Pete, I wanted them to do well. But first and foremost, I wanted the United States to do well.
We’ll get to the American’s performance in a little bit, but first, I want to talk about that Gold Medal victory for Great Britain. You had such a unique perspective, right there on the inside, so to speak. That, at least from my perspective, was one of the most heartwarming and picture perfect victories I’ve ever witnessed. Hometown team, big hometown win at the perfect time. I mean, you couldn’t have scripted that finish any better even if you wanted to…..
It was unbelievable! I was pretty involved with them, obviously. I had gone to the team dinner the night before with just the riders. It was the Chef d’Equipe and the riders and myself. It was very low key. They were all very confident and they all got along great. And the mood was fabulous. And then the way it unfolded that day was just magical and the first thing out of all of their mouths was just what you said. They all said, ‘you just couldn’t have scripted it any better.’ To have that jump-off and to win that, and what was really, really great was to have Pete (Peter Charles) who hadn’t gone that well, go clean with that final round to clinch the Gold medal, that was just perfect. So all four of them got a piece of the Gold. It just made it that much nicer.
I will never forget the expression on Peter Charles’ face when he jumped that last fence clean……..
Nick said to him, in the holding area just before he went, he ran up to him and said, ‘Just go clear. You have to jump clear! Just go clear!’ Poor Pete (laughs) with all that pressure, but he did. As you know, he had to jump clear for them to win it and then he did go clear. So he was just elated. It was so nice for him.
The atmosphere in that arena seemed incredible…..
There was so much pressure on everybody and especially Nick to get that medal, and then to have to jump off to win the Gold. I knew how they felt because I had been in that position in Hong Kong. It was so much fun, and so much relief, it was just a very, very happy day for everyone.
I got a text from Nick the next day saying, ‘what a great day and a great night.’ Talk about what the celebration was like following the Gold medal victory.
Oh gosh it was so much fun! It was one of those things that was totally impromptu. We went back to the stables so he could take his boots off and stuff and he and I walked out and there was a pub right there, the Greenwich Arms, I think it was called. Anyway, a lot of the teams had been hanging out there. And there were pubs all over this little village, in this little area around the park, but for whatever reason this place became the one, and everyone went there. And it turned into a massive street party. It was like being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (laughs). It was just so much fun and everyone was just so happy and excited. All of the riders were there and the BBC came with a camera crew, and the best part, none of it was planned. It’s really hard to describe if you weren’t there, but we spent five or six hours in an environment that was pure joy. It was great!
Did you get to hang out with any of the Royals?
Ah, the Royalty (laughs). Other than Zara (Phillips), no. Nick got an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and we were supposed to go to Windsor to receive that award from the Queen, but I think it’s during Rio, so I think he’s not going to do that (laughs). He’s met the Royals a lot, although he’s never met Kate and Will and didn’t meet them this time either…..
He’s met the Queen?
Oh yes, he’s met the Queen many times. And he got beautifully written letters from Camilla. And they weren’t form letters but rather, hand written, personal letters, saying how excited she was to watch Big Star. They were really incredible letters.
How cool is that……
Yeah, it’s really cool. England is such a great place. You know, I love America, but here, it’s so different with all of the history and the buildings and the ceremony, it’s just a very magical place.
What was the emotion of that win nationally? I know horse sports are so much more important in Great Britain. Was this Gold medal win a national occasion? What was the coverage like?
Listen, it’s just sooooo different. I mean, when we won in Hong Kong, it’s not like we weren’t acknowledged, and when the team won in Athens, yeah, we had our horse publications covering it, but really that was about the extent of the American coverage. Over here, it is just so much different. Nick has done countless news, television and radio interviews and so have the other guys, and I mean it’s nationwide. Even here in Ireland, the country is beside itself with excitement (laughs). It’s amazing. It’s just a different sport over here. The media understands equestrian sport. I think that’s the biggest thing. The lady that does the commentary for the BBC, she’s a top level person in the BBC, yet she’s a horse person herself.
It makes you a little jealous of what they’ve got going over there……….
Yeah, it sure does. I guess we have to grateful we have Matt Lauer on the Today Show who gives us a mention now and then (laughs)……
I don’t know if you heard over there, but the NBC coverage of Equestrian, once again, was sorely lacking. But then again, I guess if we had won a few medals, they might have given us more exposure……
I’ll have to admit, when not one of the Equestrian disciplines gets a medal, they’re probably not going to fork over a lot of airtime…..
Let’s briefly talk about the format for the Individual Gold medal. Obviously, everyone knew the rules coming in, so it wasn’t a surprise for anyone. But, again, just from my perspective, it certainly seems quite unfair that Cian O’Connor with five rails down coming in was able to win a Bronze medal and yet Nick, with one unlucky rail through what, six rounds of competition, was just that quickly out of the picture. What are your thoughts on that?
I think what most of the competitors think. That format, the way it’s designed, does not bring out the true Olympic champion horse when the competition is over. I think if it’s cumulative over the four or five rounds, that is the true Olympic champion. But, as you said, going in, we all knew, we’ve all been to the Olympics before, so we knew ahead of time what it would be. It wasn’t a surprise and we all knew that could happen. Basically, the Individual day is just a grand prix, simple as that. And anything can happen on grand prix day.
I can tell you how Nick looked at it. Obviously he was very disappointed that he had one down. But, after about fifteen minutes of reflecting back on the Games, he realized, that yes, his horse was the Olympic champion. He jumped six rounds with one pole down. No other horse in the Games did that. Steve Guerdat’s horse had two down and like you said, the Bronze medalist Cian O’Connor came into the Individual with 20 faults. He said afterwards that, ‘Look, I have my Gold medal. My horse was great. What can you do? That’s show jumping. That’s our sport.’
Is there talk of changing that? I mean, do the riders feel like I feel as an outside observer that it’s just not a real fair system?
Oh, for sure. Everyone feels that way and everyone was talking about it. It was a big deal, this time in particular, because I don’t recall it every happening that way before or being such an issue. In Hong Kong, for example, Hickstead won and he was an Olympic champion and Ninja was Silver and Authentic was Bronze and they were Olympic champions. So yeah, you didn’t look at that result and say ‘that didn’t work out.’ It worked out perfectly. I think this is the first time it didn’t work out the way it should have.
Again, I know, it’s the format and everyone knew ahead of time, but it just seemed so dramatically unfair. And, why have all of those Individual qualifiers if they don’t mean anything?
I think that’s something they’re looking into. Especially that first day. That was really sort of a useless round. There 41 that were clear or with a time fault out of the 75 that competed. So obviously, it wasn’t Olympic jumping. I think they could go with just a warm-up and then take the top 35 out of the two Nations Cup rounds.
Well, I’m glad other people feel the way I feel about that……
Oh, I promise you, everyone. Everyone feels that way. There’s not one person, with the possible exception of Cian O’ Connor (laughs) that thinks the system is a fair one.
Speaking of that opening day round, I think Course Designer Bob Ellis gave everyone the idea that he had terribly underestimated the competition. But in reality, at least according to what I’ve been hearing, that warm-up class led to some extremely talented course building as the rest of Games progressed. What is your take on the course building?
I think he had a plan in his mind and it worked. It wasn’t conventional. I’ve been to other Olympics, and even the second day which was the first team day, wasn’t what you would call brutal, by any means. It was difficult, but it wasn’t what we’ve seen in the past. Now the third day, the final day, that was the Olympics. That was a course where we looked at each other and said, ‘this course will separate the men from the boys.’ I think what Bob did was great because he preserved the horses for those two rounds. In the end, his two Individual rounds were incredible. They were big, they were difficult, but still, several horses that competed in London are competing here in Dublin. It used to be, if you were jumping in the Olympics, you gave a horse a month or two off afterwards (laughs). So, with a number of those horses jumping here in Dublin, I think that’s a testament to the way he built. And too, to the comfort in which the horses were kept. I think all around, it was a nice experience for the horses.
You know, it’s hard to describe how I felt. At the beginning of the year, I definitely felt that I was going to be on the Olympic team with him. My single focus for the last two years was to prepare him and have him ready to go to London, to go to the Olympic Games. So, to not be put on the team was a little bit of a shock. And I didn’t say anything, I haven’t said anything and I didn’t vocalize my feelings, but yeah, I was extremely disappointed. Then, to be there, and to see what a great place it was and what a great experience it was, sure, I’ll admit that I was a little bitter about the way it was handled. But, all that being said and on the flip side of that, I adore Beezie and McLain, they’re my teammates. And Rich as just been outstanding and he’s a great person and then you have Reed, who won her way to London. So, I had to take a step back and say, this is how it is, and I had to hope for the best for the American team. Katie Prudent, who is my mentor and idol, did a fantastic job with Reed. So, it was difficult for me. At the same time, I love everybody on the team, so it was a very mixed bag of emotions, I was walking a fine line of emotions, so to speak.
And if you really look at it in black and white, and using the selection process, it all came down to one single round at the Devon Horse Show, the second Observation Event, where you had 12 faults, right?
Just the one round, yes. But you know, I felt my horse has a lot more experience than any other horse that was in the trials and has certainly proven himself with a Gold medal at the Olympic level. So, it’s a little tough to have one round at Devon be the deciding factor on whether I go to London or not. But, obviously, that wasn’t how they looked at it.
So many different opinions about our selection process, huh? Do we jump the horses to death during the Florida trials? Do the Florida trials end up even mattering so early in the year? The observation events in four different locations, so not all of those on the short list ever competed head to head. A lot of talk. What’s your take?
I’ve spent so much time, hours and hours and hours thinking about it. It’s difficult to say how things could have been done differently. I will say, I think we had a knee jerk reaction to getting bumped out of the Super League last year and they had to come up with a process quickly. And this is what they came up with. Obviously, it didn’t work. So, it’s back to the drawing board again…..
Although, it sure looked, as we arrived in London, like we had the right team, no?
Ehh, not really. I guess I’ll go ahead right now and make my statement about this and say how I feel about it. This is really the first time I’ve discussed this at all, but this is really how I feel about the whole process.
I think we’re walking down a rosy garden path. I think the trials we had in Kentucky, Del Mar, Devon and Calgary were a false illusion. At most of the trials, there weren’t more than twelve or fourteen riders in and we were jumping against ourselves. Sure, the courses were big. They were a tough test, they were. I never agreed with Calgary. I don’t think Calgary should have ever been a part of our process. I always felt that whoever the team was, however they selected the team and whenever they did it, those riders should have come to Europe to jump. At the end of the day, when you’re jumping against fourteen or sixteen or eighteen other horses and they are all the people you’re around all the time and you’re not out there jumping in Aachen and in Rotterdam and in St Gallen and in Rome, all those shows, you lose your edge. I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree with me on that. I think it would have been incredibly beneficial for our riders to come over and do that. And don’t say there weren’t shows they could do. There were shows, there were individual invitations out there for all of the Super League shows, and not one American rider took advantage of that. I did. I was invited to almost all of them. I didn’t do all of them, but I had the invitation….
So you’re saying, go over there and compete in the big classes, other than the Super League itself obviously. But, do the Grand Prix of Aachen, do the Grand Prix of Rome, and see how you measure up?
Yes. You can compete in any number of classes other than the Nations Cups. You can only bring two, sometimes three riders to the shows, but still, to be able to compete against sixty other riders, the best from around the world, in different venues and different atmospheres, that’s how you find out where you stand. George always said, you have to go to Europe if you want to compete against them.
A better barometer of where we really are………..
Exactly! It definitely is. I don’t think anyone can argue that. Instead, their preparations were done in Calgary, there was no show after that and they schooled at home, at Johan’s. I just don’t think our team was fighting fit when they went to London.
If you go back and look at least at recent history, our two Olympic Gold medals were preceded by competition at the Super League shows. This time no Super League and a sixth place finish…….
Obviously, the Super League Nations Cups were out of the question, but being over here in this atmosphere, over different courses against the best in the world, and most importantly, out of our typical comfort zone, is crucial to success. If the Olympic Games were in Los Angeles, then I’d have a different opinion but they’re not, they’re over here. I think Calgary should have been missed. I never agreed at all with going to Calgary. When everyone voted on it, I just ended up not saying anything about it, but I certainly didn’t agree with it. I think our trials were meant to be in the United States. The idea was that they were created to help bolster the shows here in the United States, which I totally agreed with. So going to Canada never made any sense to me. Also, I think Spruce Meadows is a very special place. Some horses go very, very well in Calgary, but then they don’t go that well anywhere else.
Looking back, it was pretty obvious that you had to go to Calgary to be selected to the team. I didn’t agree with that. Obviously, hindsight is everything, but as it turned out, it didn’t work. And I can tell you, the whole world was scratching their heads, wondering why the American team was doing what it was doing.
Let’s talk about the American team performance at London. It seems to me that there was a lot of the old ‘on any given Sunday going on’ and we just had some bad luck at just the wrong time. Reed rolled a couple of rails, McLain had the one bad ride to the water, but had a good second round ride but pulled a couple of poles and Rich, after what, nine or ten clear rounds in a row, finally had a couple of rails down, and unfortunately, it came during the Nations Cup. Am I off base? What do you take away from our sixth place finish?
Um, I thought Rich was amazing. Rich, apparently went to the whip at the water and George said that that unraveled the horse and then he had two down after that. Apart from that, the horse and Rich were flawless. They were great. The rest, I don’t know if I would call that unlucky. I think Beezie felt her rails came because what happened the first day and she felt she had to override a bit. The first team day in particular, she felt that that rail came because she was riding extra strong. So again, I don’t know if you can call that unlucky. I did not see McLain go, but he himself said he didn’t ride the water the way he would have liked to. Again, I don’t think that’s unlucky, I mean it’s unlucky that it happened that way (laughs). I think Reed made some riding mistakes. Not big ones, by any means. She was very respectable, but at the Olympic Games, that just doesn’t get it. Those little mistakes become a rail down, and at the end of the day, to win a Nations Cup, you need to have clear rounds. That’s how team Great Britain did it, they put together a lot of clear rounds.
And we had one clear round out of eight……
I think Rich was the only clear, on the first day, and that just won’t do it.
So, not trying to be too terribly critical, because after all, we did win two Olympic Gold medals in a row and we won the Pan Am Gold medal recently. But, that being said, we had an awful WEG in Lexington, and now a sixth place finish in London. What about going forward? How do we improve and get back in the hunt?
I think our selection process needs a good going over. And I think George and Robert (Ridland) are very much in touch with each other on how they want to do that. As I said, I think we were caught a bit off guard after being relegated from the Super League. That happened at the end of August, the beginning of September, and I think they had to have the selection process and criteria in sometime in November, so they had to scramble. I think they thought they made the best of what they thought they could do. But now that there’s time to take a breath and think about it, I’m pretty positive that things will change, and hopefully for the better. Robert is very motivated, and I know he’s interested in keeping George involved in the process, which I think is great. George has done an amazing job.
Are you optimistic as you look to the future of American Show jumping?
Oh yes, very optimistic. We have some great young riders who are really motivated, obviously, Reed being one of them. Sometimes it’s good to get a kick in the ass and have to scrape back up and get back on top. Nobody stays on top for forever. Look at the Germans. They’ve bombed out in three Olympics. And yet, they reign supreme other times. I think we can’t let it get us down. I certainly haven’t let it get me down; I’m more motivated than ever. I feel really good about Robert. I think he’s willing to be very strong and take this on and I think everyone needs to put their faith in him and trust him and see what he can do. And then, if he screws up, we do something else (laughs). But, seriously, I’m sure he feels that way himself. He is a very intelligent person, he’s going to do his best, and we have to all be on board to help him and work with him on his plan.
I guess we have to give him the free rein to succeed or fall flat on his face (laughs). But we have to allow his system to take hold, right?
Exactly! That’s’ something that’s going to be up for serious discussion because there’s a lot of people at the moment that think this whole thing should be purely objective. I strongly disagree with that. I used to think that way, but having watched and observed, I know that’s not the right way forward for this country. I think, what needs to happen, in my opinion, there has to be one person, the Chef d’Equipe, who makes all the decisions and is the responsible person. And they have to make the decisions. Sure, there has to be some objectivity within the system, and my first thought on that is, let’s not weigh so heavily on the trials, but rather, go with the computer list to come up with the short list, to whittle down the riders. There’s nothing more objective than our computer list. It’s plain and simple and it’s there in black and white.
And you think the computer list fairly weighs the competitions in Europe? It used to be, if you went to enough $25,000 grand prix classes and won enough of those, you could move right up the list…….
They’ve done a fantastic job adjusting the computer list. They’ve got it tweaked perfectly now so, for example, an eighth place finish in the Grand Prix of Hamburg would get you more points for a grand prix win in say, Roanoke. The way they have the list formulated now, it should be a motivation to go to the great shows. If you want to be the best and you want to ride on the team, then you have to go to the best shows and do well. I love that about our list, if you do well at the best shows, you jump up on the computer list. And it shows who is going well lately, which is the rider you want jumping on the team. Kent Farrington is the perfect example. Four years ago, he never left the United States, he felt he had to earn money and get himself established. And now, he’s over here and making himself better. He not only wants to be at the top of our list, but he wants to be at the top of the world list. That’s the kind of motivation we need to see from a lot of riders to get back into this thing, to be competitive on the world stage.
I really agree with you about allowing the Chef, or as Robert wants to be called, the Coach, to make the final determination of who is going the best, who is hot right now and who should be on the team. And, if the computer list is as fair a list as you say, that’s the perfect place to start the process…..
Exactly. I think the list is very objective. And then you short list from there. And then it’s up to Robert to say, you two will go to Aachen, you two will go to Rotterdam, you two will go to St. Gallen and then at the end of the day, he says, ‘these are the riders I want on my team.’
And clean rounds at the big shows will get you on the team………
Obviously, it will be a little more complex than that, but not really. At the last Olympics and at the last WEG, we picked the best team we had. Now at WEG it didn’t go so well, but THAT was just what you were saying earlier, that was a bad set of circumstances. They were the best horses and best riders at that time. And those teams really just picked themselves. Once we were over there, it was obvious who was going the best at the time.
How much headwinds will there be to this concept? How much fight will there be to picking a team that way? Because many times here, in an effort to be fair to everyone, we sometimes lose track of the real purpose, which is winning the gold medal, no?
I’m sure there will be plenty. It’s just the nature of how we do things in America. I’m sure a lot of people will fight the idea. I think every system has its flaws. Even the British system wasn’t without controversy. Rob (Hoesktra) left Michael Whitaker off the team and he had just won the Grand Prix of Aachen! They had some discussions right down to the last minute. But, to their Chef’s credit, he knew how he wanted it, and that was that.
But then again, Rob would have been in huge trouble had it not worked out the way it did……..
I can tell you, had he failed, he would probably be right out the door on his nose. But, it did work out and now he’s a national hero and will be around for quite a while. But, that’s how it should go. You put a guy in charge of the team and let him make the decisions. But then again, it’s so difficult in America because it’s such a huge country, we have so many good riders and in the end, everybody deserves a chance. Believe me, there’s no one that believes in that more than me. But, in my system, you get yourself a chance by getting yourself up to the top of the computer list and then you go over to Europe and you prove yourself. On the day, anything can wrong or everything can right. But to me, that’s how I would set up our system going forward.
It will be fascinating to see how the discussions unfold as we head towards the World Equestrian Games in Normandy in 2014.
It sure will be interesting.
Alright, I’ve taken up a ton of your time and I appreciate it. I’ll get you out of here on this. When do we get to see you and Nick back here in the United States?
We will be there for Washington and for the Alltech National Horse Show in Kentucky. Those are two great shows.
Nick Skelton and Laura Kraut
Nick will be there to defend his Leading rider title in Lexington. Excellent!
I really hope that Washington and Kentucky are better supported this year because they were both great shows last year. When you talk about people aspiring to do more, those are two great shows to go to and compete and show what you can do. They are very important shows. Those two shows, Washington and what used to be New York, used to be so important in our country and they used to have so much more support. But, here are two shows that are really making the effort to put on world class competitions, and we need to do all we can to make sure they get great support and keep them important.
I like to hear that about the Alltech National Horse Show since I’m the press guy there (laughs)….
Well you’ll have a lot of Gold medalists to promote this year (laughs). Scott Brash is coming, Nick will be there, and Beezie, McLain and I will be there, so it should be pretty good this year.
Laura, thanks so much for your time
No problem Kenny, thanks for contacting me