When I was a girl, our family used to watch a sports magazine show called, ABC Wide World of Sports. I can't remember any of the highlights except for the opening titles. Each week, a dramatic announcer would say:
"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport ... the thrill of victory ... the agony of defeat ..."
The clip used to depict the aforementioned "agony" was a spectacular ski crash, the poor skier tumbling many times off the ramp before finally wiping out. Week after week after week, we saw that fantastic fall. (Legend has it that he was Vladimir "Spider" Sabitch, the skier who was infamously shot and killed by actress girlfriend Claudine Longet. But, I digress.)
Defeat is agony. All athletes, old and young, professional and amateur can relate. And, guess what? So can their moms.
The first time my daughter fell off a horse in a show was a sobering experience. I didn't actually see it, because she was deep in the woods, halfway through a cross-country course. It had been a difficult day. It was hot. There were delays. Several (older and more experienced) riders had already wiped out in front of us. And, there were bees in the woods, which made for nervous riders and ponies alike.
She had come in first place in dressage (a wonderful occurrence) and after about a 90-minute break had set off on her cross-country course. She cleared the first couple of jumps and then we waited because the rest were out of sight. Suddenly, I heard an urgent voice coming from one of the judges' walkie talkies. "Rider down, loose horse, loose horse."
Since my daughter was the only rider on the course at that moment, I was pretty certain I knew who they were talking about. Sure enough, about a nanosecond before my heart attack, my daughter walked out of the woods, rubbing her backside but otherwise no worse for wear. Her proud steed, meanwhile, had run back to the trailer about a mile down the road. He had had enough.
It used to be hard for me to watch my daughter jump fences. One trick I learned early on was that if I videotaped them for her (she liked to go back and analyze her performance), it wasn't as frightening. Of course, that meant that the few times her horse refused or, worse, she fell off, the recording took on that fragmented, scary camerawork of the Blair Witch Project. Not so much anymore though. She's improved and I've chilled. As long as she and her horse are steady, the camera is too.
Results of three-phase eventing, which comprise most of the shows she does these days, are partly based on the skill of the rider and partly based on the errors of the competition. Dressage comes first. It can be stressful to watch my daughter and her friends go through their routines (and there are sometime tears when a judge is particularly critical), but I've never seen anyone get hurt. Scores are posted and riders are ranked. After that, the only way you can move up, from say a yellow ribbon to a red, is if you manage to earn less penalty points than the others in the following events, stadium and cross-country.
The stadium course is mapped out and girls have a chance to walk it with their trainers in advance. Hopefully, each rider is competing at the appropriate (read: safe) level and she and her pony can clear the fences. Nevertheless, we've seen girls fall sideways, backwards and forwards. We've seen rails clipped but somehow stay up. We've seen two-level "oxer" jumps come crashing down under the weight of both equine and equestrienne. More than one of my daughter's friends has had to take time off because of a concussion.
(This is when I wish my daughter played the violin.)
Cross-country is even trickier. There are an awful lot of things that can spook a horse when it's outside the stadium. There are logs and "coops" and rails to jump. There are water obstacles and drops. There are very nervous mothers waiting at the starts and finishes.
Last weekend, my daughter competed in a three-phase in another part of the state. It was a particularly tough show with higher fences (and stricter judges). As we watched the girls do their stadium jumping before her, a couple had "refusals" (penalty points) and one fell off (elimination). All of these snafus helped my daughter's ranking. And yet, I sat there crossing my fingers and holding my breath for each rider. One of my daughter's teammates saw me and thought I didn't get it. "You should say 'Yay' when someone else falls," she said. I explained that, as a mother, "You want everyone to do well. You just want your daughter to do better."
This week, mothers all over the world have been holding their breath and crossing their fingers. For some truly fantastic falls, take a look at the Olympic cross-country crashes here.
Maybe there's still time for those violin lessons ...