She was supposed to ride into the Beijing Games on a pony. And not just any pony, but Teddy, a pint-sized fighter who was rocking the equestrian world. Karen O'Connor's story had all the elements: a 50-year-old baby boomer shooting for gold, an undersized competitor taking on the big horses, and a touching relationship between, not just a rider and her horse, but a rider and her pony! The NBC suits were jumping in their suites.
This Olympic fairy tale ended in tragedy. On May 28, Teddy got spooked before a training session, shattered his hind leg while fleeing, and had to be euthanized immediately.
It was emotionally devastating, but O'Connor the athlete had to move on. She saddled another horse, a thoroughbred named Mandiba, to continue her Olympic quest. Then she suffered a more common form of sports heartbreak. On July 15, the U.S. Equestrian Federation named its five riders for the eventing team. Eventing is the triathlon of equestrian, a competition that combines dressage (the so-called "horse ballet" in which the rider guides the horse through a series of movements), cross-country riding and show jumping. O'Connor, a two-time Olympic medalist and one of the most decorated riders in the U.S., was shooting for her fourth Olympics.
She was left off the team.
Jeez, the woman's pony dies and they chuck her off the squad? Who's running this show older brothers who liked to torture little sis's dolls? At the Olympics, however, the pursuit of medals can be cruel. Equestrian officials want to win just as badly as those in the more high-profile sports. "It would have been a great story if Karen went on Mandiba and won a gold medal," says James Wolf, executive director for sport programs at U.S. Equestrian. "Believe me, I would have loved it. But at the end of the day, we can't play favorites. There's no room in the procedures for a sympathy vote."
And how. In eventing, each rider competes on the same horse through the four-day competition. Five selectors decide the Olympic team over an 18-month vetting period. It's a somewhat subjective process: eventing can't have win-and-in pre-Olympic trials because if the horses exerts too much energy before the Games, they might be spent for Beijing. The equine body can't bounce back like Michael Phelps's.
O'Connor likely would have made it with Teddy, the pony who became an equestrian star after he carried O'Connor to both individual and team eventing gold at the Pan American Games last year. But Mandiba isn't as seasoned as the other horses that made the Olympic team, and it cost O'Connor.
O'Connor doesn't want pity to put her on the team. But she insists that even though the other U.S. horses are more impressive "on paper," she and Mandiba could have won in Hong Kong, where the equestrian events will be held. "I totally respect the decision," says O'Connor, from England, where she's training with the U.S. team (she and Mandiba are Olympic alternates). "Am I happy about it? Heck no."
O'Connor's dream to ride Teddy into the Olympics was derailed on May 28, during a routine stroll to the practice area on her farm in The Plains, Va. O'Connor was riding Mandiba, while her manager, Max Corcoran, was walking alongside Teddy. Something from behind a stone wall shook the animals. "Those horses were not startled," says Corcoran. "They were petrified." Teddy took off toward the barn. Corcoran grabbed his reins, but Teddy dragged her 10 feet along the ground before she had to let go. "I'm a big, strong girl who played college hockey," says Corcoran, 35, who is 5-ft. 11-in., and weighs 160 lbs. "But there was nothing I could do. He was fleeing for his life."
When they reached the barn, O'Connor saw that Teddy's ankle was mangled. "Something sharp went through his ankle, Achilles tendon, and arteries," O'Connor says. She knew it was catastrophic within 15 minutes four vets arrived on the scene, but the diagnosis was grim. "The decision to euthanize was ridiculously obvious," she says. The tears poured; Corcorcan left the barn. "Yeah, you say goodbye," O'Connor says. "I lost my best friend."
O'Connor went into shock. "It took 10 days, 100,000 emails and chat room postings, 30 bouquets of flowers, 300 or 400 pieces of snail mail, and who knows how many text messages before I could move on," says O'Connor. The equestrian world mourned. "RIP to the best pony ever," read one post on the website for The Chronicle of the Horse, an equestrian magazine. "Rest, chum. Thank you for changing the way others look at little horses with big hearts, just like you," read another.
Sports like equestrian need gripping scripts to sustain them during the Games. "It would have been the greatest story in equestrian history if Teddy would have made it to the Olympics," says O'Connor. She's probably not far off. But the world never got to meet Teddy and now may not get to meet O'Connor either. "The whole thing is sad," she says. "Very sad."