• Share
  • Read Later

Insects don't often feature in an Olympic athlete's preparation. And Australian rider Phillip Dutton is not normally a superstitious man. But as he walked the 7.45-km cross-country course before the three-day team event, a ladybird landed on his leg. He didn't remove it until he reached one of the course's most daunting obstacles-the water jump called Devil's Back Billabong. After pacing out the jump and visualizing his path, he left the bug on one of the rails. "When you get to something like this," he says, "you want any little help you can get."

Something more than luck was at work last week, when Australia eclipsed an international field in the three-day event to take a third consecutive Olympic gold. Arch rivals Great Britain and the U.S. were beaten into the lower placings by Atlanta gold medalist Dutton, Stuart Tinney, Barcelona dual gold medalist Matt Ryan and dual gold medalist Andrew Hoy. "They have said we couldn't do it twice now," said Australian head coach Wayne Roycroft moments after the win. Skeptics put Australia's gold at Barcelona down to luck; a few even made the same claim at Atlanta. After Sydney, those doubters are unlikely to be heard from again.

The biggest test came first. Dressage, the equestrian equivalent of ballet, was once Australia's weak link. "We relied totally on cross-country to pull us up," recalls Ryan. Not this time. After Atlanta, where the dressage briefly dragged Australia into sixth place, the Australians paid for international judges to be flown in for three-star events (the level just below Olympic standard). In return, the judges analyzed videotapes of Australia's dressage efforts. The program paid off in Sydney: Hoy set an international record of 30.6 penalty points in the team event, and later won silver in the individual three-day event, while Tinney recorded a personal best.

The endurance phase, involving steeplechase, road and track, and cross-country, has always been Australia's strongest suit. Australian Thoroughbreds and their riders revel in cross-country's wild, risky race against the clock. All managed clear rounds, with Hoy and Tinney finishing within the 13 min. 0.05 sec. allowed. The 50,000-strong crowd screamed encouragement. "To be galloping past and hear them call out your name," said Dutton. "I've never been involved in anything like it."

The show jumping began dramatically: the highly rated New Zealand team was knocked out after Blyth Tait's bruised horse, Ready Teddy, failed a veterinary inspection. Australia started the final day with a 12-point lead. First Ryan, then Dutton and Tinney put in polished rounds-Tinney recording the team's best score in his Olympic debut. And when Hoy, the day's last rider, finished with just 15 penalty points and within time, the victory was sealed.

Teammates tumbled down stairs in their hurry to reach the winners; the crowd stood and demanded four victory gallops around the arena. Says Ryan: "I never thought competing on home turf would be so emotional." A jubilant Roycroft, who had been so nervous he watched from behind nearby trees, praised "the boys"-and the other four team members: "We have to salute our tough horses."

All four-Hoy's mighty grey Warmblood Darien Powers, Ryan's 16-year-old Thoroughbred Kibah Sandstone, Dutton's Thoroughbred House Doctor, in his first four-star event, and Tinney's Thoroughbred Jeepster-would have sensed the elation around them. Says Ryan: "They will know they are champions." Keeping them sound had team vet Denis Goulding averaging four hours sleep a night-though he says Australian mounts are fairly hardy. The same could be said of their riders. All four grew up in the bush chasing farm stock among gum trees. "I just fanged around and went really fast," recalls Tinney.

Their grit is matched by a system of team support perfected over a decade. At the helm is Roycroft, under whom the sport has blossomed-and will keep doing so. "Just after the medal was won I said, We'll enjoy the moment," says team manager Gareth McKeen, "but let's start planning for the next one." McKeen attributes Australia's success to a jigsaw of factors: "There's no magic formula," he says, "which is why it's hard for other countries to copy us." They now have an even tougher task ahead.

Phillip Dutton made it over the Devil's Back Billabong jump, though he modestly gives some credit to the luck of the ladybird. From big to small, from bold strategies to insects, the pieces of the jigsaw once again fitted perfectly into place.