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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Americans Trailing in Horse Race

Equestrian: U.S. riders say Europeans have edge in facilities. German wins show jumping.

August 05, 1996|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONYERS, Ga. — Anne Kursinski is a three-time Olympian who hasn't won a gold medal yet.

That's certainly not a knock on her. Truth be told, she has plenty of company among equestrians who live anywhere other than Europe.

Not her fault. Not her horse's fault.

Blame it on baseball, basketball, heck, even football and futbol, those other sports that garner most of the rest of the world's attention and financial support.

Kursinski, 37, of Flemington, N.J., already moved once--from Pasadena to the East Coast--in search of better equestrian facilities and more competition.

Now the question is, how far east will she have to go to be successful in what she hopes will be a fourth Olympics?

The road to those 2000 Games in Sydney probably runs directly through Europe.

"Every time I go to something like this it's, 'Oh, we've got to go to Europe more,' " Kursinski said Sunday after finishing out of the medal running in show jumping.

Either go to Europe, or Europe comes here and scoops up all the medals.

That's what happened in the Olympic final before more than 31,000. Ulrich Kirchhoff of Germany, riding Jus de Pommes, won the gold medal; Willi Melliger of Switzerland, riding Calvaro, won silver, and Alexandra Ledermann of France, riding Rochet M, won the bronze.

Her European counterparts, Kursinski said, "are like our ballplayers" and their nations feature equestrian facilities that are both expansive and plentiful.

Not even the U.S. Olympic trials compare to top international competitions, American riders say.

"The small rings we do [in the U.S.] just don't compare to this kind of jumping," Kursinski said.

The gap had been even wider.

"It used to be that the Olympics were a whole different ballgame," said Leslie Burr-Howard, 39, from Westport, Conn., the only other American to qualify for the 25-rider final. "It's like you were practicing the 50-yard dash all your life and suddenly you were running the marathon."

The course here was 550 meters and every bit up to European standards. There just aren't enough around like it, the Americans said.

"These guys get to do this kind of jumping every week," Kursinski said of her European competitors. "This was just another day at the office for them."

Added Burr-Howard, "We can't practice this at home. It's just not possible."

Riders and horses took two trips over the course Sunday. Michael Matz, the third American, failed to make the final after his horse, Rhum IV, knocked over three barriers in the first round of jumps.

Kursinski's and Burr-Howard's rides each downed one barrier the first time around, a performance Burr-Howard's mount repeated in the final to earn a six-way tie for 11th. Kursinski's horse knocked down three barriers in its second go-round, which placed them in a three-way tie for 20th.

Two of Kursinski's faults occurred within a three-jump set early in the course. Eros handled the triple well in the morning session, but seemed to rush in the final.

"Anne had to ride him real strong the first time through the triple so he probably was a little [excited] when he saw the triple again," Burr-Howard said. "You know, they're not stupid."

Both horses are 9-year-olds who teamed with their riders earlier in the week to earn silver medals in the Nations Cup team competition.

The gold medalist: Germany, of course.

"Our main focus here was the Nations Cup," Burr-Howard said. "To have gotten the silver, I'm extremely proud. We're eons ahead of where we were four years ago and even two years ago at the world championships."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Medalists / Equestrian

Individual Jumping

GOLD: Ulrich Kirchhoff, Germany

SILVER: Willi Melliger, Switzerland

BRONZE: Alexandra Ledermann, France

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