WEG Team Members Comment on Upcoming Games

In a conference call held today in cooperation with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), five members of the U.S. 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) team answered a wide range of general media questions. On the phone from Germany were dressage team members Guenter Seidel from Cardiff, Calif., and Debbie McDonald from Hailey, Idaho; vaulting team members Elizabeth Ioannou from Saratoga, Calif., and Blake Dahlgren from Sun Valley, Calif.; and on the phone from Florida was show jumper Laura Kraut from Wellington, Fla.

Ioannou, 10, is the youngest member ever to compete as part of the United States Equestrian Team. She first observed vaulting when her dad took her to watch a competition at the age of seven. She frequently finds herself 12 feet above ground, high above the head of her partner, Blake Dahlgren. Ioannou is the team's flyer, the vaulter who is lifted above the other team members. When asked what it is like to perform with Dahlgren, she said "It's good... [and with Blake] I'm not scared."

Dahlgren, 22, ranked the #2 vaulter in nation by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), is a standing base to support Ioannou as the flyer. Dahlgren described for the media the lesser-known discipline of vaulting. "While I am standing, someone is there to help me in another position on the horse so I am better able to do my job of flying someone high into the air. There is a constant interchanging of people in one routine." The vaulting team includes six members, but only three are ever on the horse at one time.

The vaulting team is not able to bring its horse to Aachen for the games so they've had to find another horse to lease while there. Dahlgren said, "We found our horse, Dino, right outside of Munich, and since then we've been practicing on him three days a week. He's just everything we like about a vaulting horse." Of the 18.3-hand horse, Dahlgren continued, "He's big, he's strong, he's mellow, he doesn't freak out in competitions. We can trust him."

When asked about synergy between he and Ioannou, Dahlgren explained that the team is constantly traveling the six hours back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles just to practice together. "We've become friends," he said. "She trusts me a whole bunch, and I trust her to do her job. It creates something beautiful on a horse"

Kraut, 40, of Wellington, Fla., took the next question. Kraut had a terrific 2005 and 2006 as a key member of the U.S. Samsung Super League team, decisively winning the overall championship last summer. The U.S. is currently stalking Germany in second place. Kraut was a member of the 2000 Sydney Olympic team and commented on what it is like to have to compete against the powerhouse Germans on their turf. "It is difficult going against the Germans in Aachen," Kraut said. "At the moment, the Germans are a very powerful team. Last year, we beat them in Aachen for the Nations Cup with the same team members basically. I think if we go into it just focused on what we do and seem confident and not let outside influences get to us, we have a shot to beat them. We're all pretty confident, and anything can happen on a given day in show jumping."

Kraut's dependable mare, Miss Independent, has been in Europe since April where she has competed in three of the Samsung Super League tours--Rome, Lucerne and Rotterdam--under the guidance of Chef d'Equipe George Morris. "Since naming the team, I've mainly just kept her fit," said Kraut. "I took her to one competition in Italy in July. Since then, she's been working and staying fit. On Monday, we go to Holland for team training for a week before going to Aachen."

If Kraut or any of her U.S. teammates end up in the top four, they will be required to switch horses with the other three, which is not a common practice in show jumping competition. "Because we don't do it so often, it's not really familiar territory, but I think all of us go into it hoping to make the final four," she said. "We've all been competing internationally for quite a few years...and we've watched them and studied their tendencies, so I think at the level that the riders are at, at the WEG, for them to get on and ride three other unfamiliar but top-level horses--it's a test.

Seidel, 46, a native of Germany and now a U.S. citizen, was asked the next question. He is a three-time Olympian with a Bronze medal from each of the past three Olympics. He also had a Team Silver at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. He and his mount, Aragon, finished a strong second at the selection trials to teammate Steffen Peters and Floriano.

"[Aragon] is going to peak in Aachen," Seidel said. "The horse is very fit, going very well. We did one little warm-up show in Germany, and he did quite well. Debbie showed as well, and I was second right behind her and Brentina with very good scores. It give us a very good position and makes us very confident going into Aachen."

Seidel hopes to have two horses in training to choose from for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "It's always nice to have two horses going and then choose the better one," he said.

McDonald, 52, went to her first Olympic Games at the age of 50 and won a Team Bronze medal. She was a former hunter/jumper rider, but 15 years ago converted to dressage due to a riding accident. When asked about the contributing factors to her success she said, "I think it is a combination of some really good training I had in my background with the hunter/jumper world and then also having a wonderful sponsor that's given me some fantastic horses to ride, and of course the team behind me. It's a combination of everything. Again, it is not just myself, but everyone that's been involved."

McDonald and Brentina won the Gold medal at the World Cup in Las Vegas in 2003 and placed third last year. She was asked about how that affects her mindset. "I don't think, for me it changes from competition to competition. You still think of it every time you go in the ring--there is a job to do. You have a team to be thinking about.

"I wouldn't say I am coming into this competition with any more confidence than I would the one before. I try to focus on my job at hand and bring the most I can to the team," she continued. "I think the experience definitely helps with that but I wouldn't say that it lessens any of the pressure."

Brentina has had some time off since that World Cup, but McDonald feels fairly confident that they're prepared to go into the World Equestrian Games. "I really think she is doing quite well at the moment," McDonald said. "She just kind of pumps up and rises to the occasion."

Not present for today's conference call was Katherine Downs, 63, of Somerville, Maine. Downs is the oldest member of this U.S. team and will be competing in endurance on her 10-year-old Arabian gelding, Pygmalion.

The WEG is taking place in Aachen, Germany, August 20-September 3. Over 1,000 athletes will be competing from 61 countries in the seven disciplines of dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, reining, show jumping and vaulting. The United States is one of only seven countries that will be competing in all seven disciplines. Over 400,000 tickets have been sold, and over half-a-million people are expected to be in attendance. The WEG take place every four years and started in 1990. The Games have always been held in Europe but will come to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., in 2010.

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