The Centurylink Center was enveloped in an electrifying silence Sunday afternoon as the crowd in Omaha waited with bated breath to see if McLain Ward would keep his winning streak through every round of the World Cup Jumping Final.
Sixteen previous world cup appearances, dozens of Olympic and WEG rounds, and hundreds of Grand Prix jump-offs had prepared McLain to apply shatterproof focus to the task at hand and bring home the last of five perfect rounds, and Annie rose to meet him every step of the way to become indoor champions of the world.
“I’ve always wanted to win an individual championship,” McLain said to FEI TV after his win. “I thought I was running out of gas, but the mare is amazing and dug deep, and I think the last round was the best of the week.”
They held off Romain Duguet and his unflappable chestnut mare, TwentyTwo des Biches who were waiting in the wings with just four accumulated penalties over the three competition days. They kept the pressure on by going clear in the final, and despite their performance putting the American hero’s chances for glory in jeopardy, the Omaha crowds gave Romain all the praise appropriate for a champion to the ultimate runner-up.
“Twentytwo did everything. She jumped unbelievably all week and I am so proud of her,” said Romain. “It was a perfect week for me. I came here with no pressure. For me, if I finished in the top 10 I was going to be really happy. I tried my best. Second place was a bonus.”
Nabbing the final podium spot was Henrik von Eckermann and Mary Lou, which not only ensured an all-mare finish for the horses, but gave Sweden only their second ever podium-finish in World Cup history. (The other was Malin Baryard-Johnsson and H&M Butterfly Flip in 2003, who also finished third.)
“I’m very happy,” said von Eckermann. “For me winning third place was great because I started out in sixth today and moved up. My horse really deserved it, she was incredible.”
The famously poised McLain showed increasing emotion throughout the week, speaking warmly of Annie’s owners who he called “father figures” and calling Annie the best horse he’s ever sat on, as well as having his wife and daughter never more than arm’s length when he wasn’t riding. When they finally clinched victory, McLain’s jubilation overcame his composure and fist pumps, champaigne chases, and a warm smile prevailed.
The top standings continued to shuffle throughout the day Sunday, with Gregory Wathelet falling from third to seventh, Defending Champion Steve Guerdat dropping from sixth to eighth, and 21-year-old Guido Klatte dropping just one spot, from fifth to sixth – who was also the best-placed finisher of the World Cup Rookies.)
One noteworthy statistic that must be noted: Romain and McLain were the only two riders to complete the weekend without a jumping fault. (Romain earned his penalty points in the first round based on his jump-off placing in the opening round.)
Among the best stories of the weekend: Several riders were able to produce clean rounds in the final which somewhat improved their placement, but more importantly, gave them a bit of redemption from otherwise roller coaster weekends: Laura Kraut and Zeremonie closed their world cup final with a clear Round 3.B to finish in 15th, Lorenzo De Luca was able to move up from 24th in the first round to break into the very best and finish 10th, and Sergio Alvarez Moya came up from 9th after the second round to finish fifth thanks to flawless rounds on Sunday.
It was a perfect end to a perfect week in Nebraska, and in more ways than one, Omaha crowds got their fairtale ending. Riders, spectators, and media were full of praise for Omaha.
“The crowds were so amazing,” Said McLain in his press conference. “Two strides going into the final fence I said to myself, ‘keep it together, keep it together;’ I think they carried us through.”