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An Olympic Dream Comes Up Short

Cora C. Cushny photo

Louise Meryman and Mashantum in 1996 at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day, which helped qualify them for the Olympic short list.

An Olympic Dream Comes Up Short

For two decades, the author's sister worked toward a spot on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team. Just steps away from that goal, the dream derailed.

Hampshire Life/Daily Hampshire Gazette
July 26, 1996

Every time I look at my calendar, I have to fight back the train of "what ifs” that marches through my mind. For throughout the month are notes about where I was to be each day. July 19: "opening ceremonies”; July 20: "to Conyers, Ga.,'' where the Olympic equestrian events are being held; July 21-22: "team dressage”; July 23: "team cross country/individual dressage”; July 24: "team show jumping/individual dressage”; and so on to the closing ceremonies Aug. 4. Last month, I was hatching plans for a child-care arrangement that would allow me to spend the week in Georgia. Tickets were not a problem: Team members would receive enough for four guests. Housing had been reserved.

But in the end, it all came down to the little notation I had scribbled across July 1-3: "team decisions.”

For 20 years, my sister, Louise Meryman, has dreamed of competing on the U.S. Olympic equestrian team. This was the year it was finally to be. She has a fabulous horse in peak condition, Mashantum, a grandson of Secretariat. The latest issue of the U.S. Combined Training Association News places him third on the list of Top 10 Horses of the Year. Louise herself came in second among the Top 10 Lady Riders and sixth among the Top 50 Riders, which includes men and women. When she was named to the team short list in May, she was euphoric. She and Mashantum put in strong performances at the two selection trials last month, and in our hearts we all knew that finally, she had earned a spot on the team.

To say it has not been an easy road for Louise is an understatement. In the 20 years since she took up three-day eventing—a demanding form of riding that combines the careful footwork of dressage, the strength and endurance of cross country, and the precision of show jumping—she has endured the deaths of numerous horses, including one who broke his shoulder in a fall over a cross country jump and 17 who died in a horrific fire at her New York barn in 1982. She has separated both her shoulders in falls and was helicoptered out of the horse trials in Lexington, Ky., one year with four broken ribs and a punctured lung. My mother, understandably, is not thrilled about this vocation.

Louise has struggled to support herself financially in one of the most expensive sports around. She estimates it costs $30,000 to $40,000 a year per horse to stay competitive, including veterinary care, stabling and transportation. That doesn't include the cost of new horses or vans, or airfare for overseas competitions. Often, her horses are actually owned by other people, who pay the animals' expenses but not hers. She helps make ends meet by buying, selling and training horses and training other event riders at the stable she owns in Pine Plains, N.Y. In 1987, she started the American Horse Trials Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that allows three-day event riders to raise money through tax-deductible contributions. While all this has made it possible for her to keep competing, it also means that her energy is forever split among fund-raising, working and training.

And through it all, time marches on. When she first read about the three-day event at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and vowed to ride on the team someday, she was 23. When she joined then-team captain J. Michael Plumb as a working student to begin her training in earnest, she was 24. When Aboo, a talented horse being eyed for the team, ruptured a major artery and collapsed during a screening trial for the 1988 Olympics, she was 35. At 40, she endured a midlife crisis over whether to keep pursuing her dream or begin a family. Now, she is 43. Like many in the sport, she has given over her life to riding. Her husband of 17 years, Dean Nicyper, a jazz musician-turned-lawyer, finally took up eventing, too. Weekends are spent at the barn or on the road to competitions up and down the East Coast. Weekdays they are apart: She runs the barn in rural New York, while he racks up the hours at his job in Manhattan. For several months of every winter, she trucks her horses down to Florida or North Carolina to train where the ground isn't frozen. When my husband and I were married 10 years ago, she zipped up to the rehearsal dinner from an event two hours away, stood beside me at the altar, then headed right back after the reception.

Louise is lucky to be in a sport that is forgiving of older athletes. Fellow competitor Bruce Davidson, who is on the Olympic team for the sixth time this year, is 46. It takes so many years to prepare a horse for such an intense level of competition that she can begin looking toward the next Olympics almost immediately after the last. Perpetual optimism, mixed with a heavy dose of stubbornness, has helped her pull herself up by the bootstraps after every disappointment. Besides, she says, training for the Olympics must be a little like having a baby: While the pain is fresh, you swear you'll never do it again, but before you know it you're saying, "That wasn't so bad …”

LOUISE'S OBSESSION WITH horses began almost 35 years ago on our family's ramshackle farm in Maryland, with two stocky Icelandic ponies lent us by a local breeder. They were ridiculously awkward in shows, with manes too thick and rough to braid, and two extra gaits that had no place in a "walk, trot, canter” class. She made do, until that black day when the owner sent a hired hand around to reclaim them. He whipped them mercilessly when they refused to be loaded into the trailer, and she cried for hours. But that breeder ended up being the source of the most important horse in her life. Soon after the ponies were taken away, my parents took us to pick out a permanent replacement from the same herd of Icelandics. While the rest of the family—my parents, my two older brothers and I—wandered through the ragged field, settling finally on a dark brown stallion Louise later named Cinnamon Twist, she was over by the barn, falling in love with the only full-sized horse on the farm: a mangy, malnourished, mistreated mare named Pat who stumbled over even the tiniest of jumps. Louise's gift for seeing the potential in a horse may have been born that day. There was something in Pat that sparked an immediate, intense bond. No amount of reasoning could change it. Louise simply refused to leave without her. My mother called her mother, who agreed to buy Pat as a present for a couple of hundred dollars.

Louise was 12 years old, and it was the start of one of the most meaningful relationships of her life. She lavished love and training on Pat, and was rewarded with her devotion and determination to please. Sometimes it seems as though every sweltering Saturday of my childhood was spent swatting flies and searching for shade at one local horse show or another, while Louise readied for her next jumping class or hunt run. She racked up the ribbons and often took home the title of champion. Even then, there was the occasional fall. We actually have a home movie of one of them, ending with a tumble of grass and fencing as my father dropped the camera to pull her out from under her horse. It was one of those incredible moments when the bond between Louise and Pat was suddenly crystal clear. Both tumbled to the ground, and as Louise lay motionless below her, Pat somehow balanced her massive body on her shoulders, straining every muscle to keep from rolling on her rider until my father vaulted the fence to rescue Louise.

I was six years her junior and found my joy riding bareback along the trails around our farm, though Louise tried hard to interest me in showing. She entered me in a lead-line class on Cinnamon Twist one year, where I placed third among five competitors. The next summer she fitted me up for a walk, trot, canter class with a creative combination of white go-go boots painted over with black shoe polish, oversized jodphurs held on by a parade of rubber bands up each leg, and a hardhat of hers stuffed full of paper towels to keep it on my head. I don't remember winning anything, and it was years before I ever tried to compete again. But that didn't stop her from turning me into her first pupil. In my mind's eye, I still can clearly see the simple pole jump set up in the back field, feel Cinnamon Twist bumping along under me in his lumbering way, and hear Louise shouting her instructions, refusing to acknowledge my tears and fear, demanding that I conquer this challenge.

IN HER LAST YEARS of college in Vermont, Louise worked at a farm that kept carriage horses, and she took up driving and soon began entering competitions. Then she discovered three-day eventing, also known as combined training: a grueling sport with origins in cavalry training. It consists of one day of dressage, in which the horse and rider are graded on how well they perform a specified set of movements in the ring; one day of cross country, in which competitors race through woods and fields, jumping 20 or so huge, immovable obstacles, often constructed over banks, ditches and water; and a final day of show jumping, in which horses must clear a series of knock-down jumps in a specified order within a given time.

Louise had been training a new horse that ultimately proved too wild for the owner to handle. They worked out a deal, and Bloom became her first serious eventing horse. Later, she sold him as she moved up to higher levels of competition. There have been so many horses over the years now that it's hard for me to keep track of them all. Each has only a few years at the very highest levels of competition, and even a temporary injury can end its chances to make it to the top. I remember Downtown Uproar, who went to Germany with Louise, and Great Expectations (known as Pip), both killed by a virus in 1993; Rapid Transit, who died in that devastating fire in her barn; and Breakaway, who is still with her.

At times Louise's true accomplishments get lost in all the heartbreak. I didn't fully appreciate the extent of her success until I offered to do some last-minute fund-raising in June to help pay her way through this year's Olympic trials and training sessions. (Because the U.S. does not provide financial support to athletes until they are actually named to a team, Louise had to foot the bill for two weeks of training with the team coaches and the two screening trials—some $25,000 in all.) Reading over the record of her achievements, I was struck by how many times she already has ridden on the U.S. team. Things may never have worked out quite right in an Olympic year, but she has earned plenty of honors in other international events: as a member of the second-place U.S. team at Burghley, England, in 1993; as a member of the U.S. team at Fair Hill, Md., and Boekoelo, Holland (where the team took fourth) in 1991; as a member of the gold-medal U.S. team and as sixth-place finisher overall at Luhmuhlen, Germany, in 1989; along with a string of outstanding performances in other international competitions and in various screening trials in years when injuries or illness ultimately took her horses off the roster. She also has trained a number of highly successful event riders and horses, and is on the U.S. Equestrian Team's Active Riders Committee. She has traveled widely teaching clinics and has built up a successful business as a buyer, trainer and teacher.

BUT THROUGH IT ALL, her eyes have remained firmly on The Prize: a place on the U.S. Olympic team. This year, it felt as if nothing could get in her way. She had a special bond with her horse, who was bred and is still partially owned by her friend and neighbor Mary Babcock. She and Mashantum placed third among U.S. competitors in the Spring Championships at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, second at Sharpton in Florida and at Southern Pines, N.C., and first at Fair Hill in Maryland. In May, they were named to the Olympic team short list with 13 other horse-and-rider combinations; four ultimately would make the team, with another two competing as individuals.

Miraculously, there were no injuries, no falls. Mashantum continued to perform beautifully in the two Olympic selection trials. But after the first, at Groton House in Hamilton, the team veterinarians expressed concern about some mild lameness that appeared in one ankle after each competition. Though it didn't seem to affect Mashantum's performance, the coaches asked Louise to have the ankle injected with acid—a simple, precautionary procedure. After the final screening trial in Georgia, she told the vets she didn't feel they'd identified the problem, and it was suggested she take him to the University of Georgia to see if digital X-rays might turn up something the regular X-rays had missed. In the meantime, she tried ice and a poultice on the ankle, followed by a jog the next day. It worked like a charm. Mashantum was fine the following day, and the digital X-rays revealed the problem was nothing more than a tiny spur of calcification on the ankle joint. Louise was elated.

Then the selection committee announced the team decisions. Her name was nowhere on the list — not on the team, not in the two individual riders, not among the alternates who would stand by in case of injury. There has been a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking since. But Louise could only conclude that the selectors already had it so firmly in mind that Mashantum's was a serious problem that by the time the final diagnosis came in, it was too late to change their thinking. The other qualified horses left off the list all had soundness problems, and while the head of the selection committee refused to discuss specific cases, she did tell Louise that fitness had been weighted very heavily in the decision-making process.

And so, like that, what should have been wasn't, and the quest was over. Instead of driving to the Olympic training camp as she had planned, Louise loaded up her van on the spot and headed home to New York, to face the newspapers and radio stations and supporters waiting to celebrate her success. Her final letter to friends and patrons, like those before it, was simple and heartfelt. "It is ... hard not to feel that I have let you all down,” she wrote. "I wanted so much, for all of us, for this to have a happy ending. ... Please know that although we won't get our chance in Atlanta, you can be proud of every performance Mashantum put in. In my heart, he is an Olympic star.”

It made me ache to pull out her letter of four years ago, sent after she failed to make the 1992 Olympic short list, and read the same sentiment in different words. "As tough as it is to accept not quite reaching my goal, it is almost harder to face all of you who have been so much behind me year after year,” she wrote. But all my disappointment is for her, not in her. I know I could erase those Olympic reminders from my own calendar; they are written in pencil. But I won't, because in my heart, Louise is an Olympian.

Copyright © 1996 Charlotte Meryman

POSTSCRIPT: A year after this article appeared, Louise and her husband adopted two young girls, now in their twenties.

Louise at age 11, with her first Icelandic.