McLain Ward and Sapphire at the 2008 Olympic Games - photo Bob Langrish

McLain Ward and Sapphire at the 2008 Olympic Games – photo Bob Langrish (USEF)

I awoke yesterday June 22nd in a hotel room in New Orleans, ready to start the first day of major industry conference.  The beginning of my morning routine was normal – make coffee, check CNN and NPR for news, then check Facebook to see what my friends and family were up to.  That’s when I read the news from the Castle Hill camp that Sapphire had passed away.  How does a horseperson, particularly one who follows the world of show jumping, react to news like that?  Shock, denial, grief, and then more shock, disbelief, denial and grief.  I think I cried for a solid half hour, then made myself shower and get dressed, and then spent the next hour before I had to leave watching video of Sapphire’s exploits, testing my waterproof mascara’s staying power.

I met my colleagues in the hotel lobby, still red-eyed and sniffly.  They could tell I was upset, and asked me what was wrong.  I told them it was upset because we had lost a great athlete I’d admired, a two time Olympic champion.

“Who?” they asked, eyes wide and sympathetic.

“Sapphire, one of the greatest show jumpers of the modern era and longtime lynchpin of the US Equestrian Team.”

“Oh,” they said. “A horse.”  Gone was the interest. The sympathy disappeared.

During the course of the day I found myself remembering Sapphire, and tearing up again.  Thinking of her rounds at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.  Thinking of watching her at the 2006 World Equestrian Games at Aachen, when one of the commentators for FEI TV suggested she wasn’t the prettiest horse in the competition, which solicited a scathing email response from yours truly. Thinking of her and how she looked as she walked into the ring at the 2009 World Cup, where she placed second to Shutterfly, and how the energy in the crowd changed when she entered the arena at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. That was the thing about Sapphire – she had that kind of presence about her.  You knew when she walked in the ring that odds were you were about to witness a special kind of magic happen.

When clients noticed and asked what was wrong, I told them, and every one of them looked at me as though I’d gone mad.  It was only a horse, they said.  When that happened several times I finally just broke.

“No.  She was not ‘just a horse.’  Was  Tony Gwynn just a baseball player? Dale Earnhardt Senior just a racecar driver?  Was Walter Payton just a great running back? No, they were great athletes, icons in their sport.  What makes their accomplishments more significant?  What makes them more of an athlete than Sapphire?’  I recited highlights from her resume: The Olympic Team Gold Medals, the Silver in the 2006 World Games, the second place in the 2009 World Cup, the wins at the 2009 CN International and the 2010 Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix, the multiple wins at the Grand Prix of Devon. I spoke of her win at the 2007 CN Worldwide Florida Open Grand Prix, the President’s Cups at the Washington International Horse Show and the American Invitational. I ticked off win after win on my fingers, accolade after accolade.

“But a horse isn’t really an athlete,” they said.

“No? Right now we’re all caught up in the FIFA World Cup and there are ESPN documentaries showing how our men’s team trained and prepared for the event.  You think a horse doesn’t train for an event? These soccer players train every day to increase strength, agility, and cardio capacity.  So does a horse like Sapphire.  She may not have lifted weights, but every ride she did specific exercises to build strength, or  cardio, or to give her the necessary agility to jump course of obstacles in excess of five feet. The soccer players currently on the world stage practice every day because it’s the little details, like the understanding of pace, distance, and force that will drop a pass over a defender and directly in directly in front of a player during his run toward the goal. It’s the correct angle of the foot and amount of strength applied that sends the ball into the goal, rather than coming up short or going high and wide.  It’s the same thing for a horse.  Sapphire and her rider, her teammate, trained to perfect the understanding of pace, distance and strength to get to the optimal takeoff  spot in front of an obstacle to clear it.  They worked to build the kind of team chemistry to allow them to function as one unit.  Just as a tiny detail can be the difference between the moving on in the tournament or being sent home, a tiny miscue between horse and rider can mean a dropped rail, or hundredths of a second that can be the difference between first and second place.”

“So of course she was an athlete,” I said, “One who represented her country and her team, at the highest level, bringing back a win time and time again.  She won the big events, championship upon championship, over and over again, and she did it with class and elegance. No drama, like we see from so many athletes today.  So yeah, she was an athlete, a champion, and deserving of the same accolades and recognition on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated that other great athletes who have passed on receive.”

“So, yeah, I’m crying because we lost a great athlete, not “just a horse.”  Because she made a difference in her sport, and the lives of those around her.  She showed us the meaning of heart, determination, the drive to be a champion, and the importance of teamwork.  And our sport was better because she was in it.  And when you lose something like that, magic like that, you grieve.”

Thank you, Sapphire, for the privilege of watching you on your journey over the years, and for leaving us with so many wonderful memories.

Rest in peace, great mare. You will be missed.