History was made when Team Sweden clinched gold for the very first time at the FEI Jumping European Championship 2023 in Milan (ITA). The country that already holds both the Olympic and World team titles proved that, when it comes to staying the distance, they simply have no match right now.
They started the medal-decider trailing Germany and just ahead of the defending champions from Switzerland. But on an afternoon full of surprises, it was Team Ireland that settled comfortably into silver medal spot while Team Austria took the bronze.
As the action began, only fractions separated the leading pack, but when Henrik Ankarcrona’s Swedish side added nothing to complete on a total of 9.51 penalties for the win, they were well clear of the Irish on a final tally of 18.00 and the Austrians who finished with 22.77 on the board.
No-one could have predicted that Germany would lose the pathfinding partnership of Marcus Ehning and Stargold which would always leave them vulnerable, or that the Swiss, who have been all but unbeatable this year, would finish sixth behind Spain.
But anyone who has followed the path taken by the Swedes in recent years would know that a team consisting of Henrik von Eckermann and Iliana, Wilma Hellström and Cicci BJN, Jens Fredricson and Markan Cosmopolit, and Rolf-Göran Bengtsson with Zuccero would be difficult to overturn.
As Fredricson, who goes into Sunday’s individual medal-decider still out in front after three tough days of sport, said, there was never any discussion about the Swedish mission coming to Milan. “We came here to take the gold medal; that was always the plan, and sitting here now is just fine! We know how this can go, with many ups and downs, and we are really super happy with the whole thing!”
There was a bit of a shockwave when the last-minute news came through that Ehning wouldn’t compete because he felt his stallion wasn’t quite right.
“I don’t know what happened really. We got ready for the class, and I don’t know if he heard something, but he nearly flipped over in the box, and I don’t know if he over-reached a muscle or whatever. When I got on, he wasn’t lame, but he doesn’t want to open up his back or stretch, and I didn’t have the feeling that he was normal,” the multiple champion explained.
So when Philipp Weishaupt’s Zineday knocked the oxer at fence two, Jana Wargers and Limbridge double-faulted, and Gerrit Nieberg came home with one down, the German total of 25.31 would leave them just off the podium in fourth place.
Meanwhile, only Steve Guerdat and Dynamix de Belheme lived up to expectations on the Swiss side who had to add 16 to their scoreline. But the Austrians, sixth overnight, rocketed up the leaderboard when Gerfried Puck and Equitron Naxcel V came home with just two time penalties, Max Kuhner and Elektric Blue P jumped clear, and Alessandra Reich and Oeli R lowered only the tricky water-tray vertical at fence six that proved a bit of a bogey all day. That meant they could drop the 12 racked up by Katharine Rhomberg and Cuma 5.
The Irish opened up with another fabulous clear from Michael Duffy and the 14-year-old mare Cinca. Although they had to add eight to the scoreline when Trevor Breen and Highland President, Shane Sweetnam and James Kann Cruz, and Eoin McMahon and Mila all returned four-fault results, they reaped the benefit of a good run earlier in the week that had left them stalking the leading pack and ready to pounce if their rivals showed any weakness.
It was three classic clears that clinched it for Sweden, Henrik von Eckermann providing their only mistake of the day, when hitting the last in his pathfinding round. Annoyed with himself, he explained, “I got the six (strides) nice, but I didn’t sit up enough. I followed with her and I was through the finish line in my mind before I was over the finish line!” But the double world champion and world number one rider didn’t need to worry. His team-mates would wrap it up very nicely indeed, Hellström confidently bringing her one-eyed wonder-mare home without incident, and Fredricson doing likewise with his 12-year-old gelding.
Bengtsson already knew he had a gold medal around his neck before he set off, and he said that was a very nice feeling. His foot-perfect run was just the icing on the cake, ensuring the distance between gold and silver was as wide as possible.
Nice to be back
“For me, it’s very nice to be back again in the team!” Bengtsson said. “I’ve been on the side for a while, but that was also an interesting position to have. Now I have a really good horse again and to get a medal here today… it was 22 years ago I had my first one, so thanks guys! The team spirit we have is something very important and very special. We know each other very well and that helps. We can talk to each other in whatever language, and nobody takes it badly if you tell them straight what you mean.”
Hellström pointed out that “there’s a reason why Sweden has been so successful…. t’s not only the riding; it’s the full plan and the organisation around us and the respect everyone has for each other.”
Von Eckermann was delighted to add yet another championship medal to his already very extensive collection. “I really wanted the gold for the last team medal in my pocket, so I’m happy the guys helped me with that!” he said.
Fredricson said forward planning is the recipe for Swedish success. “I have a very early plan for my horse. In November I knew what I had to do. I did Rome, La Baule, Aachen – all fantastic shows – and I knew I was going to have my horse in the best form now. If you don’t know that and you are picking the team in the last month… I think that’s what we do right,” he pointed out.
In contrast, the Irish had to make some very late changes to their side leading into the championship
“But the thing we are most proud of is whatever changes we have to make we have in excess of 30 riders competing in 5-Star Nations Cups this year, and I think that’s a phenomenal figure!” said Chef d’Equipe Michael Blake. “I’m so proud to be involved with people who are that good and love the sport that much. They put the country first and they make my job easy,” he added.
There was no hiding the surprise and delight on the faces of the Austrian bronze medallists. As their Chef d’Equipe Angelika May said with a laugh, “If there had been a bet on Austria, I think you would have made a fortune!”
But they earned their place fair and square, on top of Olympic qualification along with Spain and Switzerland.
“We came here for the Olympic ticket, and we would have been super-happy with that!” said Katharina Rhomberg. Team-mate Max Kuhner said they would like to build on this result now. “I hope it will also bring some support for the future for the country, like these big horse nations, to get more owners, to get more horse power, to get more ambition for the whole sport. The Olympic qualification is probably the best thing to make this happen. It was a fantastic feeling with a great team. We had a really good time here together, supported each other, and it makes me very happy!” he said.
11 out of 10
Talking about his horse Markan Cosmopolit, Sweden’s Fredricson said that his jumping round “wasn’t a 10 out of 10; it was an 11 out of 10!” and he reflected on how his victory came about.
“You try to do your best and you can do nothing about the other riders – if they were better than us, then they would have won, but this time we were the best. The only thing you can focus on is your own thing. Always in championships there are unpredictable things happening!” he pointed out.
All four Swedes now go into the individual finale inside the top 18, with Fredricson in pole position ahead of Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat in second and Ireland’s young star Michael Duffy in third, ahead of Frenchman Olivier Perreau in fourth. There is less than a fence between the top five and less than two between the top 11, so there’s no room for error, which promises one more day of spectacular sport.
But for now, it’s Swedish party time, as they celebrate their first team title in the 66-year history of the FEI Jumping European Championship.
by Louise Parkes