One Gold Medal, One Bronze Medal, and One Improbable Day
18 February 2008, 10h55 EST (GMT-5)
A Successful Strike with the Lance
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The days of reckoning for UNICEF Team Canada at the 2008 International Tent Pegging Championships arrived with a dull thud, as I rolled out of bed, still bleary-eyed from the eleven-hour time difference between my home in Toronto and the locale of the games in Imphal.
I met my teammates at the stadium shortly after dawn. Slowly, the sun filled the skies, the crowds filled the stadium, and we mounted our horses and rode out unto the field of honour.
Though it is the most storied of the ten equestrian disciplines recognised by the FEI, the global governing body for Olympic and international horse sports, tent pegging is undeniably an eccentric pursuit in Canada. It was, therefore, staggering for me to see the Imphal hippodrome overflow with countless spectators who had come from across the continent - in some cases from across the world - to watch us compete.
The other teams streamed unto the field, followed by their retinues. I had competed against several of those athletes during the 2007 international championships in Muscat, and I had enjoyed a warm reunion with them from the moment we met in Imphal. Bimol, Jeetender, and Talwinder, now also cheerfully shook hands with those teams - teams that had turned them away during the previous weeks' selection trials.
The first event of the day would be group lance, in which riders would try to simultaneously take ground targets with their 2.5 metre lances as they galloped four abreast. This is unquestionably tent pegging's most prestigious event, and the one most frequently portrayed in the copper engravings and sepia-tinted photographs of the sport's earlier eras.
Our four horses fidgeted nervously as they observed our competitors flying down the course, and they trotted with pounding hooves towards the starting line when our turn came. We took our places, fixed our gaze at our targets, and kept our reins taut to contain our horses, as they snorted and uttered high-pitched squeals. Sweat dripped from our brows into our eyes, and foam erupted on the necks of our horses. The starter's flag dropped with a flourish, and we relaxed our reins.
And nothing happened.
I stole a sideways glance at my teammates, and saw all our horses pawing aggressively at the soil and blowing angrily through dilated nostrils, but otherwise remaining inexplicably immobile. Well, I thought, at least the horses are not savaging one another. But what are they doing?
In the previous two days, we had struggled to govern the undirected rage so often found in horses bred for battle frenzy. Yet now, though still full of aggression, they seemed checked by an invisible hand.
The course clock would not start until the first horse crossed the starting beam, but we could not dawdle indefinitely without being disqualified. Quietly, a thought strayed into my mind. Are the horses waiting for permission? It seemed absurd, but no more so than the situation itself.
I cleared my throat. "Gentlemen: charge the field."
In all honesty, I could not think what else one should say in such a situation; it is hardly a typical part of my day. Perhaps simply breaking the silence was all that mattered. In any event, it had the desired effect.
My horse exploded forward and I lurched backwards in the saddle from the force. In my peripheral vision, I caught sight of my teammates in similar postures. We tore down the course, and the targets were upon us almost before I could couch my lance. When we came to the end of the run, the horses kept galloping through the grass fields. I looked up, and saw that all four of us were carrying our targets on the ends of our lances, and I suddenly realised that the stadium was ringing with cheers.
Each team would have to complete five more runs before the group lance discipline ended, but those proceeded in a similar vein for us, sometimes claiming as few as half the targets, sometimes all of them. However, the critical breakthrough for us was that, for reasons that may or may not be related to how we worked with them during the previous two days, our horses had decided that they would suffer our desires and yield to our will in the championships.
When the cumulative scores were tallied that afternoon, the bronze medal went to India's B Team with 101 points and the silver medal to India's A Team with 108 points. The gold medal, and the world championship of team lance tent pegging, went to UNICEF Team Canada, with 109 points.
A pair's event was held later that afternoon, in which the two top scorers from each team would ride a short course together, one wielding a lance and the other a sword. Jeetender and I rode for UNICEF Team Canada, and, in scenes that emulated those of group lance, we took the bronze medal with 17 points, while India's A Team took the silver medal with 18 points, and India's B Team took the gold medal with 20 points.
At the close of the day, I took my team forward to the podium, where our medals were draped around our necks.
I laughed as the gold and bronze medals clanked against one another; somehow, the sound reassured me that all this was real. In an existence filled with all manner of happy absurdities, this was perhaps the most improbable event of my life.
Having first qualified an athlete for the international championships last year, Canada was now the giant killer of the world of tent pegging.
And there was still another day to go.