When Erik Duvander took over in October 2017 as the USA’s eventing performance director, there were only 10 months until the FEI World Equestrian Games. On top of that, it had been 13 years since U.S. eventers won a team medal at a global international championship (as opposed to a Western Hemisphere-only Pan American Games). So no pressure…
U.S. eventing “had come off a couple of years of changing coaches, it just seemed like it was quite an unsettled sort of situation, and unsettled for the future of the sport,” observed Erik, who evented for his native Sweden and most recently coached the successful New Zealand team.
While it wasn’t ideal for him to undertake his U.S. duties going into a world championship – especially one to be played out before a home crowd in Tryon, N.C. – he noted in his practical fashion, “You’re going to have to start somewhere.”
Hopes may have been high for the 2018 WEG, but realistically, Erik hadn’t gotten a chance to put his stamp on the program and just worked with what he inherited. Although there were some good moments, a series of unfortunate events put the U.S. in eighth place, just missing a berth for the 2020 Olympics.
Charismatic and attentive to detail, Erik seems omnipresent when he goes to an event, where he always is seen beside his team members, offering guidance and support to help improve their performances. But he can’t be a one-man band.
When Erik left Tryon, he at last knew exactly where the program stood, and promised a plan to improve it. At the same time, he noted, “it’s hard to predict how soon results will come. Every time you change a culture, it generally it will take seven years before full change, but we’re hoping we will get there way sooner than that.
So what needs to be done?
“I have a sense it is about getting the fundamentals in place,” he said, explaining that means “bringing more intensity to the programs and really monitoring everything. It will be more top-end focused.”
In terms of recruiting horse talent for the high performance program, Gloria Callen is chairing the Event Owners Task Force, where emphasis will be on tracking the results of young horses and how they compare to current top horses in their development.
Meanwhile, cutting back the number of riders on the training lists is important. With too many names, there’s no competition for that roster, he maintains.
“The philosophy isn’t if you get onto a training list, we will make you a champion. It has to come from the riders themselves,” he said.
“They have to fight for their spot. Then when they get that, we’ll give them the experiences they need to be able to perform at championships. It’s also about the funding.”
If the money available has to cover a large number of riders, “the less impact the funding will have on reaching individual riders,” Erik pointed out.
The Performance Advisory Team – “a group of mentors to support me in my thinking or challenge my thinking” – will advise Erik on riders for the training lists and other matters, he said. Those in the group include Tokyo 2020 cross-country course designer Derek DiGrazia,; former eventer Ian Stark, who can keep an eye on U.S. riders in Britain, longtime U.S. team member Karen O’Connor and Bobby Costello, who will be a link with the selectors.
Erik’s right-hand man is another advisor, 2004 British Olympic eventing individual gold medalist Leslie Law, the U.S. emerging athlete coach.
“We challenge each other, but we fully understand each other. Leslie and his program have done some really good work,” said Erik, noting the two will be working side by side “so there isn’t one youth program and one senior program.”
As younger riders start putting pressure for team spots on senior riders, “that’s when it’s really going to kick off, the success,” Erik believes, noting that will be true for the next world championships and maybe even for the Tokyo Olympics, 18 months or so away.
Of course, first the U.S. has to earn its ticket to Tokyo. The opportunity comes this year at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. That route is how the U.S. qualified for the 2016 Olympics, when the team won gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Canada. Erik is optimistic about the team’s chances as the program progresses.
Show jumping is an Achilles heel for the eventers, causing problems once again in Tryon. As Erik observed, the U.S. has some of the world’s best grand prix show jumping riders and trainers, but he noted with potential eventing team riders on the West and East coasts, as well as in Britain this year, it “is going to be difficult to bring everyone together to work with one trainer.”
He does, however, see intensive training as a key, mentioning those who can spend a few weeks in Wellington, Fla., home of the Winter Equestrian Festival, have the advantage of working with the best in the discipline. In the Olympic year, depending on funding, show jumping training in Wellington should be part of the program for six or so prospective team members.
During early 2019, Erik will be working out individual protocols for the riders. The task is to “get every rider’s performance plan in place and…get the structures right. It’s not that the horses and riders aren’t good enough. It’s just about being very specific in every detail that we do to be able to compete against the best.”