David O’Connor, who won an individual Olympic eventing gold medal and served as the first president of the United States Equestrian Federation, has resigned his position as U.S. Eventing Technical Advisor to focus on duties with the FEI (international equestrian federation).
David chairs the FEI Eventing Risk Management Steering Group and may do even more with the FEI in the future. He also will continue to offer his services as a trainer.
“It was a very difficult decision for me to step away from this group of riders, owners, support personnel and sponsors,” he said.
“But the structural changes made with the newly created technical advisor position don’t allow me to do what I felt has always been my mainstay. That is, helping to drive the necessary changes for eventing that are in the best interests of the athlete, horse, and owner,” David noted.
“I have lived by these constructs through my time as a competitor, through to my current role as Technical Advisor and they will continue to guide me going forward.”
Under the new arrangement, he was to work with USEF eventing managing director Joanie Morris “in the development and implementation of eventing plans, pathway, program and systems that will help grow programs for developing and elite athlete.”
His role was “adjusted to focus more on management of the programs and the athletes’ personal programs and goals, rather than hands-on coaching.”
As David explained the parameters of his new contract to me last December, “The personal coaches (of individual riders) are a very strong side of the program that’s going to be pushed, and the assessment of markers of what you expect within three months, six months, a year, for progression of horses and riders.
“These will be agreed upon with the rider and myself and documented, so there is a very clear path that we, and they, can judge whether the system that they have is actually working,” he added.
David, who coached the Canadian team to a silver medal in the 2010 World Equestrian Games, became technical advisor and chef d’equipe for the U.S. team after the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. eventing team was seventh at the 2012 Games, so hopes were high and a great deal was expected when David took over.
But there was disappointment when the 2014 World Equestrian Games squad also did not finish under difficult conditions in France. Things seemed back on track after the U.S. won double gold at the 2-star-rated 2015 Pan American Games to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. At the Rio Olympics, however, the team was eliminated again, though Phillip Dutton did win an individual bronze medal in Brazil.
While a new contract for a coach or technical advisor usually runs for four years, David’s second contract signed in 2016 was for two years. Show jumping coach Robert Ridland had a four-year renewal after his teams earned bronze at the 2014 WEG and silver at the Rio Olympics. Dressage technical advisor Robert Dover, whose team won bronze in Rio, got a two-year contract, but he had stated he was unsure about continuing in the role for another four years, as he had personal interests he wanted to pursue.
Although Americans have been going over to Europe regularly to train and compete, it has been nine years since a U.S. competitor won Rolex Kentucky, the country’s only 4-star event, where foreign riders filled the first three slots this year.
I asked David what’s going wrong with American eventing. He feels both the older and younger riders are riding better, and have the skill sets to be competitive, but they need to be bolder and more aggressive.
“Over many years, David has been a leader for US Equestrian as a whole and for eventing in particular,” remarked Murray Kessler, president of USEF.
“We reluctantly accept David’s resignation and support his desire to focus on chairing the Fédération Equestre International (FEI) Risk Management committee to help design programs that mitigate risk for the sport and promote horse welfare. It is reassuring to know that David will remain a leader in our sport, continue to provide input to our programs and that our mutual interests will remain intertwined. We thank him for everything he has done.”
Now USEF has to hustle to find a replacement for David, with the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C., little more than a year away.
The question is, what will that person’s role be?
“I think they’ll have to take a look at that, whether it’s a general manager like baseball or football, or someone who helps deal with the horse sport side,” David said. “Everyone’s going to have to decide what direction they want to go down and have it go from there.
“I was fully committed and put all my energy and my thought process into it but it was the time to go on to the next for the program,” he said.
As for himself, he said, “I’m looking forward, I’m not looking backwards. I’m optimistic about what the future’s going to bring.
“I’ve been involved in high performance since I was 18 years old, and now I’m 55. I enjoy teaching emerging athletes and I have always done that and I’ll look into continuing that side of the equation, but not the official one, because that’s Leslie’s (Law) job.”
David added he and his wife, Karen, might even open a barn again, but noted the two of them haven’t had a chance to talk about it.
“It’s not like I’m leaving the sport,” he pointed out.
“We’ll see what opportunities are available.”