He was the superstar of American three-day eventing after making history by winning the individual gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. From there, he assured the end of a disruptive governance battle by breaking out of his comfort zone as the first president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, serving for nearly a decade to get the new organization on firm footing.
Then he took the job he had always wanted and became the technical advisor and chef d’equipe of the U.S. eventing team. But the golden glow that lighted David O’Connor’s way for so long dimmed when his squads failed to finish at the 2014 World Equestrian Games and the 2016 Olympics.
Even though Phillip Dutton earned individual bronze in Rio last summer and the U.S. qualified for those Olympics with a team gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, where cross-country was run at the 2-star level, there was a real question as to whether David would get a new contract to continue in the role he undertook four years ago.
Under USEF Director of Sport Will Connell, an exhaustive post-Rio review was launched with input from athletes and officials. But it finally worked out with the announcement this week that David would stay, though at this point only through the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C. He will however, be employed with a slightly different methodology that’s stronger on the management side.
As the USEF statement put it, he will be working with 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, it said, “has been 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 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,” continued David, explaining the new format during an interview at the U.S. Eventing Association annual meeting in Hollywood, Fla.
For example, he said, “If someone is on a 53 dressage (score) and they think that’s a weakness and they say `I’ve got someone who’s going to help me,’ everyone’s on the same plan. But if six months later they’re on a 57, you’re like, ‘`Now wait a minute…’”
The idea is to have all those involved in working with horses and riders for top competition on the same page.
“The process will be more objective and the communication is clear and everyone understands what the communication is,” said David.
He wants to get more people involved, in the way a head coach gets information from various sub coaches. David plans to add observers at different fences on the cross-country day of championships who can give him information to help make decisions, noting Germany and France, for instance, have multiple people helping during major events.
In terms of why the teams failed to finish at the WEG and in Rio, a lot of factors are involved, but David didn’t want to rehash the specifics.
“I will never say it’s not my fault. I’m the captain of the ship. I’ll never throw riders under the bus,” he emphasized.
But he stated “I also think the program is halfway through its growth. When we look at four years ago, compared to what I look at now, I think we’re in a different place. I think about the younger kids coming up and showing consistency. I see good things in the future.”
At the time David started his job, he said, U.S. riders had a 48 percent completion rate cross-country. In 2015, it was an 89 percent completion rate, and this year it was 72 percent. “The game has shifted,” he contended, yet on cross-country day at the Olympics “it didn’t work.”
Overall, however, he commented, “I believe we’re on the rise. I have two years to prove it. And if I don’t prove it? Next stage.”
He reminded me of a conversation we had at the 2010 WEG, when he was coaching the Canadian team that brought home the silver medal against the odds. After I congratulated him, he reminded me that the Canadians’ success hadn’t come overnight, but had been a four years in development.
David pointed out U.S. riders generally finish in the top five everywhere they go, with the exception of the Badminton and Burghley 4-stars; in the Olympic Games, he pointed out, both Phillip and Boyd Martin were in the top 10.
Incoming USEF President Murray Kessler, who gave a presentation about his organization’s new strategic plan at the USEA meeting, said when asked, “Of course I’m happy David is coming back. I feel great about it.
“We had a committee that went through the process with it. I think the team put together a beautiful plan for the next two years with him, and if that delivers, I think you’ll see a very different performance on the team level at WEG.”