By Nancy Jaffer
Sept. 20, 2016
A generation-spanning who’s who of American show jumping gathered yesterday at the Gladstone headquarters of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation for a smile- and tear-filled tribute to Olympian and coach Frank Chapot.
The celebration of Frank’s life drew everyone from his longtime teammates, George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Bill Steinkraus–who served as team captain before Frank, to Michael Matz, Joe Fargis and Anne Kursinski, among the stars of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and current team members, represented by Rio silver medalists McLain Ward and Beezie Madden.
The crowd of more than 150 also included people whose lives had touched Frank’s in other ways; students, former grooms, show ring officials, governance figures and those who simply had been friends. Also on hand were his wife Mary, another former teammate; daughters Laura, a top grand prix rider and Wendy Nunn, an outstanding amateur rider; son-in-law Edward Nunn and grandchildren Frank, Mary and Cathleen Nunn.
Speakers touched on multi-dimensional aspects of Frank’s life, which ended June 20 at the age of 84. They talked about his outstanding record as coach, with team gold at the 1984 and 2004 Olympics as well as the 1986 world championships, among many other international medals. And then there were his own accomplishments, team silver at the 1960 and 1972 Olympics, individual bronze at the 1974 World Championships and what likely is a record that never will be broken–riding on 93 Nations’ Cup teams, 46 of which brought home the win for the country he loved.
As noted by U.S. Equestrian Federation President Chrystine Tauber, another former teammate, Frank was a strong proponent of the Nations’ Cup, pushing for better scheduling and prize money for these classes that embody national honor. He also brought along the World Cup, insuring the annual indoor championship’s survival and prominence, as current coach Robert Ridland (yet another former teammate) emphasized.
Frank was, above all, a true patriot. Red, white and blue were his colors, commemorated with the baseball caps resting on every chair for the ceremonies. The front was emblazoned with USA, in the fashion of his favorite headgear. The side was embroidered with an American flag and the back had his name and the dates and locations of his silver medals.
The U.S. and its team were everything to him, and he gave them his all. George noted that Frank usually was under-horsed for the big events, but his determination flowed to his mounts and often gave the desired results. When they didn’t, he took the fall and came back to try again, even if the odds were not in his favor.
The best horse Frank ever had was one he did not ride in competition. He bred and trained Michael Golden’s Gem Twist, part of the 1988 silver medal team, who took individual silver as well at those Games for Greg Best, a young man also trained by Frank. Gem was named Best Horse at the 1990 World Equestrian Games and won not only for Greg, but also for his subsequent riders, Leslie Burr Howard and Laura.
Leslie remembered getting to ready to ride Gem in the Dublin Nations’ Cup before a packed stadium when Frank put up a big oxer in the warm-up ring.
“Okay, this is your first jump,” he told her. She took it, “and then Frank says, `That was your last one,’ ” so she went in the ring off just one fence to jump clean.
Frank demonstrated the vision to take a bold chance when he cloned Gem, a gelding who couldn’t pass on his pedigree, at a time when cloning was not as accepted as it is now. When the clone, Gemini, came of age, Frank had to be the first one to ride him, even at the age of 78. Luckily, as Wendy noted, Gemini behaved.
Now standing at stud in France, Gemini is carrying on the great Bonne Nuit jumping bloodlines, exemplified in the mount with which Frank perhaps was most identified, Good Twist, the sire of Gem. Bill remembered that on one European tour, Frank had the fastest time with the gray stallion in the speed classes at every show that summer.
The afternoon at the USET Foundation was a treasure trove of stories, rich with detail, humor and of course, nostalgia, for things gone by. Some could be repeated, while some, delivered with a wink, were for private conversation only. Others seemed therapeutic, bringing the speakers back for a moment or two to a time they shared with Frank.
As Chrystine pointed out, Frank had a winning attitude. Bill, who got a standing ovation for his remarks, noted that one of Frank’s favorite sayings (after the oft-quoted ingate advice of, “let him go clear”) was “that you can’t win them all unless you win the first one.”
Peter Leone put it this way: “Frank was the definition of a winner.”
Chrystine recalled you never needed to say to Frank, “Tell us what you really think.”
After meeting with a sports psychologist when that initiative was in its early days for equestrians, Frank told him curtly, “Anyone who needs this isn’t going to ride on my team.”
Chrystine noted that Frank had developed his own way of “mentally tapping into that peak zone,” rather than needing outside help.
I remember sitting in the stands at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where show jumping was the final competition. Frank came up to seats near me between rounds to discuss strategy with his teammates and coach Bertalan de Nemethy, and though I couldn’t hear the specifics, I was impressed to see a level of determination so strong in his demeanor that it practically sent out shock waves .
It interested me that George, in his speech yesterday, mentioned he thought before the Games that Frank’s Montreal mount, Viscount, was not really the right horse for that test. Yet they finished fifth, not far off the medals. Frank made it happen, as George said, with “accuracy, guts, leg, and that horse went beautifully.”
Frank also had a big role in sport governance and rule-making.
“Part of being prepared, to Dad, was knowing the rules,” said Wendy.
“He prided himself on knowing the rules and making the judges and competitors play by those rules.”
As John Madden, the FEI’s first vice president, commented, “Everywhere he went he commanded respect. He was involved in every aspect of the federation and he was a tremendous influence on the FEI.”
John remembered a controversy over something at a show, where Frank had to make his case before the jury over an interpretation of a rule.
He was convincing.
“You may be right,” one of the judges finally conceded.
Not content with that, Frank retorted, “Of course I’m right. I wrote the rule.”
Frank had the backs of the team members when he was needed.
“He was always there when things were difficult,” reported John.
While Frank’s demeanor was usually no nonsense, he also had a side that was, as Wendy put it, “fiercely protective.”
His goddaughter, Robin Rost Fairclough, remembered riding for someone at a local show whose horse put in just one stride in a two-stride combination, alarming Frank. Although he was not training her that day, he marched up to the animal’s owner and informed him, “She’s never riding that horse again.”
After the formal proceedings of the memorial were over, guests moved from a tent in the arena into the stable that had played such a big role in Frank’s life. They enjoyed a drink or two and something to eat, renewed acquaintances and swapped stories. Each left with a new baseball cap and a lot of memories.
They all knew, as George said when he closed his talk, “You don’t ever replace Frank Chapot. There won’t be another one.”
Here is the list of those in the group photo: Front row–Jimmy Torano, Neal Shapiro, Peter Leone, Chrystine Tauber, Mary Chapot, Bill Steinkraus, Beezie Madden, Robin Rost Fairclough, Leslie Burr Howard, Anne Kursinski, Joy Kloss, McLain Ward, George Morris, Laura Chapot, Linda Sheridan, Michael Matz.
Back row–Mark and Armand Leone, Eric Hasbrouck, Joe Fargis, Chris Kappler (DD Matz, hidden)