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Top competitor is not just horsing around

"It's a great experience that you’d love to have the opportunity to do over again,” says John L. Williams ’87 (School for American Crafts). He’s talking about the Athens Olympics, where he was a member of the five-person U.S. equestrian “eventing” team that won the bronze medal.

Eventing has been described as the triathlon for horse and rider. The first portion of the three-day Olympic competition is dressage, which demonstrates the rider’s control and the horse's skill in a series of choreographed movements in an arena. Next comes a grueling cross-country ride over a 4-mile course with 34 fixed obstacles. The final test is the show-jump event, with 13 obstacles.

John Williams, riding Carrick, acknowledges the crowd after completing the dressage portion of the three-day eventing competition at the Athens Olympics.

Germany initially was awarded the gold medal, France took silver and Great Britain received the bronze. But in a controversy that was settled days after the event, judges ultimately ruled that a German rider had committed a fault in the show jumping phase, and dropped her score by 12 points. That put Germany in fourth place, with the other teams moving up. By then, the Americans had left and there was no opportunity to stand on the awards podium.

Although the team took a medal, Williams’ Olympic debut was somewhat disappointing from a personal standpoint. “I didn’t do as well as I have been doing in recent years with this horse.”

Indeed. He led the U.S. eventing team to gold at the 2002 World Games in Spain, and placed second at the 2002 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event, and second at the final pre-Olympic event in July of this year.

Williams grew up in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., and now lives in Middleburg, Va. He started riding about age 12. “Kids down the street had ponies. We had no idea what we were getting into,” he recalls. “After a couple of years with no guidance someone decided I should get some lessons. And that led to where I am now.”

His whole life revolves around horses. International competitions keep Williams and his wife and manager, Ellen, very busy arranging for transportation of horses and equipment and traveling to events. Williams also is developing a career as a designer of cross-country courses, with more than 20 sites to his credit.

“My RIT background in woodworking and furniture design has fit in very well,”
he says.

He plans to compete for at least another four or five years – the Beijing Olympics are a definite possibility. But the sport he loves takes a toll. “Sooner or later we all fall down and get hurt,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
His is an unusual lifestyle – and not an easy one, he admits. “I wasn’t born rich and I didn’t marry into money. This is a hard way to make a living.

“But we seem to like it.”