A Springsteen Fan Takes in a Springsteen Show at the Olympics
TOKYO — First, an admission: I know very little about the sport of equestrian. That said, I do possess a lot of knowledge about Bruce Springsteen …
TOKYO — First, an admission: I know very little about the sport of equestrian.
That said, I do possess a lot of knowledge about Bruce Springsteen.
I know that he initially gave up on playing the guitar his mother got for him and returned it to the shop. Too hard. I know that “The River,” his song about a teenage couple who give up on their dreams because she gets pregnant, is about his sister, who is still married to the boyfriend in the song.
I have also known for a while that Springsteen’s 29-year-old daughter, Jessica, is one of the country’s top equestrian athletes.
I have never met Bruce, though I have “seen” him many times, and I do consider him a kind of companion of the past four decades whose songs are the soundtrack of my life. We’ve driven across the country together. You know what I mean.
I have long harbored a silly fantasy that one day my work as a sportswriter and his existence as an equestrian father would bring us together. For years, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa showed up at horse shows like any other equestrian parents. Eventually I would sit in the stands with Bruce and Patti — I would call them Bruce and Patti — and watch their daughter compete on the biggest stage in sports.
But as it turned out, Jessica Springsteen’s Olympic debut arrived at these “Covid Games,” which months ago barred international spectators, including the families of athletes. So I figured I owed it to my imaginary good friend to take a break from track and field to deliver an eyewitness report on his daughter and her 12-year-old bay stallion, Don Juan Van De Donkhoeve.
First, though, I needed to check in with my niece and sister-in-law, who live on a horse farm in western New Jersey and ride competitively, to find out how equestrian competitions work.
Apparently the jumping event, which requires the horses and their mounts to complete a twisting, 590-meter course in 178 seconds while navigating 14 jumps, nearly all of them more than five feet high, is all about the canter, with the horse and the rider trying to get to just the right spot to clear those jumps. That requires adjustments on the fly, but not too many, because that eats up time and hurts the score.
Sometimes the rider sees the jump one way, and the horse sees it differently. The horse gets the last word, and sometimes the horse bails out in terror. Synchronicity and trust between the two is essential. It is, my sister-in-law said, something of a ballet.
Perhaps that boded well for Springsteen. One of her father’s deep cuts, “Thundercrack,” about a woman who tears up the dance floor, has this sweet set of lyrics:
She moves up, she moves back,
Out on the floor there just is no one cleaner,
She does this thing she calls the “Jump back Jack,”
She’s got the heart of a ballerina.
So while most of the Olympic world focused on Simone Biles, I headed to the Equestrian Park.
After several nights in the sweaty hotbox that is the cavernous interior of the Olympic Stadium, the Equestrian Park was a revelation, a breezy and serene and elegant venue of bright lights and purple and blue hues.
Every other stadium here comes with a blaring soundtrack of early 2000s pop. At the Equestrian Park, one experiences the fluttering of flags in the wind, the thumping of hooves across the dirt and the unique music these 1,200-pound animals make when they huff and clear their air passages.
The moments when they seize up and turn silently away from another harrowing obstacle are heart-stopping. They elicit gasps from the few hundred accredited onlookers.
The Equestrian Park is also home to the oldest Olympians, like 57-year-old Enrique González of Mexico. Kent Farrington of the United States is 40 and most likely has many Games in his future. Men and women compete against one another directly. The riders wear blazers, ties for the men. It always seemed odd to me. Now I get it. It’s all so civilized, but also an ironic accompaniment to the catastrophe that threatens every jump, like the resplendent uniform of the bullfighter.
Just after 9:30 p.m., it was time for Springsteen and Don, as she calls her stallion, to make their long-awaited Olympic debut, the 49th competitors of the night. She entered the arena with a sparkle in her eye and a wide, gleaming smile.
Horse and rider took in the grounds for a few moments as the starting bell sounded, and then they were off, bounding over jump after jump, accelerating across the water hazard in the middle of the ring. They were fast and clean until the second to last set of jumps, when Don clipped a single pole, then cruised into the finish just over a second below the optimum time of 89 seconds.
The performance put Springsteen in 24th place, with 24 competitors left. The top 30, including ties, would advance. Scoring is calculated through a combination of timing and penalty points for knocking down poles. Springsteen had a penalty-free time, but she received four penalty points for the pole knock.
A waiting game ensued. Every rider that put up a clean, fast ride pushed Springsteen farther down in the rankings.
In the press zone, as she dropped into a tie for 25th and then 27th, Springsteen said she miscalculated the distance between the jump where Don clipped the pole and the one before it. She noted how many good horses and riders were left. She seemed to know this was going the wrong way.
And yet she luxuriated in a spotlight brighter than anything she has experienced.
“It’s not only my first Olympics, it’s my first championship,” she said. “I had some jitters coming in.”
She said her teammates, namely Farrington, had helped her through. And Don, she said, is funny and friendly, and winks at her when she walks into the barn.
Elimination came five riders from the end, when Maikel van der Vleuten of the Netherlands posted a clean ride and sent Springsteen into a tie for 31st, one spot out of Thursday’s final because of one knocked pole. No American rider advanced. There’s fodder for a sad ballad in there somewhere.
But, Bruce, know this, too, one dad to another, from 6,700 miles away: Your girl did good.