For two days in a row, McLain Ward (USA) has been greeted by thunderous applause at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
And for two days, he’s ridden out a champion. It’s as much a testament to his show jumping skill as it is to the strength of his mental game.
On Thursday, the double gold Olympic medalist captured Round I of the FEI World Cup Jumping Final, posting the fastest time by three hundredths of a second in Alan Wade’s speed class.
But the most challenging part of the course was not the track itself, said Ward.
“[It’s] the first day…period,” said Ward.
“I actually asked Ludger Beerbaum—I think this is his 30th World Cup—‘Does it gets less stressful?’ He said, ‘No.’
“You always come with high hopes and with a horse like HH Azur you have particularly high hopes. You’re on home soil and you’d like to have a great finish, so that’s the biggest stress—just dealing with the nerves.”
Ward is no stranger to the pressure of an individual final. Omaha marks his 17th World Cup Final appearance. His top finish was in 2009 when he came second with the famed mare, Sapphire.
“I’ve come to the World Cup on every type of program,” continued the world #4 ranked rider.
“I’ve gone to Europe and shown. I’ve ridden inside. This year, I just kind of kept doing what I was doing in Palm Beach. I kept my horse fresh. I only showed her in two big shows in Palm Beach, so I hope it pays me back at the end of the week.”
The plan appears to be working. Ward raced once again to the top of the leaderboard in today’s Round II of the Jumping Final Ward, this time besting a six-horse jump off by a definitive margin. He was more than 2.5 seconds faster than second place finisher Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and Forlap.
His biggest challenge this time around?
“Getting through the second day,” quipped Ward.
“Every day comes with challenges. I’m a bit disappointed to have been to 17 World Cups and to not have won one. For me, that’s a little bit frustrating. I’d like to be able to stay focused. I’d like things to fall my way a little bit. The biggest challenge for me is to keep my head right.”
His preparation for the Sunday’s final will focus exactly that.
“I’m not going to think about it for a few hours, hopefully. It’s nice to have my wife and my daughter here, which always helps me. And, you know, just stay focused, one jump at a time, one round at a time. I try not to focus on what the others are doing. I try to do the best I can do in every situation and that’s about all that I can control,” said Ward.
“I try to keep my head right. It’s a struggle for me a times—I’ve spoken a lot about it. It’s something that I try to master. Hopefully, I can master it this weekend.”
Tune into FEI TV on Sunday at 1:30 CT to find out!