Vaulter Megan Benjamin became the first American female to secure a gold medal in vaulting at the 2006 games in Aachen, Germany. She's back at the 2010 World Equestrian Games for a try at a second.
After two days of vaulting, Benjamin went into Friday's competition in 11th place. By day's end, however, she had moved into fifth with a strong score of 8.355 in women's individual technical. Benjamin will compete in the finals of the women's freestyle competition that starts at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Kerith Lemon, the media liaison for the vaulting at the Games, said two things set Benjamin apart.
First, she said, "she is an absolute technician" who will work tirelessly to perfect a move. Second, "she has a really amazing connection with her horse."
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When Benjamin is choreographing her routines, Lemon said, she takes into consideration how she and the horse can work together to pull it off. That sort of attention to detail shows in the polished routine, she said.
Benjamin's years of international competition and global travel started with a short trip: When Benjamin was 8, her family stopped at Garrod Farms in Saratoga, Calif., to get the hay for a pet bunny.
Garrod Farms is home to one of the premier vaulting training centers in the country, and Benjamin was exactly the right age to vault.
After one lesson, she was hooked.
Benjamin said she had some background in gymnastics, but the equine/human partnership pulled her in.
"I want everyone to understand that my most important team member is my horse," she said. Tricks performed on top of a horse are nothing special, she said.
"It has to be with the horse," she said. "There has to be a harmony, and it's very visible."
The horse, she said, is also 20 percent of the score.
For most of this year she has been riding Urfreund Rosengaard, known as "Uffe," in competition. Until a few weeks ago she planned to ride Oldenburg, a bay gelding, in the Games.
But according to a blog post Sunday — "Uffe. Leo. Leo. Uffe. Uffe? Leo? Leo?? Uffe?? I can't decide!!!" — she was reconsidering. "Leo" is Leonardo, the bay Danish Warmblood bay gelding she took to the 2006 winning WEG competition.
She ultimately decided to go with Uffe.
While the horse is key, many people help Benjamin succeed.
"My team is pretty huge," Benjamin said. At the center is her lunger and Danish coach Lasse Kristensen, who also provides Benjamin with her Danish home.
There is a personal trainer, a dance instructor, a gymnastics coach, a groom, and friends and family who offer emotional support and practical assistance, including helping with hair and make-up.
For the Games she'll have plenty of fans in the stands. "My boyfriend is keeping me company, my mom is coming up, my dad, my brother, my grandmother and uncle ... there are so many people here."
Benjamin recently graduated from Cornell University, so she is thinking of the future. She said she had always been interested in dressage and thought that she might have a longer equestrian career in that form of competition.
She's also mulling a move to San Francisco.
Benjamin said she could never have envisioned a life that would evolve from that trip to buy hay for a bunny. The sport, she said, "has given me a whole different view of the world."