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A day in the life of an Alaskan at the London Olympics

Heather Lende

Editor's Note: Heather Lende, a writer from Haines, recently attended the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where her sister-in-law Karen O'Connor was competing in equestrian events. O'Connor, at 54 years old, is the oldest American competing in this year's games, and placed ninth overall and first among American competitors in equestrian. Here, Lende recounts a day at the games.

It may take a village to rear a child, but it takes a Kingdom to raise an Olympic event horse.

Which is why if you are just part of a rider’s family like I am, it is a challenge to get one of Karen’s packet of complimentary Olympic tickets. Of course I would have just bought one if I’d known this six months ago, but now I can’t, as they there are all sold out. Gill didn’t rank one either, since she just owns the Greenwich house we are all staying in and is a family friend.

We learned all this the night before dressage, but Karen said it was simple -- all we had to do was get up at 5 a.m., meet the team ticket dispenser at 6 a.m., wait a few hours at the back gate of the venue until she received the day’s tickets allotted to the U.S. equestrian team from the International Olympic Committee representative, and then grab our two and go.

We exhaled when we made it into the dressage stadium in time for the first rider. It turned out that we had very good seats. Actually, all the seats here are good. We assumed that the rest of our officially ticketed entourage -- Karen’s mother "Grandma" Joanne, Nancy the United Airlines purser from California who helps Karen travel around the world, and Suzanne the horse woman from Virginia who owns part of Karen’s horse (Mr. Medicott is syndicated, so has several owners) -- were all in the VIP seats. They weren’t. They sat in the aluminum bleachers just like us over on the other side. The British are more democratic this way than what Gill calls we “Yanks.” There are no skyboxes. At this morning’s dressage test, even Princess Anne was in the regular seats.

The U.S. equestrian organization has rented a home adjacent to the venue where last night there was a cocktail party, which Grandma Joanne and I attended with the riders, owners, family and financial supporters. We had to rush home after the dressage tests to change and take a cab back, as Grandma Joanne was a little tired, but so happy since Karen had the best American dressage finish of the day and was ninth overall coming into the second half of the dressage phase.

She has bumped down some now, as was expected. The obedient, controlled steps and changes of dressage are challenging for her galloping and jumping horse -- as was the noise of the crowd in the big stadium. Mr. Medicott prefers the rigors of cross-country and the explosive energy of show jumping, the other two phases of Olympic eventing.

Anyway, Grandma Joanne and I came into the garden through a crush of blue blazers and perfumed ladies and paused to be photographed before she was whisked toward Karen and I bumped smack into Captain Mark Phillips, the outgoing coach of the US team. My brother-in-law, David O’Connor, takes over after the Olympics.

The Captain is also the father of British eventer Zara Phillips, as he was married to her mother, Princess Anne, a long time ago. I had met him before, and said, in my cheerio, what-the-heck-might-as-well-jump-in-both-feet-common-American-way, “Hi Mark, nice to see you again, Karen did great didn’t she?”

He peered at me with his good eye. I prompted him, “We had dinner together a few years ago. You made the cherries jubilee, remember?”

He looked closer, finished his crab salad parfait and then said, “Right, right,” and handed me the empty cup and fork and made his way toward someone more important.

Grandma Joanne and I found a table full of grooms and owners and had a fine time. On the way home, we learned that our delightful cabbie’s brother owned a winery in Napa, and then cruised past the carnival on the common, or green, outside the horse park and he slowed so we could see the crowd watching the Olympics on a big screen TV and picnicking on the grass while children played and dogs tugged on leashes. A Ferris wheel rose behind a stone church on this same heath where Henry VIII once hunted on his horse. This is London: the city of royals and regular folks rubbing shoulders, with the Olympic games smack in the middle of all of it.

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.