As the defending team gold medal winners, and because of the US's historical strength in the event, the Americans were slight favorites to win as a team. They were definitely the only team who anyone considered capable of challenging the Germans on their home ground. After the dressage phase of the competition the US team was slightly behind the leading Germans but sitting well for the most important and their strongest phase -- the cross country obstacle course. The 1936 Olympic cross country course would go down in history as one of the most difficult and notorious because of one jump: the number four jump into the pond. The obstacle's design required the to horse jump a three foot post fence and then land in about three feet of water. The horse then had to cross the pond and jump out on the far side. In concept it was not any more challenging or difficult than all the competitors had faced dozens of times before.
The first indication of trouble for the Americans came when Captain Raguse arrived at the jump riding Trailolka, the smallest horse in the contest. In keeping with planned strategy he jumped what appeared to be the most inviting and shortest way: just to the right of center. Upon landing the horse and rider were in trouble. The water was deeper than the reported three feet. More serious, the bottom was not hard but soft and muddy. The conditions surprised both horse and rider, causing them to tumble head over heels. Trailolka injured her shoulder in the fall but was on her feet quickly. Captain Raguse quickly remounted and, despite his mount's shoulder injury, continued the course without further mishap.
With no way to communicate back to the starting point the true nature of the jump, each succeeding rider became a victim. Riding second for the US team, artilleryman Captain John Willems on Slippery Slim arrived at the jump with no faults and with a perfect time. His flawless ride ended at jump four. Captain Willems, like Captain Raguse, jumped to the right side as had previously been determined. He and Slim sailed over the jump with full confidence that they were on their way to one of the best rides of their lives. It ended abruptly as Slim landed hard in the soft mud and deep water. Again, both horse and rider tumbled forward. This time however, the horse's front legs were trapped in the deep mud and the fall broke Slim's right foreleg. Willems and Slim struggled to the bank where Willems immediately recognized the catastrophe. The disaster eliminated Captain Willems and the US team from the competition and Slippery Slim had to be destroyed.
Captain Thomson and Jenny Camp were toward the rear of the starting order and by the time of their start the pond had unhorsed dozens of riders. The word was filtering back not to jump to the right. With this insight Thomson and Jenny jumped to the left, stumbled slightly, but made it through with no faults. They completed the course without serious problems. All totaled, only fifteen of forty-eight horses negotiated the number four obstacle with no difficulty. Twenty-eight horses fell, and three refused to jump at all. The obstacle injured three horses so badly they had to be destroyed while dozens of others lost confidence or at a minimum lost time on the course due to the experience. One rider had to chase his horse for several miles before mounting and continuing on.
In the politically charged environment of the games, rumors abounded that the German team was well aware of the actual conditions of the pond and intentionally withheld the information from the other teams. Interestingly, not a single German rider fell at jump four, and all the Germans jumped the left side, which had the appearance of being the most difficult and the longest way. The political atmosphere, the controversy over jump number four, and other questionable judgments by the German officials caused a storm of protest from all eighteen teams. Reinforcing the chilled atmosphere among the equestrian community was that for the first and only time in Olympic history one country, the host country Germany, captured all six equestrian gold medals. Captain Thomson and Jenny went on to win their second individual silver in the three day event, but the fate of Captain Willems and Slippery Slim eliminated the US from the team competition. The 1936 three day event was the most challenging to that point in Olympic history. So challenging that of eighteen teams, only three could finish the minimum requirement of three riders for a team score. Two teams, France and Italy, did not have a single rider complete the competition. No fourth place team position could be awarded.
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