Rio Diary Day 1

Day 1: Laura Graves

The wonder of the Summer Olympics is how huge it is -- this is not to downplay the splendor of the Winter Olympics but, let’s not kid anybody, they are two very different things. The Winter Olympics are an international celebration of winter, of snow, of ice, of the extraordinary things human beings have learned how to do on those surfaces. We (and I mean “we” as in “human beings, not me) can go very fast. We can jump very high. We can create beauty and art. It’s lovely and exciting.

But now think about the Summer Olympics.

We have the world’s biggest swimming championship here.

We have the world’s biggest track and field meet here.

We have the world’s biggest gymnastics championship here.

We have a tennis tournament with some of the world’s biggest stars. We have a golf tournament with some (fewer) of the world’s biggest stars. We have a basketball tournament with Kevin Durant and Diana Taurasi and Carmelo Anthony, among others. We have a worldwide soccer tournament with Neymar and Carli Lloyd, among others. We have most of the world’s best shooters, archers, fencers, wrestlers, boxers, weightlifters, table tennis players, divers, rowers, judokas, sailors, cyclists. We have the world’s wildest beach volleyball tournament, and the world’s most violent water polo tournament, and a miniature rugby World Cup.

It’s all too massive to wrap the mind around.

On Day 1, Laura Graves offered a nice reminder of the enormity of it all. I wrote about Laura Graves before ... she was a bartender and cosmetologist up near her childhood home in Connecticut when she decided, once and for all that it was time to follow her dream: And her dream, oddly enough, was to compete in dressage.

Dressage -- I’ve learned a lot about this in the last few months -- is a fascinating equestrian event. In dressage, the rider is not supposed to guide the horse in any way -- no pulling of the reins, no talking to the horse, no visible cues at all. The ride is supposed to look utterly effortless -- judges watch this stuff very closely. The horse runs through a series of complicated steps and skills, and the rider must communicate through the subtlest of gestures or, ideally, through telepathy. The horse and rider are supposed to be one. It’s an ancient art form.

It’s also a sport that often has been connected to royalty and the insanely rich, so Graves’ connection to the sport is unusual. When she was young, she was so psyched about dressage that she convinced her parents to help her get what was essentially a mail order horse for $10,000 -- this is a sport where a great dressage horse can cost upwards of a million dollars.

The horse, Verdades, Diddy for short, was basically nuts. Nobody could ride him. He was afraid of everything. Graves herself was thrown off Diddy so many times that the time her back was broken, her mother didn’t even come over right away (“Oh, look, Laura was thrown on her back again”). There was absolutely no reason for Graves to believe that Diddy could ever be a world-class dressage horse, but she believed anyway, and slowly she and Diddy formed this bond. And after countless hours of work (“Relax Diddy that’s just a garbage bag) and work (“Relax Diddy that’s just a television camera”) and work (“Relax Diddy that’s just the wind,”) Diddy began to evolve into something else, a graceful and extraordinary athlete.

And so one day, Graves quit her various jobs, moved down to Florida, subsisted on popcorn and Ramen Noodles, and began the craziest dream imaginable.

“So,” people would say to her after meeting her, “you ride horses for a living?”

“So,’ people said to her in the days leading up to Rio, “you ride horses for living!”

This is the magnitude of the Olympics -- all these sports, all this greatness, and, oh yeah, it is also the biggest equestrian event in the world. And here’s Laura Graves with Diddy. They get to the venue here in Rio, and she walks Diddy in the wind, and she is astounded once again at how far he’s come, how far they’ve come. She thinks about the many steps they’ve taken together, the many fears they conquered, the countless times it all seemed pointless and fruitless. Here they walk at the Olympics, and they are Olympians, polished, unafraid, a champion.

“Honestly,” she says, “I had to stop for a moment just to think about how we got here. I’m so proud of him. I feel like we’re ready. It’s like a dream.”