More Competitive, More Inclusive FEI World Cup™ Finals Ahead in Omaha, By Catie Staszak
While Omaha will host its second FEI World Cup™ Finals in April, there will be plenty of firsts for the venue as, among other things, it will open its doors to a third FEI Discipline, Vaulting.
The discipline joins Omaha’s lineup in 2023, the result of a reformatted qualification system established for the sport after the 2019 season, which greatly increased the number of qualifying events and consequently, participating athletes. What was once a winter qualifying season is now a year-long, global pursuit.
“[The old qualification system] complicated things for athletes, many of whom are young and [compete as] amateurs [with day jobs and studies],” said Laetitia Gilliéron, FEI Vaulting and Para Sports Manager. “What is new in this format is that athletes can qualify from January through to December. Even in the U.S., athletes can earn [World Cup] points.”
Provided they meet eligibility requirements, the highest ranked athletes on the Vaulting World Cup™ Individual Standings on 31 December of the year preceding the Final will qualify out of three regions: Africa, Asia, Oceania; North and South America; and Europe. The four highest ranked Pas-De-Deux athletes will also qualify, regardless of region, along with 2022’s champions.
“The idea was to have global representation at the Finals,” Gilliéron said. “We want some diversity.”
Vaulting’s “new concept” also included a restructuring of the Final’s competition format, which now features two separate tests: a technical test and a free test. Formerly, the two individual tests were the same. The format debuted with success at Leipzig (GER) last year, when seven nations were represented, including the U.S.’s Kimberly Palmer and Kalyn Noah.
Palmer has qualified individually again in 2023, and this time around, she’ll be closer to home in Half Moon Bay, CA. The majority of her competitors, however, will have a much lengthier journey. Omaha will mark the first time a Vaulting championship has been held in the United States since the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2018 in Tryon. A plane has been chartered for six Vaulting horses to fly to Omaha from Europe: five from Germany and one from Italy. The remaining European athletes will compete with borrowed horses from the U.S.
“Sam Dos Santos (NED) is just 16 [years old] and for him, just to be qualified and to travel across the ocean to compete for his sport in the U.S. is something really special,” Gilliéron said. “It’s the same for Estiven Palacio Hernandez (COL), who was so amazed to be at the FEI World Championships at Herning (DEN) last year. He told us that he learned so much. The sport of Vaulting is different from other disciplines in that the team spirit between nations is really something special.”
A Battle of Champions
The FEI Dressage World Cup qualifying season is far from over, but two places have been firmly cemented. Defending champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl (GER) is automatically qualified, while Isabell Werth—who won the previous three editions, including at Omaha in 2017—leads the current standings of the Series’ Western European League.
“Isabell is really a fighter when she’s entering an arena, and for sure, Jessica will be a part of [the Finals],” said Philippe Maynier, Dressage Sport Manager. “Luckily, I was there when Omaha last hosted the Finals in 2017…Most of the athletes coming from Europe are usually very enthusiastic to compete outside of Europe.”
Similarly to Vaulting, Dressage’s qualifying format underwent some restructuring ahead of the 2022 Finals. Previously, different qualifying regions had different points systems, but now the Western European League, Central European League and North American League’s points are weighted equally.
“It’s easier to understand this process of qualification,” Maynier said.
There’s a youth uprising in Dressage, and as the list of Omaha’s qualified athletes takes shape, Maynier looks forward to a competitive field.
“There are new names competing at the World Cup Final,” he said. “There are newcomers, and there are young riders like [27-year-old double World Champion] Charlotte Fry (GBR). It’s not a battle with the [same riders] anymore. It’s more and more open.”
Americans will best remember Omaha’s FEI World Cup™ 2017 Finals for Jumping athlete McLain Ward’s (USA) victory on home soil.
All eyes will be on Ward as the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final returns to the U.S. for the first time since that event. Ward is currently the third-ranked east coast U.S. athlete in the North American League standings, thanks to a runner-up finish at Fort Worth’s (USA) qualifier in December. The top seven East USA athletes will punch their tickets to Omaha.
“I really would like to go back to Omaha,” Ward said. “It was a brilliant World Cup Final, not just for me, but I think for representing our country as an event.”
In the past two years, the number of North American League qualifying events has shrunk from 14 to eight, making qualification more contentious, especially when the Finals are hosted in the United States. The 2022-2023 season concludes 19 March in Ocala (USA); it will produce 10 qualified athletes from the U.S., along with two qualified athletes each from Canada and Mexico. Currently, the top three athletes in the NAL standings will qualify as “extra athletes.” Daniel Coyle and Conor Swail are U.S.-based Irish riders, while Daniel Bluman competes for Israel.
In the Western European League, World No.1 Henrik von Eckermann (SWE) has asserted himself as a Finals favorite. With 102 qualifying points (and counting), he is the first athlete in the WEL to pass 100 points in a single qualifying season. He took wins at both Verona (ITA) and Basel (SUI). Both wins came with his gold medal-winning partner from both the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (JPN) and FEI World Championships 2022 (DEN), King Edward.
“He will have five weeks off, and he will do the World Cup Final,” von Eckermann said. “The Final is really my goal this year.”
The FEI World Cup™ Finals returns to Omaha 4-8 April 2023. To learn more, visit the Omaha 2023 webpage.