Building a Program – David O’Connor sets sights on future success


Optimal results can be achieved when one knows what it takes to win.

The U.S. Eventing Chef d’Equipe, David O’Connor, is no stranger to success. His resume as an athlete needs no introduction, succeeding at the highest level as a participant. However, what sets O’Connor apart is that unlike many elite athletes in other sports, he has been able to make a successful transition to coaching.

O’Connor succeeded Capt. Mark Phillips after the 2012 Olympic games, following a successful stint as the Chef d’ Equipe of the Canadian team, where Canada took team Silver at the 2010 World Equestrian Games and 2011 Pan American Games.

But it was at the suggestion of an eventing legend that he accepted an opportunity that would change the direction of his career.

“I got offered the Canadian job right after I retired,” said O’Connor. “It was a great stepping stone. My mentor was Jack Le Goff, who was the coach of the Olympic team. He said to me, ‘You have to take it. You have ideas and things you want to improve upon.’ I accepted the job. It was the right decision.”

A former United States Equestrian Federation president, O’Connor changed the complexion of the Canadian team, and developed a program that would yield impressive results.

“We actually went with younger riders,” said O’Connor. “We kind of revamped the whole team. They really produced and performed.”

The Canadian team earned Silver medal honors at the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the 2011 Pan American Games. Jessica Phoenix would capture the individual Gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games.

“Jessica is a fantastic person,” said O’Connor. “Right now, I wish she was American. She’s a solid competitor, and literally one of the top people in the world. So, it’s always nice to have that connection with her.”

It was a transition destined by fate. When Capt. Mark Phillips decided to step down as the U.S. Chef d’Equipe, O’Connor was the logical choice to succeed the Olympic Gold medal winner. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“When the U.S. job came open, I felt like I was ready to take it,” said O’Connor. “I knew that it was going to be a multiyear program, like the Canadian program, it took four years to get there, and then the guys started to hit. It’s the same thing here. It may take three or 3 ½ years to get the program up and running, and then it’s really going to hit.”

The U.S. program is evolving and the progress being made began to manifest itself toward the end of 2014, said O’Connor. There is a tremendous amount of depth in terms of the equine athletes, many who seem to be emerging at the appropriate time for the upcoming international competitions.

“The group of horses that we have in their two-star year, at the end of their two-star and the beginning of their three-star year, is the strongest group that I’ve seen in a long time,” said O’Connor. “There are probably 10 or 12 horses in the United States that anybody in the world would want to have. They’re in the right hands with good riders. That’s very exciting, not just for the Pan American Games, but for the Olympics and World Equestrian Games.”

The recent International Festival of Eventing at the Florida Agricultural Center and Horse Park provided O’Connor with an opportunity to identify several candidates for future international competition. The Ocala Horse Properties Winter Eventing Series III Horse Trials, the next to last qualifier prior to this summer’s Pan American games in Toronto, Ont., Canada, gave the horseman a chance to have an in-depth look at some prospective rider/horse combinations.

“Marilyn’s (Little) horse went well,” said O’Connor. “I think Buck’s (Davidson’s) horses went well. Lauren Kieffer’s been on a roll. She’s been having a great season on multiple horses. This is Vermiculus’s first two-star. She still has three or four others that I’m going to look at. The group is pretty solid. We have another selection trial in another month at Jersey Fresh.”

O’Connor’s previous experience on the national stage as a competitor was of great benefit when he made the transition into becoming Chef d’Equipe. As an elite athlete, O’Connor understands the approach and mindset one must have to succeed at the top level.

“We’d love to have some combinations that can establish consistency and the team can rely on every time out,” said O’Connor. “I think we’ll have that in another 18 months.”

It was that detailed approach, one O’Connor is very familiar with, having competed at the top level for more than a decade, providing him with great insight as he assembles teams for international competition .

“The ability to play at the top of your game, be what I call a player, and to do it at the top tier, it’s a driving force in your life,” said O’Connor. “You’re a little bit manic, trying to think of all the details, not letting things go, being able to compete on an everyday basis and making it a business. You try to get that across. I see great movement and I think we’re capable of a 10-15 year run. I think we’re going to hit in the next 18 months, and be able to do that on a consistent basis.”

Ocala, Florida serves as the winter home for O’Connor Equestrian, a place where David and Karen O’Connor spend six months each year.

“We have two fabulous facilities with Mrs. Mars that we’re able to use in Virginia,” said O’Connor. “Ocala is a great place to break horses and to improve their education. And when we’re in the Mid-Atlantic, we do the four and two-star thing. Ocala’s a fantastic area for their education. When they come out of here, they’re ready to go. We love it down here. We’re now Florida residents. It’s a great place to be, train and it’s very horse-friendly.”

Karen O’Connor is the Chef d’Equipe for the Mexican team, creating an interesting and stimulating environment in the O’Connor household.

“Some of the dinner conversations have started to change,” said David. “We’re competitors, have been husband and wife for a long time, trying to make teams, so I’m excited for her. It’s exactly what a country like Mexico needs, someone like her with her structure and intelligence.”

The U.S. Chef d’Equipe enjoys the rivalry and believes the competition between the two coaches will be extremely beneficial.

“I’m actually excited for her, having the chance to build a program and raise the bar,” said O’Connor. “When you have someone like Karen, coming into a program and raising the level, it makes you realize that you have to raise your game even more and work harder. You need that push.”


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