Returning from injury, rider McLain Ward needs good showing at Devon to sustain Olympic hopes

When McLain Ward folded his left leg during a rehab session earlier this year, he glanced down. His trainer was squeezing his kneecap, just in case it crumbled.

Ward, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, suffered a broken knee in January. The knee shattered into more than 20 pieces during a competition, and he needed about four months to repair it.

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But he hasn't wavered. His goal for the year is still the same: compete with the U.S. show-jumping team at the Summer Olympics in London. If he can pull it off, if he can compete with the best in the country when he should still be rehabbing, Ward will have a chance to earn his third career gold medal.

These next three weeks will be crucial. He must show well at a pair of Olympic observation events, starting Thursday.

Ward, 36, is one of three members of the 2008 U.S. show-jumping team who will compete in the $100,000 Grand Prix at the Devon Horse Show at 8:10 p.m. Thursday. But perhaps more than the other two former Olympians (Laura Kraut and Beezie Madden), Ward's ticket to London rides on how well he shows at Devon.

Of the 38 teams of horses and riders still eligible for the U.S. squad, each has to compete in at least two Olympic observations. The Devon Horse Show is the third such event - and the first for Ward.

The grand prix Thursday is one-half of the observation at Devon. The other, the Idle Dice Stakes, will be held Saturday. Then, Ward will show at the last Olympic observation in Calgary on June 13.

The Thursday night Devon event will mark just the third week he has competed since the injury.

"It isn't easy; it isn't ideal," Ward said. "But I know I've done everything I can to prepare for the Olympics. Sometimes, you're unlucky, and you can only do what you can to prepare. That's not just sports. That's life. I think that's why people like sports so much. Sports can be a reflection of life."

On Jan. 14, Ward rode Oh d'Eole at a grand prix in Wellington, Fla. Oh d'Eole is inexperienced, and Ward sensed trouble as they approached a double combination one-stride jump - a jump followed almost immediately by another.

After the first leap, Ward didn't think Oh' d'Eole could make the second. He tried to pull the 10-year-old black mare back, but she jumped anyway. The jump was sloppy.

Ward's left knee hit a pillar, and he knew he was injured. His chance of rejoining the Olympic team seemed to slip away.

He glanced down: His kneecap had cut through his skin.

The next day, doctors screwed the broken pieces of Ward's knee back together. Normally, a rider needs about six months to rest. Ward took only four, and even that was difficult.

"That was a long four months," he said. "But I realized I'm lucky, and I realized I love to do what I do. You know, sometimes you get a little burnt out. But when all you can do is sit around, you see how much you really enjoy it."

For the last 25 years, Ward said, he never stayed off a horse for longer than five days in a row. When he finally got back on one in April, it didn't feel the same.

The day after his first ride, his left thigh ached because he had not been able to exercise his leg since the injury.

Rehabbing the knee was a careful process: Don't work it out enough, you won't be ready for the Olympics, the biggest stage in your sport. Work out too much, the screws could pop loose. The knee could fall apart.

So Ward went slowly, at least as slowly as he could. And after he returned, and after his legs grew to normal strength, he returned to competition.

At the Old Salem Farm Spring Horse Shows in Westchester County, N.Y., earlier this month, Ward won the grand prix twice in as many weeks to prepare for Devon. Now, he said, he's ready.

But before the grand prix begins, Ward will bid adieu to one-half of his gold-medal team. Sapphire, the 16-year-old chestnut mare Ward rode at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, will retire during a ceremony Thursday night.

Sapphire suffered a strained ligament in her front right leg in May 2011. Ward thought she might be ready for one last run at the Olympics, but that wasn't to be, he said. Sapphire just couldn't get back to full strength.

"I always joke that Sapphire is my wife," Ward said, "and my wife is actually my mistress. It's tough to see her go. She was a good horse."

Ward will instead be on Antares F, an 11-year-old gray gelding. Antares is smaller than Sapphire, but more aggressive and a better leaper. Ward first rode him two years ago, and he feels comfortable with him.

But tonight, as he prepares to compete, Ward will glance down. He'll miss seeing Sapphire.