2 Olympic equestrian medalists to compete 9th Classic Grand Prix benefits HCC students who need financial aid

September 22, 1996|By Tonya Jameson | Tonya Jameson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two Olympic equestrian silver medalists will compete in the ** ninth annual Columbia Classic Grand Prix today at Howard Community College.

Michael Matz and Peter Leone helped the four-member U.S. equestrian team win the silver medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Today they will demonstrate their show-jumping talents in the Columbia Classic, which benefits HCC students who need financial assistance.

Sandy Harriman, executive director of the HCC Educational Foundation, said she hopes the Olympic spirit isn't gone and that spectators will come out to see the two Olympians and learn about Grand Prix show-jumping.

"The Olympics were just in August. It's still in people's mind-set," said Harriman, who watched the equestrian team compete in Atlanta.

Grand Prix show-jumping is the highest level of the sport. At HCC, horse and rider will negotiate an obstacle course designed by 1984 Olympic gold and silver medalist Conrad Homfeld. It features a series of jumps over at least 12 fences -- some as high as 5 feet, 3 inches and as wide as 4 to 6 feet. Horses with the fewest faults will qualify to enter the "jump-off" on an obstacle course. Riders with the best times and fewest faults place in the event.

The Columbia Classic is one of about 30 competitions in the National Grand Prix League and one of 15 in the Eastern Conference, which also features the President's Cup in Washington. Points accrued in Grand Prix events also help determine who competes in equestrian show-jumping in the 2000 Olympics.

Matz isn't ready to talk about Australia, site of the next summer Olympics -- he's still savoring the 1996 victory. The team won a medal in each of three equestrian disciplines for the first time since 1932.

"We weren't even expected to get a medal," Matz said.

Matz of Collegeville, Pa., was the veteran of the team, having been a professional show-jumper for more than a decade and competing in two other Olympics. To make winning the silver even sweeter, he carried the flag during the closing ceremonies.

Aside from his show-jumping skills, Matz is remembered as hero from the deadly 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. When the plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield, he helped rescue several children.

Leone of Greenwich, Conn., was a rookie in the 1996 Olympics but is well known in the Grand Prix world. He is one of three Leone brothers active on the major Grand Prix tour.

He nearly missed the Olympics after he fell from his horse during the spring trials and broke his collarbone in five places. He could barely ride during the next week, and he couldn't jump in competition without medical treatment for his shoulder. He kept competing and had a perfect round in the final trial to make the team.

Both Olympians have competed in the Columbia Classic, but neither has won. Last year's winner was Brendan Damon Mesker of Honolulu.

This year, 35 to 40 riders from the United States, Canada, Central America and France will compete for the $30,000 purse.

The 30 to 35 riders in the Junior/Amateur Jumpers Classic, for riders younger than 18 and amateurs of any age, will compete first. Those riders will compete for a $7,500 prize. Margaret Stewart, 18, of Washington, D.C., won last year.

The Columbia Classic should be exciting because it features some top riders, said Oliver Kennedy, an event organizer.

Other top riders include Joe Fargis, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist; Margie Goldstein-Engle, the 1994 Columbia Classic winner, who is on track to win rider of the year award; and young sensation Lauren Hough, of Morgan Hill, Calif., who at age 19 has won two major Grand Prix events.

About half of the riders are women.

"This is one sport where men and women truly compete on an equal level," Kennedy said.

Organizers expect about 4,000 people to attend the competition. Last year, 3,500 attended.

"The nature of the event is very appealing to people who aren't necessarily interested in horses," said Randy Bengfort, director of HCC public relations and marketing. "It's a festive, fun, family event."

Opening ceremonies feature the Goshen Hounds Hunt Club exhibition with 40 hunting dogs, and show-jumper Debbie Stevens will conduct a course walk and give autographs. Side attractions include pony rides and carriage exhibitions.

Last year, the event raised $70,000, which helped bring the HCC scholarship endowment to $1.4 million. Organizers anticipate earning $50,000 to $60,000 this year. Their goal is to bring the endowment to $2 million, Harriman said. Part of the revenue goes to build the endowment -- the interest is used for scholarships -- and the rest goes directly to students, such as Nucleo Vego.

Vego, a 19-year-old sophomore, said his $1,200 scholarships helps him maintain a 4.0 grade point average because he can focus on school and not money.

The music education major plays percussion in the Columbia Concert Band, the UMBC Jazz Ensemble and the Columbia Jazz VTC Ensemble. He also teaches jazz combo at Hammond High, and he volunteers at the Columbia Classic.

"If it wasn't for the scholarship, I would have to be working to pay for each semester," Vego said. "I'm able to do more things I'm interested in."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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