The show jumping superstar has represented the U.S. at the world’s biggest competitions since he was 14. Now 44, McLain’s focused on bringing back gold from the 2021 Olympic Games — and on helping young riders navigate the steep mental challenges of the sport.
McLain Ward doesn’t spend much time thinking back on his impressive list of victories. It’s the goals he hasn’t achieved yet that wake him up in the morning. At the top of his list? An individual gold medal at the Olympic Games.
With two team golds to his name, McLain hopes to vie for Olympic victory once again in Tokyo and check the No. 1 item off his bucket list.
Along the way, he’s discovering a new passion: using his experience to help young competitors build their careers and taste the success McLain has enjoyed for nearly three decades.
Rolling with the Punches
Although McLain, 44, is no stranger to the pressures of this high-intensity sport, the postponement of the Games presented a new hurdle. He admits there was “a moment of feeling sorry for ourselves.”
“You have these horses fit and primed and trained to have a peak performance, possibly at the Olympic Games, so it’s a bit disappointing,” he says.
But McLain is aware of the gravity of the moment. “The pandemic is a true tragedy,” he says. “Not being able to go to the Olympic Games pales in comparison to sickness and losing somebody who is close to you. I very much hope, from a health point of view, that we get to a better side of this in the new year.”
Once the announcement was made, McLain and his support team quickly buckled down to create new game plans and make important decisions.
“I’m an optimist,” McLain says. “I always plan for the best-case scenario and then make adjustments if it doesn’t work out.”
That includes shifting his perspective and keeping his focus on the long-term goal. “I think that’s what you have to do in life, not just in sports,” he says. “You have to figure out what’s the next step and how you’re going to make decisions to be in a better position when the time comes and the sport does go back to a high level. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
His other two top Olympic contenders are Noche de Ronda and HH Azur. Azur, who is 15 this year and competed in the 2016 Games, will be getting some time off to rest before competing again.
With four high-caliber horses, McLain isn’t sure who will rise to the top and become his No. 1 contender for Tokyo — only time will tell. “We’re trying to build some up, save some and maintain a baseline with others,” he says. “We’ll have the best horse ready for the Olympic Games come July.”
McLain plans to get back on the road for competitions again in January when he’ll head down to Florida for the Winter Equestrian Festival. But during the unexpected break, he has loved spending time at home with his wife, Lauren — who competes as an amateur show jumper — and their two young daughters, Lilly, 5, and Madison, who was born in February.
“My girls have made life all that much better,” McLain says. “We’re pretty lucky in this crazy time.”
Winning the Mental Game
McLain took the sport by storm in the early 1990s when, at age 14, he became the youngest rider to win the USEF Show Jumping Derby. After such a promising start, the pressure to succeed could be overwhelming at times.
For McLain, the key to riding the ups and downs of a long, legendary career was enlisting the help of sports psychologist Bob Rotella in 2008.
“It changed my career and it changed my life,” says McLain. “It’s an ongoing journey and battle. The mental side has always been a huge part of our game.”
McLain has been outspoken about how he’s managed performance anxiety and perfected the mental game — and why it’s so vital for up-and-coming riders to do the same.
“It’s a wonderful, phenomenal life,” he says. “But you’d be kidding yourself not to think that choosing to make your living in sport doesn’t also take a small chunk out of you. It’s great to play a game for a living, but it comes with some weight.”
More than an Athlete
Helping younger riders carry that weight has become a priority for McLain. Early on, his father encouraged him to be not just an athlete, but an ambassador for the sport. That’s exactly what McLain is doing by mentoring a few select young riders to help them “put a career together,” he says.
“As proud as I am about what I’ve been able to accomplish as an athlete, I think the second half of my career is going to be bringing more riders to the very highest levels of the sport,” McLain says. “It’s something I’m very happy I’m able to do.”
McLain isn’t a teacher or trainer, per se, because these riders already have that in place. What they need is a mentor of sorts, someone to tell them exactly what it takes to get to where they want to be professionally. It’s the stuff no one usually talks about, and it’s knowledge that can only come from having been in the same trenches where the talented young riders are today.
“I’m the guy fighting the same battle. I’ve been there,” McLain says. “And I can share that with them very candidly, very directly. I’m very real.”
One major focus of McLain’s mentorship is helping young riders structure their organization and find long-lasting support — including from U.S. Equestrian Team supporters like you.
“We talk about the people you need in place behind you,” he says. “This takes an army. Every inch counts. And every inch is part of the big picture. Anyone who is supporting the Team has to know that the people at the top of the sport are giving every bit of themselves they can give. The dollars, the efforts and the movement are very appreciated.”
He adds: “When I see a medal won, I always think to myself, Everybody has a small piece of that.”
If all goes well in the coming months, McLain may have a new medal to add to his collection — a collection supporters like you have helped him build over the years.