Archive for Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Maggie the Aggie

Tonganoxie grad helps Texas A&M equestrian to national title in first year

June 6, 2007

When an equestrian rider brings a horse to a slide stop, it's like the alley-oop in basketball or the 50-yard deep pass in football.

It's the maneuver that forces crowds to hop out of their seats and look at the action with wide eyes, raised eyebrows and open mouths.

Maggie Gratny perfected the slide stop on her dad's farm in Tonganoxie. The 2006 Tonganoxie High graduate perfected the maneuver so much that her final slide stop of the 2007 spring season won the Varsity Equestrian National Championship Western event for Texas A&M University.

It marked the Aggies' second Western national title in three years. Gratny, a freshman, excelled in her first collegiate season.

She won five MVP awards during the regular season, then took the overall MVP award after Texas A&M won the Western national title in Waco, Texas. Furthermore, Gratny's rein clinched the title against South Carolina. The Aggies won, 6-2.

Think of equestrian scoring like tennis in a head-to-head battle. One rider from each competing school rides the same horse. The rider with the higher score wins one point for its team. There are eight possible points. Texas A&M led South Carolina, 4-2, before Gratny's pattern. With only two more possible points remaining, Gratny's victory sealed the title.

"I normally don't try to keep track at that exact moment," Gratny said of the situation. "Luckily, I didn't know. That's a lot of pressure. But I ride best under pressure."

That's probably because Gratny has showed horses since age 4. Her dad, Mark, trains quarter horses on the Tonganoxie farm he's owned for 32 years.

Mark, along with his wife, Linda, and Gratny's sister, Kelly, all attended Kansas State University. In fact, Kelly, 25, was a member of the first-ever equestrian team at K-State in 2000.

"She had purple blood at the time," Texas A&M coach Tana Rawson said about first recruiting Gratny. "She was very set on going to Kansas State. I just told her to come down and look at College Station."

Gratny said Texas A&M's academic reputation, its strong equestrian recruiting class and the college-town feel made her decision simple.

Gratny has aspirations of attending dental school. She's back in Kansas for the summer, shadowing dentists and learning about her future profession. When she's not in the dentist's office this summer, Gratny has the choice of about 40 horses from her dad's farm. She practices every day.

Most of her practice is in preparation for Wild Slide Weekend, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the National Equestrian Center in St. Louis. Gratny attends the event almost every year.

Of the 57 Texas A&M equestrians, Gratny is the only Kansas native.

"When they asked where I was from, I said, 'Oh, I'm from Kansas,'" Gratny said. "They would ask, 'Where's that in Texas?' They got a little ahead of themselves, but for the most part, they're really nice."

Texas A&M used to offer equestrian as a club sport. Recruiting was nonexistent. The Aggies equestrian team is now part of the NCAA. As a result, Lawson could leave the Lone Star state to recruit athletes like Gratny.

"She's one of the most talented recruits across the country in reining," Lawson said. "A lot of it comes down to feel. It's about feeling and controlling this animal that has a mind of its own."

What makes the sport even more challenging is riding a different horse each event. Before the Western national title, Gratny never met or rode Sweed, a horse from the University of Georgia.

Gratny had only four minutes to warm up with the horse. She said sometimes, horses are cooperative during warm-ups, then completely different in the ring.

Mishaps in the ring rarely happen with the six-time MVP, though. Gratny's 15 years of experience helps with queuing the horse and noting its reactions.

"Honestly, I don't really do much in the four minutes," Gratny said. "I'll trot around and do a few maneuvers. I try and relax on him and get him used to me."

Gratny knew the slide stop would be the maneuver that won the title. Before she entered the ring, a woman from the University of Georgia approached Gratny.

"She said, 'Just trust him on the stop,'" Gratny said. "I believed her. It's all about building consistent speed at a controlled rate, so when you say 'Whoa,' they sit down on the back end and almost pedal with their front feet. Some of these stops can be 20-25 feet for a good stop. Sweed laid down an awesome stop every time."

Gratny's family was present at the Heart O' Texas Dodge Arena on April 20 for Gratny's slide stop that clinched the title. Mark Gratny only missed two events all year.

"We were awfully excited," Mark Gratny said. "Her mom and dad are very proud of her. She has gone out and earned this on her own."

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