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Gold-winning dressage youth championship team helps put Minnesota on the map

EXCELSIOR — Area dressage athletes, and their horses, helped score the region’s first team championship at the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) earlier this month.

Region 4 team members can qualify from anywhere in a seven-state range. Yet, three of the four team members hailed from the southwest metro. Nico Beck, 15, is from Chanhassen. Maggie Elsbernd, 16, is an Excelsior resident. And Hannah Thiher was a 17-year-old team member from Maple Grove.

The riders had something else in common: It was each rider’s debut at a competition of this scale. The fourth team member was Averi Allen from Missouri.

“It was a lot of fun to be able to go to an international competition with people you know,” Beck said.

Submitted photo  

Nico Beck, of Chanhassen, is pictured with his horse Campari.

Beck was the team’s anchor, meaning he came into the competition as the strongest rider on the team. He posted the team’s highest score at 70.27%. Together, the team posted a combined score of 203.18 at the championship, putting them ahead of the Region 2 team, which earned silver with a score of 202.63.

Submitted photo  

Maggie Elsbernd poses with her horse, Zeestar. The dressage champion is a junior at Minnetonka High School.

Horse dressage is an artistic sport in which the rider communicates with their horse through slight movements and rehearsed training. Mastering rhythm is the first step in conditioning the horse. The highest level in dressage is “collection,” the United States Dressage Federation says, describing it as “balance and lightness of the forehead from increased engagement.”

The sport is like “speaking in a different language,” Elsbernd said.

“In dance, you’re doing it yourself,” she said, “In dressage, you’re asking the horse to dance for you. If you don’t ask the right way, they won’t do it.”

Dressage athletes would compare the NAYC to the Olympics. It is an international competition between riders from the United States, Canada and Mexico, and it took place in North Salem, New York. Seeing as the Region 4 team competed in the North American Junior Dressage Team Championship, it can be thought of as the Junior Olympics.

Cologne native Heather Salden-Kurtz trained Elsbernd.

“For her to do so well, and for her team to do so well and win a gold medal was just the icing on the cake,” she said. “I was super-duper proud of them.”

She said the Twin Cities dressage community has been historically small, but is showing signs of growing. Each of the three area competitors have different trainers.

“The more success we have locally, the more we can grow the sport,” she said.

For Elsbernd, finding herself in a pool of fellow dressage athletes at the championship was a first-time experience.

“It’s a completely different stage because it’s international, and you see people training like I am — rigorous training at the barn every day,” she said. “It was such a cool experience to be with other people like me.”

She’s eager to work her way up to a return at next year’s NAYC with her horse, Zeestar. Beck and his horse, Campari, are preparing for the upcoming U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions.


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After 20 years, a former Cold War missile site in Watertown may finally get cleaned up

WATERTOWN — An empty field in Watertown is surrounded by farmland and a golf course. It’s fenced off — warding off trespassers — but the land looks abandoned.

Under the overgrown land are large bunkers that decades ago played an important role in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The bunkers held missiles and large elevators that could move the missiles to the surface to launch them at soviet aircraft, if needed.

They were never used though, and the bunkers are now empty. The doors are soldered closed. The buildings that once stood over them, torn down.

WAFTA

In 1974, the U.S. Department of Defense sold the land to a group called the Western Area Fire Training Academy (WAFTA), a group of 11 fire departments in the southwestern suburbs including Chanhassen, Chaska, Eden Prairie, Excelsior, Long Lake, Maple Plain, Mayer, Mound, St. Bonifacius, Victoria and Watertown.

The group used the land to train area firefighters for nearly two decades. It also leased the land to Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, which also used the land to train employees in basic firefighting skills.

In 1992, the site was closed and locked for good after pollutants were confirmed at the site.

Pollution

In the 1980s, WAFTA began studying the land, recognizing that that the Department of Defense’s use of the land and the use of chemicals in firefighter training likely contaminated the soil and groundwater.

Things like petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and perfluorochemicals (PFCs) were found in the soil and groundwater at the site.

WAFTA President and Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson told Lakeshore Weekly News that while the area is contaminated, it isn’t necessarily dangerous. The land is not safe for agricultural use, he said, but there is no nuclear waste and the contamination does not affect drinking water in the area.

Pederson has spent the last 20 years working on cleaning up the site. WAFTA, despite its name, doesn’t train firefighters anymore. The purpose of its existence now is owning the old missile site, spending its time and money looking for a way to clean up the property with hopes of selling it.

In 2001, WAFTA attempted to meet with the Department of Defense, Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy to discuss cleaning up the site, but the group was met with resistance, Pederson said. They have never come up with an agreement as to how to clean up the area.

According to Pederson, WAFTA is contacted about the site often — including those looking for land for a shooting range, a solar field and a movie theater — but the pollution turns potential buyers away.

A solution at last

In his first several months in office, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s 3rd District, went on a tour to meet with local officials. While on the tour, Phillips met Pederson and they discussed the WAFTA site, the 20 years Pederson has spent attempting to clean up the polluted area and his unsuccessful attempts to include elected officials in the process.

Phillips came up with a potential solution to WAFTA’s problem — an amendment to the U.S. House of Representatives’ National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This amendment, which was added to the bill in July, would make the Department of Defense responsible for its old sites across the country — even ones it has sold — and any contamination that may have been left behind.

The defense bill passed the House in July, but the U.S. Senate passed its own version of a defense bill that doesn’t include the amendment. The bills will have to go to a joint NDAA conference, where lawmakers will come up with a bill they believe can pass both bodies.

Phillips believes his amendment will stay in the consolidated bill.

If the bill does pass the U.S. House and Senate, the Department of Defense would have to make a plan to decontaminate the WAFTA site, along with other missile sites across the country. According to Phillips’ office, there are 20 former Nike missile sites across the United States, but the legislation will look at non-Nike sites as well for contamination.

“While I did it specifically for us here in the 3rd District, the amendment I wrote and authored requires that the secretary of the army issue a report for any areas that were once used by the military that may have been reassigned to local governments for other uses,” Phillips told Lakeshore Weekly News. “There are other communities that will also benefit from this activity.”

Pederson is happy to have movement on the issue, even if it may take several years to see any funding come in to help cleanup the site. Soil remediation, which involves removing large amounts of soil from the site, would cost approximately $489,000, he said.

“For us, having been spinning our wheels for 20 years, this is great news,” Pederson said.

The history of the site and what it used to contain is not lost on Phillips or Pederson. Pederson has been down in the bunkers several times and says he’s not a fan of the “creepy” silos.