The Olympic Sport for Middle-Aged Dreamers

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The U.S. dressage team wins bronze.Photo: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Kate Hepburn, while portraying Coco Chanel on Broadway, sang that the world is for the young. Nowhere is this more true than at the Olympics. At the 2012 London Games, the average athlete’s age was 26, with 33 Olympians age 15 or under. The 2016 Rio Olympics appears to be no different. Yet for Gen X-ers, or even Baby Boomers hoping to root for athletes in their own demographic, there is an exception: equestrians.

Simply put, equestrians are the geezers of the games. Athletes in shooting and archery also tend to be older than average, but no other Olympic sport is as conducive to the gray-haired set as equestrian. Of the 12 Team USA riders headed to Rio, half are 35-plus and two are over 50. The average age is 37. Other countries have sent literal senior citizens to the Olympics in recent years on their squads.

The face of USA Equestrian in Rio isn’t some young up-and-comer, but Beezie Madden, a 52-year-old from Milwaukee who is the first woman and first American rider to reach the top three in the Show Jumping World Rankings and the first woman to pass the million-dollar mark in earnings. Rio 2016 is her fourth consecutive Summer Games. Madden was eliminated from individual competition on Tuesday, but will ride for gold in the team competition on Wednesday. “When I tell people who don’t me that I was in the Olympics they give me a funny look,” laughs Madden, who won gold in 2004 and both gold and bronze in 2008. “They’ll ask ‘which one?’ As in, it must have been a long time ago.”

Elizabeth Madden of the United States rides Cortes 'C' during the team jumping Tuesday in Rio 2016.Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

“The beauty of equestrian sports is that you don’t ‘age out’ of being able go the Olympics,” explains Will Faudree, one of America’s top eventing riders. The 33-year-old Texas native was a Team USA reserve in Athens in ’04 and narrowly missed making the London squad. But the sting isn’t so sharp when he can look at Canadian rider Ian Millar — the Peter Pan of equestrian — who, in 2012, competed on his tenth straight Olympic team at the age of 65. “Not making the team is always difficult,” says Faudree. “But it’s easier knowing that in four years you can try again.” While most athletes at his age would be eyeing retirement, Faudres is envisioning Tokyo in 2020.

Competing into middle age has its advantages. “First and foremost is experience,” says Madden. “It’s easier to handle the nerves and pressure of a big event. I’ve done it all before so I know what’s coming.” Decades of riding also means accumulated knowledge, especially useful in show jumping where every course is different and riders only have one opportunity to inspect it — sans horse.

There is no free lunch, of course. Madden admits she must commit more time to the gym. While riding doesn’t require the fast-twitch muscles of, say, long jump or gymnastics, it’s very physical and the 52-year-old works extensively on her core strength, balance, and flexibility. “You also don’t take falling off a horse as well as you used to,” she laughs. In May 2014, she and her mount Breitling LS went down during a competition. The horse was fine, but Madden broke her collarbone, requiring surgery. “It definitely took longer to heal,” she says. “But I started riding about a week before I should have anyway.”

How long can Madden continue to compete? “I don’t know about forever,” she jokes. “But I’m not going to be stopping soon.” Perhaps she’ll take a cue from Hiroshi Hoketsu, a Japanese rider who made his debut at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 2012, Hoketsu competed in London in the individual dressage event at age 71. “I’ll reevaluate after Rio,” says Madden. “Riding is a big commitment. I’ll probably slow down the pace at which I’ve been going. As for another Olympic Games? I might still have one more in me.”