As anyone who's watched NBC's prime-time Olympic Games coverage knows, the mainstream media and many viewers love the human-interest stories behind the Games athletes.
We haven't had too much of that in the Olympic equestrian events of dressage, eventing, and jumping. But the 2012 London Games are yielding a bumper crop of both feel-good stories and celebrity gawkers.
Being in London, after all, we couldn't get away from the Brits' fascination with eventer Zara Phillips, who is a member of the British royal family. (But when the media got all breathless reporting what Kate, Duchess of Cambridge--I think that's her title--wore to the show-jumping, I got a little sick of it all.)
So on to the dressage, where (no disrespect to Zara's great riding and eventing team silver medal intended) a few truly interesting stories are playing out.
Tops in terms of media coverage, we have the Jan Ebeling-Rafalca-Ann Romney-presidential-race circus. Jan was the first to go for Team USA in the Grand Prix today, which was the first of two days of team competition and the individual qualifier. He earned a respectable score of 70.243 percent, although some of the reporters present were more interested in asking him what words of encouragement Ann Romney had for him than finding out about his test. But Ebeling, an even-keeled guy with a twinkle in his blue eyes, said he's welcomed the Colbert Report et al. focus on dressage, and hopes to use his Romney connection to raise the profile of the sport. He's been a really good sport about the whole Stephen Colbert "fancy horse prancing" parodies, and he's donned a red foam finger and done his part to show that dressage enthusiasts are hard-working athletes and not necessarily snooty elitists.
(Asked for his message to the mainstream media and to the next generation of dressage riders, Ebeling said: "You don't have to be a millionaire. You can get there if you're willing to work hard.")
A slightly quieter story that's gathering legs is the remarkable longevity of Japanese dressage competitor Hiroshi Hoketsu. Hoketsu, 71, is the oldest athlete at the 2012 Olympics, with an astonishing 48 years of Olympic involvement. His first Games were in Tokyo 1964 (where he competed in jumping); his second were in Hong Kong 2008.
His motivation to stay in equestrian sport for all these years, Hoketsu said, is "as long as I feel I keep improving." To that end, he left his wife and daughter behind in 2003 and moved to Germany to train. He qualified for the 2008 Olympics, where the Japanese dressage team finished ninth and Hoketsu was thirty-fourth individually. Then he made it to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, where the Japanese team was thirteenth and Hoketsu placed thirty-first in the Grand Prix Special. In the Grand Prix today, he earned a score of 68.739 percent--nowhere near the top of the leader board, to be sure, but pretty darned respectable given this level of competition.
Hoketsu's dressage partner at these international championships has been Whisper, a 1997 chestnut German-bred Hanoverian mare by Wolkenstein II. Not as extravagant or as supple a mover as today's top contenders, Whisper nonetheless looks to be a kind and accomplished individual who has a nice partnership with her senior-citizen rider.
But it sounds as if London will be Whisper's last hurrah.
"I'd like to, but it will be very difficult to find a horse for me," Hoketsu said, adding that Whisper will be "too old" for Rio 2016.
Whisper may be nearing retirement, but Hoketsu? We'll have to see. Meanwhile, he's an inspiration to all of us of a certain age who still have equestrian goals and dreams.