The Age Impaired Rider: Too old for the Olympics?

Not if you’re an equestrian. Dia Moya, our resident age impaired rider, compares the competitive longevity of gymnasts with that of riders.

From Dia:

Just 18 short days ago the Olympic Games arrived with a sky diving queen and now they are leaving. It will be another four years before we are graced with all the pomp, circumstance, thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

As the games depart many people the world over are inspired to give whatever sport that intrigued them a try. As I write the next set of Olympians are planning their course to Rio, site of the 2016 games.  And many people are signing up for lessons and classes in sports they just were introduced to.

Heck, even an age impaired rider like me can dream. On the way home from a successful weekend cross country schooling on my new eventing partner Bubba (aka the skinny Thoroughbred), I asked my coach if she could have us ready for the next Olympics.

“Probably not,” she said. “It takes at least six years to make an advanced horse.”

You can give her an A+ for tact, but the main thing is that she did not rule out the possibility, however remote it may be. And that is one of the best things about horse sports – we can compete in athlete years (like dog years, but way faster) for almost forever.

Gymnasts, for instance, do not have that luxury. There sport has a very tiny time span when an athlete can compete at the upper levels. Just for fun I decided to average out the ages of the women’s team gymnastics competitors and compare it to that of the equestrian athletes. Not being into number crunching, even of the simplest form, I quickly I decided to limit my comparisons to women’s team gymnasts and individual dressage riders.

These are my unscientific findings (the margin of error can be possibly high as I was multitasking between writing and watching the dressage freestyle streaming, plus drinking a glass of wine and sometimes rolling polo wraps).

Average age of team gymnasts – 18.7

Average age of individual dressage riders – 38.2

For heaven sakes, the average of the dressage horses was 13.1–just a few years younger than the gymnasts. And horses only have an average life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, so their competitive years, percentage wise, are hugely longer than their human gymnast counterparts.

I decided to ask a person who is experienced in both the worlds of gymnastics and equestrian to address this age disparity. Shelly McConkie of Troy, Michigan, works in an elite gym; she does everything at said gym except coach, plus she raised two daughters – one a gymnast and the other an equestrian.

The daughters started their respective sports at age five for the gymnast and at eight for the equestrian. Not an unusual starting age for either sport. The only disappointing thing is that a teenager who was inspired by Gabby Douglas’ gold medal performance and starts taking gymnastic lessons will be totally eliminated from competing at the highest levels of the sport. Not to say that she can’t have fun and excel, but she will just be too far behind on the learning curve to become an Olympic contender.

“You must have mastered the basic skills by age seven,” said McConkie. “By age nine or ten the super dynamic kids have been selected for the elite programs, with international travel and a goal of the Olympics. You really have to be kicking butt when you are younger.”

“Most gymnasts are done at 17 or 18,” she said. “At that time they turn into coaches, as they get older they turn into judges.”

Wow. Isn’t it great to know that if Hiroshi Hoketsu , the Japanese dressage rider who at 71 was the oldest athlete at the games, inspires someone half his age to take up his sport it would be totally possible. And it would not be impossible for them to end up competing at an Olympics (remember I did not say probably, likely or plausible – but the chance does exist). Of course a six figure world beater dressage horse would certainly help.

I think that is way cool. Shelly does too. While her gymnast daughter retired at age 18 (she stays involved through coaching) her equestrian daughter is still competing on the hunter/jumper circuit.

“Riding is a lifetime sport,” McConkie said.  “I think that is wonderful”

And I do too.

So what do you all think about Dia and Bubba shooting for Rio in 2016 or some as yet to be determined location for 2020? Granted, I will be truly ancient by then, but I still won’t be 71. So I think I can dream, learn, work hard and see what happens. And all you age impaired riders out there can do the same, because old riders rock!


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