61-Year Old Is Rio 2016’s Oldest Olympic Athlete61-Year Old Is Rio 2016’s Oldest Olympic Athlete

Mary Hanna of Australia is competing in her fifth Olympic Games in Rio this summer. At age 61, she’ll be the oldest athlete in these Games and the oldest athlete ever to represent Australia in the Olympics. Hanna competes in dressage, an equestrian show-ring event in which rider-and-horse pairs and teams are judged on figures, tempo, handling, and avoiding “naughty” behavior like head-tossing and bucking.

A sport that values experience and teamwork

Dressage is a sport that often favors older and more experienced riders. One of Hanna’s three dressage teammates this year is 60-year old Sue Hearn, competing in her first Olympics. However, the oldest dressage Olympian (so far) was Hilda Lorna Johnstone of the UK. She competed in her third Olympic Games in 1972 at age 70.

The equestrian community in Australia is watching Hanna this year, not only because of her status as the oldest Aussie Olympian but also because she’s competed in so many Olympic dressage events over the past two decades. In an interview with Australia’s Fraser Coast Chronicle, Hanna credits her trainers with helping her keep her competitive form and positive attitude on track. “They never worry about my age… They just take me as I am and they put their heart and soul into training me,” she told the paper. She also credited the need to keep learning about her horses and her sport with keeping her engaged and competitive.

A long history of horsemanship

Dressage has a reputation for being flashy and expensive—Ann Romney, wife of former US Presidential candidate and businessman Mitt Romney, competed for many years–but its roots go back to the cavalry training of ancient Greece. Writer Claire Suddath, who was a dressage student and competitor for more than a decade, described her former sport as “horse ballet” and as “probably the coolest equestrian sport there is,” due to the graceful and athletic movements required of both the horse and its rider. The goal is subtle, nonverbal commands from the rider that prompt the horse to turn in a circle, for instance, or to very precisely walk a 20-meter circle that’s perfectly round. And yes, there’s a musical freestyle event, too.

Among the favorites in Rio this year are Michael Jung of Germany, a former gold medalist who was favored to win gold this year, too, and Charlotte Dujardin of the UK, her home country’s winningest dressage competitor ever. Hanna’s family, including her grown daughters and young grandchildren, plan to stay up late to watch her compete on Boogie Woogie 6, her horse that was flown by chartered plane to Rio for the event. Hanna has described him in the press as a relatively young but promising horse whom she expects to hit his prime in time for the Tokyo Games in 2020. It seems the benefits of age, wisdom, and experience are available to horses as well as their riders.

Are the Olympics motivating you to get fit? Read about senior yoga and water aerobics on our blog.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

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