“64 OLYMPIAN MAKES COMEBACK!
‘64 Olympian is back in the saddle.
The Wall Street Journal
FROM PAGE ONE
Monday, March 31, 2008
In 1964, Hiroshj Hoketsu, then a 23-year-old equestrian show iumpei; placed a disappointing 40th at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He went on to a Career at a drug company.
Now, Mr. Hoketsu, a 67-year-old retiree, is making an Olympic comeback.
In January, he qualified for the Beijing Olympics to compete in dressage, a sport also known as “horse ballet.” Dressage contestants—wearing top hats and tails —are judged for how well they make their steeds twirl, skip and walk sideways.
“I’m better now,” Mr.Hoketsu says. “I’m certain I’ll place higher than I did at 23.”
Even in Japan, a nation famous for its sprightly seniors, Mr. Hoketsu—dubbed “oldie idol” in the local media—has become a sensation. Though only limited records exist from earlier games, Mr. Hoketsu is thought to be one of the oldest Olympic contestants on record. The oldest Olympic medalist to date is a Swedish shooter named Oscar Swahn, who was 72 when he won silver at the 1920 Antwerp games.
Mr. Hoketsu’s rise to the Olympics is a r esult of decade s of determined effort, and a bit of good luck. After the 1964 Olympics, he eventually switched from equestrian show-jumping to dressage. He narrowly missed riding at two Olympic games, once when his horse failed to pass quarantine 19 days before the competition.
Olympic regulations made it hard for riders based outside Europe to participate. Then, just a few years ago, a change of rules by the global riding federation to include more participants from outside Europe helped Hoketsu in the door. “I feel I’m getting a little better, every day. That’s what keeps me going,” says Mr. Hoketsu who says he is now wiser and better attuned to the “sensitivity of the horse.
Earlier this month, at a competition in Spain, Mr. Hoketsu brushed up a nimble dance routine. His 11-year-old horse, Whisper, crossed and uncrossed her legs in quick succession, then traipsed rhythmically on the spot.
Dressage, first practiced by ancient Greek soldiers and later developed for European military parades, isn’t the most physically taxing Olympic sport. But it is a rare event in which men and women compete against each other on the same terms.
England’s Lorna Johnstone, nicknamed “the Galloping Grandma,” competed into her early 70s, placing 12th out of 33 riders at the 1972 Munich Olympics just past her 70th birthday. Reiner Klimke, a German dressage legend, won Olympic gold in the 1988 Seoul games at age 52.
Dressage riders, decked out in top hat and coattails for tournarncnts, coax their horses to perform complex steps like the flying change where the horse switches the order in which its legs touch the ground. Also important are how graceful the horse and rider look, and an elegant posture.
The final round of a tournament involves a crowd-pleasing freestyle routine set to music.
Mr. Hoketsu has become famous for his poise on horseback, which he has honed over the years. In his show-jumping days, other riders would canter into the competition, but he “would walk in and stare everyone down,” says Gool Wadia, a longtime trainer who jokingly refers to Mr. Hoketsu as “His Majesty.”
Born into a wealthy family in Tokyo, the young Mr. Hoketsu trained at the posh Tokyo Riding Club, an enclave of well-heeled Japanese. He showed talent early, clinching a spot in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Bu tafter his weak showing, Mr. Hoketsu switched careers. He got a graduate degree in economics at Duke University and worked first at the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche Ltd., then as manager at a Tokyo subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. He also found a riding companion in his wife, Motoko. who persuaded her husband to give dressage a try after watching competitions in Europe.
“I never knew horses could step like that,” Mrs. Hoketsu said one morning over espresso and macaroons in the couple’s lavish Tokoyo apartment, filled with her husband’s trophies.
Dressage isn’t a cheap hobby, It costs more than $2,000 a month to keep a trained horse, trainers say.
Mr. Hoketsu, a self-described perfectionist, says he was mesmerized by the very precision that dressage required. He rode in the mornings before work. After overseas business trips, he headed straight from the airport to the stables, where he got on his horse and checked the hoofwork in a big mirror.
Over the years, he has devised an hourlong stretching routine to keep his back supple.
Forced to Withdraw
The practice got Mr. Hoketsu a place in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when he was 47. But he was forced to withdraw when his horse unexpectedly failed quarantine tests after it tested positive for a respiratory disease. After that, Mr. Hoketsu confined himself to tournaments in Japan, where there are much fewer dressage competitors than Europe. He won five national championships in a row, from 1988 to 1992.
But Mr. Hoketsu hadn’t given up his Olympic dream.
In 2003, after he retired from Johnson & Johnson, he flew to the German town of Aachen and sought out a famous dressage coach, Ton de Ridder. He also met his dream horse, Whisper a high-strung chestnut with an appetite for bananas. At 11, Whisper isn’t young. But like humans, horses can stay in dressage competitions for years with the right training.
“Everything has to be professional” with Mr. Hoketsu, says Max Wadenspanner, a 21-year-old German dressage rider who trains at the same stables in Aachen. Even during casual strolls, Mr. Hoketsu never chats on his cell-phone like younger riders might do, Mr. Wadenspanner says.
At about the same time, the Olympic qualifying rules changed in Mr. Hoketsu’s favor.
The global riding federation, seeing baseball kicked out of the 2012 London Olympics because too few countries participated, worried that dressage might suffer the same fate. It made it easier for non-European contestants to qualify, by adding extra places for contestants from Asia and Oceania. That helped Mr. Hoetsu: In January he and two compatriots secured spots in the Beijing games, the first Japanese Olympic dressage riders in 16 years. “Of course, I was over- whelmed,” says Mr. Hoketsu. “But the challenge starts here.”
The Olympic dressage event will be held in Hong Kong because of a lack of quarantine arrangements in Beijing. Few expect an Olympic medal for Mr. Hoketsu, who currently places 58th in the global dressage rankings. But his recent performance has surpassed expectations.
Early one morning in March before sunup at the Spanish dressage competition’ Mr. Hoketsu and Whisper had the practice ring all to themselves. After a very springy trot that loosened early up the horse, they tried some fancy hoof-work: the half-pass, in which the horse moves diagonally across the field, feet crossing and uncrossing in a sort of four-legged Electric Slide. “Slowly, slowly,” his coach, Mr. de Ridder, mumbled by radio. “Too fast!”
Mr. Hoketsu won one of the final rounds of the Spanish tournament, beating 45 other riders. But the retiree remains modest. “My life has been a cycle of good luck and bad luck,” he says. “I’m just someone who keeps coming back!”
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