When 52-year-old Beezie Madden enters the arena on Sunday for the equestrian team jumping competition, she will officially become Team USA’s eldest veteran to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.
With nearly 46 years of experience on her resume—Madden began horse showing competitively when she was about six years old—the four-time Olympian has twice helped the U.S. win Olympic gold, in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in ’08. Equestrian’s first million-dollar woman also won an individual bronze medal in Beijing, and is the most recent American rider to win a medal in the individual competition.
Madden again has her sights on individual gold as her Olympic career creeps closer to its finale, but her focus will be on the team competition. Though counting any Olympic medal as a disappointment seems inconceivable, for Madden the true accomplishment will be taking the podium with her teammates standing around her, rather than basking in the glory of gold alone.
SI: After twice achieving one of the top accomplishments in sports, what goals remain for this Olympics?
Madden: Hopefully winning another team gold—we have a great team so we have a really good chance. And then if we can that that done, it would be nice to win an individual [medal]. I have an individual bronze, so a silver would be good and a gold would be better. I feel like for the country, [winning] the team gold would be most important. I think we have four other teammates who have sacrificed a lot this year, and so have I, and I think the team gold would mean more in that way. Personally, an individual gold medal would be fantastic as well, but I would be disappointed if we didn't win at least a team medal and I won an individual gold.
SI: What does it mean to you to be the oldest woman on Team USA?
Madden: It's nice to have the experience. It’s a little depressing really.
SI: Is it strange to you that there are two American Olympians—table tennis player Kanak Jha and gymnast Laurie Hernandez—who were born in 2000?
Madden: Not really because we have students that we teach that are that young. But it doesn’t seem like very long ago.
SI: What quality separates successful Olympians from other athletes?
Madden: Determination. Just to even stick with the training and the hours to develop yourself into that kind of an athlete takes a lot of determination. And then once you get there to be able to have that grind to win I think it’s the same.
SI: What makes your horse, Cortes “C,” an Olympian?
Madden: He’s experienced. He’s already done two World Equestrian Games. At the championship in 2014 in Normandy, he was the best horse in the world at that time. He has the resume. He has incredible ability. I think he and I have formed a great partnership over the years. I've had him for probably five years now. I think he has incredible power and he kind of makes my job easy because it's easy for him. There's not a lot of complication to him. He kind of canters to the jump and he lets me place him in the right position. He likes to listen to me and what I tell him. And then I help him the best I can to put him in the best position to jump the fence.
I think the horses that we deal with are kind of freaks—not only talent-wise but their willingness to work with you and do your job. They're just so special, so it’s very difficult to find them. If somebody said they were going to hand you the best horse in the world, you’d be doing somersaults.
SI: What is more important, the skill of the horse or the rider?
Madden: I think it's really a partnership. I think a great rider probably isn't going to win Olympic gold on a not-so-good horse. And a great horse with a not-so-good rider is never going to win a medal either. It might win a competition here and there. But I think the partnership as a whole is really important. I think you need a top top rider and a top top horse these days. There's so many good riders and so many… well not that many because it’s difficult to find them, but so many horses in the world that are probably capable of winning the gold. So I think you just need the top rider and the top horse.
SI: How do you you feel about your chances to win gold in this Olympics?
Madden: I think as far as our team I'm really excited about our chances. I think on paper we probably have maybe the best team, if not for sure one of the best. Having said that, we're dealing with animals. And so things just need to go your way on that day.
[In the individual competition] I’d say I have a chance. I think there are probably others who people would probably pick right now, who have been hotter. Since I have other horses I’ve been kind of saving him and not really calling on him to win a Grand Prix here or there. So if I’m really good, our timing is going to be perfect. That's a little harder to predict. I could probably say that better after the team competition.
SI: After almost 50 years of competing, do you still get nervous when you walk into the ring?
Madden: Not so much when I walk in the ring. Probably when I'm sitting there watching. When I get on the horse I’m usually fine. Because you have a routine that you do. You get on and you walk the horse up and you jump some fences in the schooling area. You have a plan of how you’re going to execute your course. I think the fact that you have to concentrate on all that takes away from any diversions.
SI: What is going through your mind once you walk in the ring?
Madden: My focus is on the plan of how to execute the course. When I go in the in-gate I have a plan of where I’m going to go before I even get to the first fence. There is a very technical plan of how many strides I’m going to do between each fence and then my concentration is on that. And then reacting to what is actually happening: Is the plan going according to how we thought, or do I have to alter it? Those are some of the decisions you have to make while you're out there.
SI: What is the biggest misconception about your sport?
Madden: Probably that the horse is doing everything. Though they do the actual jumping, there's a lot of communication that goes on between the horse and the rider that you probably don’t even really see. The best communication is when you can't tell what's going on because our job is to communicate with the horse, and tell him when to go fast, when to go slow, when to turn right, left. And it's our job to place him in the correct position to jump the fence. If we’re doing so much that it looks like we’re doing a lot, then we’re distracting the horse too much. They have to be able to concentrate on the fences and do what we tell them on the turns. So I think when it's done at it’s best you can't really tell that there's a lot going on there or a lot of input from the rider.
SI: How long will you keep competing at this level?
Madden: Hard to say. I don't really want to think about that right now before Rio. After Rio we’ll probably reevaluate if we want to do a whole another four years and try to go to Tokyo. I'm probably going to slow down a little bit after Rio. But we’ll just have to decide what direction, whether I want to just concentrate on a few high-level horses or if I want to develop some young horses. I’m for sure not stopping riding any time soon. It will just be what level I want to do it at.