In honor of International Women’s Day, it seemed fitting to take a look back at Danish trailblazer Lis Hartel, the woman who not only was among the first female equestrian Olympic athletes, but who also was the first woman to win an individual equestrian medal and did it despite being paralyzed from the knee down due to polio. This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Untacked.
Lis Hartel contracted polio at the age of 23, and while it affected her mobility for the remainder of her life, it only made her more determined to win. She was committed to not just fighting the debilitating and incurable illness, but also to succeeding at the highest level of sport.
With a loss of sensation from the knees down and weakness in her arms and legs, Hartel developed a uniquely sensitive style of riding that prompted onlookers to comment on her “invisible aids.” Among her admirers was none other than the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Alois Podhajsky, who told her she was one of the best riders in the world. He, along with her earliest trainer Gunnar Andersen, encouraged her to aim for the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
This was the first opportunity for women and civilians to be included in the Olympic movement, and Hartel was one of four women to participate in dressage. The others were Germany’s Ida von Nagel, Norway’s Elsa Christophersen and U.S. rider Marjorie Haines.
While Hartel would today be classified as a para-dressage rider, that sport was not part of the equestrian vocabulary in the 1950s. She had no role model, so instead she became one.
Hartel was more than capable of holding her own in Helsinki and was second only to the legendary Swedish rider Henri Saint Cyr, who gallantly carried Hartel to the medal podium. The act astonished the crowd in attendance, who had not appreciated the handicap with which she was riding until they saw how difficult it was for her to stand unaided. Throughout Hartel’s life, she tenaciously resisted the use of a wheelchair.
Hartel was born into an equestrian family in March of 1921 in the coastal town of Hellerup, just north of Copenhagen in Denmark. Both her parents rode for pleasure, but it was her mother, Else Holst, who proved to be the taskmaster of the family and instilled a strict sense of discipline in her daughter that would carry her throughout her life and be applied to every aspect of her career.
Lis married her husband Finn at the age of 20, and a year later their first daughter, Pernille, was born. Two years later, while pregnant with her second child, Anne, Lis contracted polio, and doctors told her she would be lucky to walk with crutches, much less ride a horse again. But Lis was already an accomplished rider with considerable success in both dressage and show jumping, so she wasn’t keen to take no for an answer.
Together with her famous mare Jubilee, she began winning consistently at M level in 1949, and a year later they competed at S level, winning the Prix St. Georges at Rotterdam. Four years after their historic Olympic debut, they picked up silver yet again at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Lis also won the Danish Dressage Championships for three consecutive years, from 1952-54, and did so again in 1956 and 1959.
Against all odds, Lis was a “goddess in the art of dressage,” renowned German judge Gustav Rau once remarked.
Not that it went to her head. Danish team rider Mikala Munter Gundersen trained with Lis for five years when Lis was in her 70s, and Gundersen loved to listen to the legend reminisce with modesty and humor as she paused to reflect on her achievements.
“She was a very humble person,” Gundersen said. “And as she looked at photographs and films of her successes, she would say, ‘I can’t believe it was me, and that I did all this.’
“I looked up to her since I was a child, and I was so impressed with her professionalism and her ambitions. When I got the opportunity to train with her I jumped at it,” Gundersen added. “She taught me how to use my seat and core, because that’s what she relied on.”
Even after suffering a stroke later in life, Lis remained doggedly determined to ride, and Gundersen would help her get on her horse. And despite her notable achievements, Lis never charged her students a training fee. As Gundersen recalled, “She always said she would never take the bread from a professional trainer, and she would do anything for her students.”
Lis became a role model for polio victims by raising money around the world through the Polio Foundation. She also founded the Lis Hartel Foundation, and a center for the disabled in Doorn, the Netherlands, was named after her.
Lis, who died in 2009 at the age of 87, was inducted into Denmark’s Hall of Fame in 1992, and in 1994 she became the first Scandinavian to be inducted into the International Women’s Hall of Fame.