It’s a popular pastime to analyze what makes a great athlete. The sports sections of the newspapers are crammed with it every day, sports magazines thrive on it, and the television sports channels couldn’t exist without it.
Just now, as baseball players are being traded, especially in New England in the wake of the Red Sox miracle year, people everywhere are speculating on the topic, especially as it relates to which players are over the hill and unable to produce which are too young to produce. Much speculation centers on Boston’s ability to get elite players who are still in their prime, while wondering how long those prime years will last.
I also know two books with the word “storm” in their titles–The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Juenger, and Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest, by Ed Webster–that directly and obliquely hint at those answers. I’m actually more interested in how they pertain to riders than to baseball players, but either way the analogies work.
I’d been especially interested in the “storm years” concept since reading about it in an anthology of quotations by and about mountain climbers. Basically, the theory says that an athlete’s peak years are relatively brief, but that, perhaps because they’re so narrowly encapsulated, they’re exceedingly powerful.
Then, just by chance, I read that the underlying thesis of “the perfect storm” is that only in the rarest of circumstances is there a “perfect” congruence of ingredients necessary to create a maximum effect. Yes, I thought, it takes a “perfect” alignment of qualities to create a great rider, and even so, that rider’s time of perfection is relatively finite.
So then, what qualities or “ingredients” does the elite event rider need to be athletically superior, and how long can this superiority last? (By elite, I mean of World Championship or Olympic quality, and specifically, of “old-fashioned” three-day eventing quality, when enough physical toughness was needed to cope with a 12- to 15-mile second day. If the sport shifts, so will the requisite qualities shift.)
Leave anything else out if you must, but don’t leave out sheer, raw, physical courage. I’ve known excellent riders who didn’t have great posture, may have lacked an eye for a distance, and might not have had the supplest “seat.” But I’ve never known one who wasn’t gutsy.
“Lithe” is a combination of quick, balanced and agile. Eventing is fast, and cross-country is “in your face.” You have to be quick as a cat, and you have to be tough. Then, you have to be hungry, have to “want it so bad you can taste it.” If you aren’t hungry–hungry to the max–you won’t withstand all the disappointments, injuries and failures.
But you also have to be able to get along with your horse. You can’t be impatient or rough or too crude in your aids or you’ll frighten or antagonize most
horses. You have to have–or develop–an uncanny sense of how far and how fast you can push on cross-country day, because you’re skating out there on the edges of your horse’s “red zone.”
You have to be versatile. I’ve heard it said that “you have to be a figure skater for dressage and a hockey player for cross-country.”
You have to possess a whole quiver full of specific skills. You should have a graceful, open, supple seat, an eye for a distance, good form in the air, good hands, a deft touch in dressage, and a killer instinct for cross-country.
You should be an exceptional judge of a horse, and, unless Grandpa left you loaded, you must have the social skills to get along with the people who can put you on the elite horses that you need to ride to win.
All of these physical and emotional qualities have a shelf life. The only Olympic three-day rider I ever heard of in his 60s was Bill Roycroft of Australia, who was 61 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Every once in a blue moon there’s an Olympic rider in his or her 50s, and always a few hardy souls in their 40s. But there are also very few teenagers in the Olympics or World Championships. Teens have tough bodies, and courage and hunger to burn, but not yet enough technique.
That leaves the “storm years” as the decades of our 20s and 30s, which isn’t surprising, because the same thing is true in most professional sports. If I had to take a guess, my instinctive magic number representing the absolute prime year of an eventer’s career is age 34.
Someone described that period from the mid to late 20s to the mid-to late 30s in eventers’ careers as being the time “when they’re old enough to know what to do and still young enough to be dumb enough to want to do it!”
The “storm years” can’t last forever. Sooner or later that raging tempest becomes an intermittent drizzle. Some riders choose to retire, to go out on top, while others start dropping down the levels. I’d rather be riding at the novice level in my 70s than to be retired in my 40s, but I realize that’s a purely personal choice.
And sometimes the choice isn’t ours to make. A major injury can change the equation in the blink of an eye. More often, the accumulation of injuries over time begins to take its toll. For some women, the birth of a child will cause an instant refocusing of priorities. That elusive gold medal out there in the land of dreams suddenly seems much less important than the reality of the totally dependent, tiny baby.
For others, the hunger simply begins to wane. Author Willa Cather wrote of the “fierce necessity, the sharp desire” of youth. The intensity of those emotions usually fades, for most people, as the decades slip by.
It’s inevitable, and each new year sends its bright, eager, hungry and talented young riders out to replenish and replace the old. These will be riders seeking their own “perfect storm” of riding skills, riders sharp and keen to be at the height of their powers, to glory in their very own “storm years” of transcendent athletic achievement.