Even as she entered the arena to perform a test that would help the U.S. team earn the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Torrance Watkins knew she’d blown it. The only U.S. rider to finish without jumping penalties, she still regrets misreading the warm-up Finvarra would need for the dressage.
“I had always ridden him on the edge, and it worked well,” she says. “But I knew the crowds in L.A. would be huge. You had to go through a gap into this huge arena. It was like hitting a wall of sound. I didn’t know if he could handle it.”
Before her dressage test, she rode him five times. “I slit his proverbial throat with too much flatwork,” she says. “When I got into the arena, he was dead on his feet. I can never forgive myself for riding ‘Andy’ so badly that day.”
It’s not surprising to find Watkins would be disappointed with a performance that ended with a gold medal. She’s always valued her relationship with her horses over any prizes, and she’s never stopped pushing to learn from her mistakes, never stopped aiming for perfection, even after she became one of the sport’s biggest names.
Recalling her induction into the U.S. Eventing Association’s Hall of Fame in 2003, she poses one question: “Why can’t it be about the horses and not the people?”
The first woman to receive the honor, Watkins was also one of the sport’s first real stars, the first woman to win an individual Olympic medal in eventing (at the 1980 alternate Games) and the U.S. Combined Training Association (now USEA) Rider of the Year in 1980.
It didn’t hurt that Watkins was gorgeous, a former fashion model who had trained as a ballet dancer. Her longtime friend Packy McGaughan, a trainer and event rider who won team gold at the 1987 Pan American Games (Ind.), recalled first seeing her ride at the 1978 World Championships (Ky.).
“She was the most beautiful rider on a horse I’d ever seen,” he said. “She had more charisma than anyone else in the horse world. She was just amazing.”
But before the medals, titles and fame, there was just a passion for horses.
This is an excerpt from the article “Living Legend: Torrance Watkins” by Mickey Rathbun, which appears in the Aug. 1 & 8 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, our Olympic Preview issue.
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