The Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven could become the first athlete to win medals at seven Olympics and on five continents in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
If she competes.
It is a potentially juicy chase for history. Van Grunsven, who is not currently competing but hasn’t ruled out another Olympics, spoke unfazed when reminded of what’s at stake in a phone interview Monday.
“I don’t care,” she dismissed.
Van Grunsven turns 47 years old on Friday. She is a mother of two. She competed at every Olympics since 1988 in equestrian, a sport familiar with age records at the Games:
* Canada’s Ian Millar competed in his 10th Olympics in 2012, a record number across all sports.
* Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu went 44 years between his first and second Olympic equestrian appearances at Tokyo 1964 and Beijing 2008. He was the oldest of more than 10,000 total athletes in 2008 and again in 2012, when he was 71.
Equestrian, made up of the disciplines of dressage, eventing and jumping, is the only Olympic sport with no gender distinction. Men and women compete against and with each other in all six medal events — individual and team for each discipline.
Van Grunsven starred in dressage, which is the French word for training. It is, most simply, a test of a horse’s movements — “the highest expression of horse training, is considered the art of equestrian sport and is used as the groundwork for all other disciplines,” according to the International Olympic Committee.
For a visual understanding, watch highlights of the 2012 Olympic individual dressage competition.
Van Grunsven is the most decorated Olympian in her sport with nine medals, including an unprecedented three straight individual gold medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
“You look up to this person,” said German-born U.S. dressage rider Steffen Peters, a 50-year-old who competed against van Grunsven at the 1996, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. “I would say she is definitely up there among the best, if not the best.”
Van Grunsven received her first pony at age 6 and debuted at the Seoul 1988 Olympics at age 20. She won zero medals in South Korea, finishing outside the top 20 in the individual competition. At the time, the Netherlands had not won an individual Olympic equestrian medal since 1932.
“I was so upset that I did so bad [in 1988],” she said. “I was ashamed. But one hour later, I thought, I’m here, see what can I learn from this experience. It’s great that I’m part of it. For me, it was a big inspiration.”
Van Grunsven then won nine medals across the next six Olympics — team silver at Barcelona 1992, individual and team silver at Atlanta 1996, individual gold and team silver at Sydney 2000, individual gold at Athens 2004 (while pregnant with her first child and shortly after her father’s death), individual gold and team silver at Beijing 2008 and team bronze at London 2012.
In a sport that requires perfect harmony between human and animal, van Grunsven won individual Olympic gold medals with two different horses — Bonfire in 2000 and Salinero in 2004 and 2008.
“Everybody gets one horse of a lifetime,” Peters said. “To be so successful with multiple horses, that says a lot. … Out of all three disciplines [dressage, eventing, jumping], this would be the hardest discipline to receive a gold medal consistently.”
Van Grunsven, who trains riders now, did not compete at the biggest competition of 2014, the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, in the summer. She has no plan to compete in the near future, because she doesn’t have a horse that she believes she could pair with to perform at the level she would like.
“My focus is not on the competitions, because I don’t miss that at all,” she said. “It’s possible that it does happen again one day, but I’m not sure.
“If there would be this great horse, and if I was helping my team, like in London maybe, it means something. Otherwise, no. It’s not a must.”
Van Grunsven’s horse at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics — Salinero — retired in 2013. Van Grunsven is reminded of Salinero, and of Bonfire, daily.
There are life-sized statues of both horses a few minutes away from her home barn in the Dutch town of Erp. Van Grunsven said she can choose one of two roads to drive into her barn, and she prefers the path where she can pass by the statues. Fans do the same.
The Salinero statue was unveiled in November. Before they made the Bonfire statue, creators asked Van Grunsven if she would like to be immortalized on top of it.
“I don’t want to be a statue as long as I live,” she joked.
Yet she is still very recognized in the Netherlands, where soccer and speed skating are the most followed sports.
Van Grunsven said she came in second in a recent poll of most well-known Dutch female athletes behind speed skater Ireen Wuest, who won five medals at the Sochi Olympics. In the past, she shared national honors with swimmer Inge de Bruijn and cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel.
Van Grunsven admits that if she were to say she’s retired, it wouldn’t mean that much. She said she hated the pressure she felt going into the Olympics in 2008. After she won gold, she thought she would never want to go to the Olympics again.
“Then I went to London anyway [in 2012],” she said. “So, I’m not saying anything anymore. I’m never sure. I prefer to see how my life comes.”
Van Grunsven was sixth in the 2012 Olympic individual dressage and second-best among Dutch riders there. The Netherlands can send up to four dressage riders to Rio 2016.
Van Grunsven still spends days at her barn, training younger athletes and riding for fun. She will go to Rio — at the urging of her 10-year-old son — but perhaps only as a spectator.
If she does ride in Brazil, she would probably win at least one medal and become the first Olympian to win medals at seven Games, Peters said. Van Grunsven and three others — Van Grunsven’s longtime dressage rival German Isabell Werth, Italian fencer Valentina Vezzali and U.S. shooter Kim Rhode — could become the first Olympians to win medals on five continents.
“With Anky, I would say they [the Dutch dressage team] have a chance to win the gold,” Peters said. “Without Anky, they will certainly medal as a team.”