Karen O’Connor recently was on a conference call with reporters when she was referred to as the “senior-most member” of the U.S. Olympic team.
“How did that happen,” said O’Connor, laughing. “I’m like a senior citizen. What’s that?”
Though she doesn’t feel like the “senior-most” anything, O’Connor at 54 is indeed the oldest athlete of the 529-member U.S. Olympic Team that will compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
O’Connor, an equestrian who is part of the five-person eventing team that will compete at Greenwich Park in London, is a veteran of four previous Olympic Games, dating to the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. How long has that been? Carl Lewis was still a force in track and field, Greg Louganis was on his way to matching the two gold medals he won in Los Angeles and the Dream Team concept still hadn’t been adopted for the U.S. basketball team.
It’s been 24 years since her Olympic debut — or six years longer than her youngest Olympic equestrian teammate, Reed Kessler, has been alive. (Kessler, by the way, just turned 18 on July 9.) The youngest member of Team USA is swimmer Katie Ledecky, who at 15 is 39 years younger than O’Connor. The average age of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team is 27.
Yet all of O’Connor’s Olympic experiences — in Seoul in 1988 and then in Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Beijing in 2008 — and a pair of team medals (a silver in 1996 and a bronze in 2000) do not mean that she is any less enthusiastic about going to her fifth Olympic Games.
If anything, O’Connor feels more enthused than ever.
She has a new horse she’s wild about, she’s going to compete in a country that is like her second home and she’s excited about her teammates and chances at what she believes will be her final Games.
She said both she and her horse, Mr. Medicott, are fit and sound and “ready to roll.”
“It’s been a wonderful journey for me to try to get to the top and stay at the top,” she said from England, where she was preparing for the start of competition on July 28. “I am so excited about these Olympic Games. As the eldest Olympian, it’s pretty cool. … It’s a huge honor and I’m more excited about this Olympic Games than probably any other I’ve been involved in.”
She said her age means little. She considers herself fit and ready to compete, and she reminded reporters that in equestrian events there is a partnership of strengths that contributes to longevity.
“There are a lot of repeat Olympians in our sport because there are two athletes involved,” she said. “The horse and the human athlete. And so the horses change and the horses are young, but the athletes get older and they get better. We have many athletes in our sport who are three-, four- or five-time Olympians.”
In fact, making return trips to the Olympic Games isn’t even all that unique in the O’Connor household. O’Connor’s husband, David, is a three-time Olympic medalist, including a gold medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney. He is president of the US Equestrian Federation. They were married in June 1993, in England, of all places.
Mr. Medicott will be O’Connor’s fifth horse in her fifth Games. From her experiences since they were partnered just before the first of the year, she rates him outstanding and calls him “very athletic.”
He’s Irish-bred and German-trained, a combination O’Connor feels very comfortable with. She says it’s “a real win-win for me.”
“He’s incredibly talented,” O’Connor said, “so I’m really looking forward to (competing).”
Part of O’Connor’s enthusiasm, too, has to do with being in England — where she once lived for five years and continues to visit — and what she calls the “severe” and challenging Greenwich Park venue for eventing, which is a combination of three disciplines: dressage, cross country and show jumping held over four days.
The course, she said, plays to the strengths of American riders who are used to riding a variety of terrains in U.S. competitions. Plus, horses will be familiar with the style of the course having competed in events over the past couple of years that have been tailored toward the 2012 Olympic site.
Greenwich Park will be a smaller venue, she said, that will feature tighter turns and require “quick motion out of the turns to be able to jump the jumps.”
O’Connor said she’s going into the Games “on fire” individually while also feeling supremely confident about the team as a whole.
Other members of the eventing team are Will Coleman on Twizzel, Tiana Coudray on Ringwood Magister, Phillip Dutton on Mystery Whisper and Boyd Martin on Otis Barbotiere. Dutton, too, will be in his fifth Olympic Games (three were for his native Australia).
“I think the U.S., we have a very cool, cool combination of experienced riders mixed with Olympians that it’s their first time here and they’re as hungry as I’ve ever seen,” O’Connor said. “And it’s a really cohesive group and I look forward to taking on the big juggernauts of our sport worldwide. We are among those, and I feel very good about our prospects for a team medal. And we have at least two people who are in contention for an individual medal, for sure.”
Among the first timers on the U.S. equestrian team, of course, will be Kessler.
Although Kessler isn’t a member of the eventing fivesome, O’Connor has been watching her. The “senior-most” member has come to admire the talented teenage show jumper whom she believes could become one of the best stories of the London Games, saying, “This kid’s going somewhere.”
"She’s come very, very forward through the show jumping world, consistently over the last 18, 12 months and she had the highest performance in the trials leading up to the Olympic Games,” said O’Connor, also citing Kessler’s good horse and support team. “She knows how to perform; she knows the top of the sport. The fact that she hasn’t done an Olympic Games, you have to turn that into a positive. It’s really an incredible story, and needs a lot of media following because you don’t want to miss this because it’s going to be great.”
For her part, Kessler has spoken with respect about joining a team with so many older and successful riders such as O’Connor.
“It’s inspiring,” Kessler said at the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit in Dallas in May. “I idolized these people growing up.”
And it’s a sport Kessler plans on being in for a long time, just like O’Connor.
“Some (riders) have decades in this sport,” said Kessler, who recently moved from New York to the nation’s horse capital in Kentucky. “We love horses and you can work in this industry until the day you die.”
Though O’Connor says this likely is her last Olympic Games, will the door truly close after these Games? She was reminded that Japan will send 71-year-old equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu to the London Games. The dressage rider also competed in Beijing in 2008.
“Seventy-one years old,” O’Connor said. “My hat is off to him. I’m 54. I’m feeling pretty young.
“I’m fit and ready to go. I really enjoy this journey.”