The Compleat Horseman. In and out of the saddle, Bill Steinkraus led US Equestrian Team to success. SPORTS: OLYMPIC EQUESTRIAN
NOROTON, CONN. — BILL STEINKRAUS was in six Olympics, won an individual gold medal and three team medals (2 silver, one bronze), and led the United States show jumping team to numerous international triumphs. For many athletes, such credentials would mean automatic election to the US Olympic Hall of Fame. Equestrian sports just don't have that sort of visibility, however, and Mr. Steinkraus still finds himself on the outside looking in. Now it's ballot-counting time again, and despite the merits of his case, he may not make it this time, either. He'll probably get in one of these years - and when he does there will be a chorus of ``it's about time'' from equestrian enthusiasts the world over.
Steinkraus is much more than just a successful competitor; he's the embodiment of the compleat horseman. From a starry-eyed boy who ``had to be pried away from the stables,'' he grew into the superb rider who won more than 100 international competitions. And since his retirement as a rider he has served the sport in various capacities, including president and chairman of the US Equestrian Team.
Indeed, he could conceivably be elected to the Hall of Fame in the ``contributor'' category, but his current candidacy is for his horsemanship - as evidenced not only by his gold medal at Mexico city in 1968, but also by his leadership of the team as its star and captain from 1956 through 1972, and by all his other great rides both in and out of the Olympics.
``I'm lucky to be addicted to a sport that has given me so many wonderful experiences,'' he said during an interview here at his estate on Long Island Sound. ``Horses have a wide range of personalities, but on the average they're brave, forgiving, good animals. And the people around them are good people.''
Steinkraus grew up in the 1920s and '30s in nearby Westport. His family's recreational interests tended toward music and the theater, but for some reason he was drawn to horses.
``My parents believed children should be encouraged to do the things they were interested in, so they sent me to schools and camps that featured riding, and took me to lessons and shows,'' he recalls. ``I read everything I could about horses. I memorized the names of all the Derby winners. And I talked my parents into buying me a pony.''
His first big splash came in 1941 when he won both national junior equitation championships - on the flat and over the fences. The next year he entered Yale, but in 1943 he enlisted in the Army. He wound up in the cavalry and fought with an outfit that helped reopen the Burma Road. He returned to Yale, graduating in '48.
Until that time, the Olympic equestrian competition had been pretty much a military province, but after the 1948 Games the US Army disbanded its international team, so a group of wealthy horsemen got together to create a privately financed team. Tryouts were held for the 1952 Games, and Steinkraus made the fourth and final spot on the jumping team.
The inexperienced American jumpers surprised everybody, including themselves, by winning the bronze medal. They missed out the next time, but by 1960 the team was a recognized top contender. Steinkraus himself might easily have won more gold, but in 1960 his horse failed under the stress of the competition (though he came back on another mount to help earn a team silver); then in 1964 his horse was injured in a pre-Olympic competition and he didn't ride at all.
Everything fell into place in 1968: Steinkraus became the first US rider to win an individual gold medal in any equestrian discipline - jumping, dressage, and the three-day event. Four years later in Munich his horse broke down, costing him a shot at a second gold - but, as in 1960, he came back with a second horse to anchor the team to a silver.
Steinkraus was working all this time in a variety of fields (concert management, publishing, the stock market), and he and his wife were raising three sons. After Munich he switched from a competitive to an administrative involvement, helping to raise the team to even greater heights. The climax came at Los Angeles in 1984 when the Americans won individual gold and silver plus the team gold in jumping, and also captured a team gold and an individual silver in the three-day event.
Steinkraus wouldn't trade the excitement of competing in the Olympics and other big international meets, but he says he's happy in a different way now.
``I enjoy raising horses - preparing and educating them,'' he said. ``And I still love riding as much as ever. Riding can be many different things; it can be physical and death-defying, but it can also be aesthetic and low key.
``I still try to ride every day,'' he added. ``I'm frustrated by sedentary pursuits - except when I'm sitting on a horse!''