Sport

At 62, three-time Olympic gold medallist Andrew Hoy is in Tokyo for his eighth Games – the most of any Australian athlete in history. By Sarah Price.

Andrew Hoy saddles up for Tokyo 2020

Andrew Hoy riding Vassily de Lassos last month.
Credit: Friso Gentsch/DPA

The day before he departs from his home a few hours’ drive north of London, Andrew Hoy speaks with me over Zoom. He is heading for a Covid-19 bubble five hours south before driving his horse, Vassily de Lassos, to Liège in Belgium. From there he will fly with the horse to Tokyo to represent Australia in eventing, at age 62, in his eighth Olympic Games.

Hoy is the most decorated equestrian rider in Australia’s history. Competing in his eighth Games will put him in the position of most Olympic appearances by any Australian athlete. (He was also selected for Moscow in 1980 but the Australian equestrian team withdrew in a boycott.) With a career spanning more than 40 years, Hoy has won four Olympic medals and placed first in the prestigious Badminton, Kentucky and Burghley Horse Trials.

Following team gold at both the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, the Australian eventing team won an unprecedented third consecutive gold medal at Sydney in 2000. The Sydney Olympics are the “most special” to him, Hoy says, because he won gold at home. His family and close friends could attend. He knew volunteers and organisers, some of whom were childhood friends. The crowd’s emotion was palpable. When Hoy and his teammates rode around the showjumping arena during the lap of honour, the crowd rose to its feet in rapturous applause and chanted: “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Hoy Hoy Hoy!” 

Hoy grew up on a farm just outside Culcairn in the Riverina region of New South Wales. It was the tough times in a farming environment – dealing with all weather conditions and what nature provides – that showed Hoy the importance of tenacity and grit. His parents provided him with a good grounding for where he is now, he says. Hoy credits his mother, Dorothy, for his own positivity. At age 94 Dorothy is still farming cattle on the family property at Culcairn. She recently attended a bull sale. “She is the most extraordinary lady. I am privileged to have her as my mother,” Hoy says. “These are women, and people, who grew up during the war. Community was very important … community for me is very important.”

First learning to ride at Holbrook Pony Club, and going on to compete in local and national events, Hoy says that for a long time horseriding was just his hobby. He was destined to be a farmer. It wasn’t until he won gold with the Australian team at the Barcelona Olympics in ’92 that he decided to become professional and pursue horses, and eventing, full-time.

That decision prompted a move to the northern hemisphere. Leaving Australia, Hoy started at “neutral” in the highly competitive equestrian scene in Europe. “Australia for me is still home … but I knew I had to move to where the competition was strongest. Riders from all nations compete in Europe and I wanted to have a true evaluation of where I stood. To actually move from your home country where you have a tremendous support team of family and friends, and other people you’ve put around you … to go into a country where you have to make it happen without that support … then, you have to develop that. If you travel outside your country you have made a huge commitment to start with. You have to make it work. I didn’t want to go home with it not working.”

Eventing involves three disciplines over three or four days: dressage, cross-country and showjumping. Scores are based on accumulated penalty points. The rider, or team, with the lowest accumulated penalties becomes Olympic champion. Horses can gallop at speeds of up to 42 kilometres an hour. Cross-country courses can comprise up to 46 jumps, with a combination of walls, logs, ditches, brush, water and double and triple fences. Equestrian is the most dangerous sport at the Olympic Games, and the only sport in which gender is irrelevant: men and women compete on equal terms.

“That is something I think about a lot,” says Hoy. “In this sport it works very well. For sure you need correct strength, but it is not an explosive power like the 100 metres. I think women have tremendous feeling of working with horses. Women in this sport are incredibly successful. They have a certain strength”.

In Europe, Hoy met and married German rider Bettina Overesch. They lived in England at the estate of the Princess Royal, and went on to be the only married couple to ever compete against each other in different teams for the same Olympic medals. Hoy and Overesch separated in 2011. Their divorce settlement included a horse.

After remarrying, Hoy arrived at parenthood in his late 50s, with wife, Stefanie. “It has been the most wonderful experience … [Children] absorb everything: your communications, your body language, your behaviour. It definitely keeps you young, or you get totally exhausted, or both.” Stefanie works equally as hard he does for “Team Hoy”.

“I have tremendous pride for her, and the entire team that works with me on a daily basis. They all have passion for it … they all want it. Passion isn’t something you can go out and buy. Passion is hard work.”     

 

A few years ago Hoy invited his dressage coach for dinner and she asked to see his medals. Hoy produced them from an orange shopping bag. They have since been framed and hung in a prominent position in his office. “I remember [hearing] John McEnroe speak about trophies,” Hoy tells me. “He said he always mounted them in an area that he saw on a daily basis so that it showed him what wonderful achievements he had been able to do. Listening to great business people or sports people, it’s little things they do just to remind themselves. I think many people who are high achievers are also quite insecure … They think, ‘I haven’t done enough, I need to do more.’ They always doubt themselves a little bit. If you don’t doubt yourself – and I mean this in a good way – you’re never looking to the next level. You’re never asking: Is there something I can do to be better?”

Hoy believes that eventing can be described with one word: harmony. Approaching a fence he thinks about three things: rhythm, balance and speed. What goes on in the brain, he says, goes down the reins. Horses are attuned to our emotional state. “They have 100 per cent feeling of what we feel … The great thing is that the horses don’t know anything about my life, and what I’ve done with my life. What they feel is only what I engage with them. It puts me into a positive mind.”

He is reassured by the clear formulas in place to manage Covid-19 at Tokyo: masks, vaccinations, bubbles, testing every day. “If you don’t want to do it, then don’t go. For sure we are finding it difficult now with the restrictions in place, but it is a small price to pay for your health.” He feels as physically fit now, he says, as he did going into the Games at Sydney. “The great thing about me is that my body is still healthy. I just put my age the other way around and I’m 26! I work on my own personal fitness as well as the horses’. I am not going to do anything in Tokyo that I have not prepared for.”    

The Australian eventing team hasn’t placed at an Olympic Games since winning gold in Sydney. Hoy believes they can come away with another medal in Tokyo. His own goal is to produce a personal best.

Hoy feels enormously proud to be representing Australia again. “It’s very difficult to explain the pride you have within your body when you’re wearing the green and gold colours, and you’ve got the Australian flag on … and you know the whole nation is supporting you and wanting you to have success.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2021 as "Hoy Hoy Hoy!".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.