Kathy Kusner is celebrated in American history for her show jumping prowess.
Born in 1940 to a family of modest means and zero horse connections, she was an unlikely candidate to become one of the first women to represent the US in equestrian competition at the Olympics. It’s an honor she held at three Games—Tokyo 1964, Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972, taking the team silver medal at the last.
But Kusner’s influence on women in sport extends well beyond the show jumping arena.
Horse obsessed, Kusner breezed racehorses at the track during the off season and raced in unrecognized races. Women weren’t permitted to have a jockey license at the time. So when the Civil Rights Act came into law in 1964, Kusner was certain someone would come forward to challenge the prohibition on female jockeys.
“But it just wasn’t happening,” she told Chris Stafford in an interview for the Equestrian Legends Series.
Four more years passed and nobody challenged it. So, with $1,500 in her savings account and a phone call to an attorney, Kusner took up the cause.
“I said to the attorney this is what I want to do. I don’t have much money… but that’s the best I can do. And (the lawyer) said ‘this will be a landmark case and I’ll do it for you for no money’.”
Because of Kusner’s pioneering efforts, in 1968 the court ruled she couldn’t be denied a jockey license on the basis of her sex. In the years following, she travelled around the world racing Thoroughbreds as one of the first woman jockeys.
“I would get invited to different countries to race like a freak show. They’d get a big draw of people to watch,” she said.
Kusner raced in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Peru and Germany.
She later parlayed her riding talent into opportunities to get her pilot’s license, trading horse training for hours spent practicing in jets. She’s believed to be the first female licensed Learjet pilot.
Now age 80, Kusner is still racing—as a distance runner. She plans to race in the Istanbul marathon in the near future, which will likely be a record of some variety as well.
Not that she’ll take much notice.
“I look at people who do these things and notice they’re just people,” reflected the humble Olympian. “They’ve learned step by step how to do something, so I just figure I can learn to do things step by step, too.”
Hear more about Kathy Kusner’s remarkable journey on the Equestrian Legends Series podcast: