Each week on #HallOfFameThursday, Horse Network recognizes members of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame with an inductee’s plaque, historical photos and, on the first Thursday of every month, an article written by a Show Jumping Hall of Famer. This week, we share a story by Lt. Colonel John W. Russell, Show Jumping Hall of Fame class of 2001.
I was incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to ride on the last U.S. Army Olympic team in 1948 as well as the first civilian team in 1952. The two experiences were quite different but I have to say that I treasure them both.
I was 19 when I joined the Pennsylvania National Guard, which, when the war broke out, became part of the U.S. Army. I was a second lieutenant in the war and I served in North Africa where I was wounded. Following the war, I was sent to Fort Riley in Kansas where the cavalry was based. I tried out for the Olympic team and was fortunate enough to be selected with a horse named Air Mail.
Air Mail was a really good horse with tremendous scope and we had great success together in Europe before the Games, which were held that year in London. My first international competition was in Lucerne and I was champion of the horse show. I think I won six out of the 11 classes I was in and was either second or third in all the others.
We had a pretty good team that summer and won the Nations Cups at Lucerne, London and Dublin. We were quite confident for the Games but in those days there was no drop score and when one of our riders was eliminated on course, so were we as a team.
After the Games, I was sent to Munich, which was home base for our horses. I was a captain at that point and I was fortunate that my commander liked horses and he allowed me to keep going to horse shows. Eventually we shipped back to Fort Riley but then the cavalry was disbanded.
A couple of years later I got a call from Colonel Gyp Wofford who told me he was organizing the USET (the new civilian U.S. Equestrian Team) and he asked me to be on the team for the ’52 Olympics in Helsinski. I told him I’d love to but that I didn’t have any horses. He said he had some and he gave me Democrat, Fuddy Wing’s horse in the ’48 Olympics. Democrat and I got along really well. He was a great horse who never bucked and never played around. He was very athletic, easy to ride and he never wanted to touch a rail. Even though he was 19-years-old when I got him, we won the Selection Trials and made the team.
Despite winning the Trials, I was concerned because Democrat was tired and footsore and I told Gyp that I thought we should keep him out of competition until the Games. So I rode my second horse, a Quarter Horse named Rattler, in all the shows leading up to the Games and actually became the first non-German to win the Hamburg Spring Derby.
We had another really good team that year. Although he was old, Democrat was ready and I had two great teammates—Arthur McCashin with Miss Budweiser, whom August Busch had bought for Carol Durand but who couldn’t be on the team because women weren’t allowed in the Olympics yet; and a young Bill Steinkraus who, quite honestly, was as good a rider as anyone I have ever seen. He was on Gyp Wofford’s horse, Hollandia. They still didn’t have a drop score and I wasn’t sure Democrat could finish both rounds, but he gave me everything he had and we won the Bronze Medal behind Great Britain and Chile. I remember the great sense of honor I had standing with my teammates on the medal podium and I was really proud of Democrat. I’d sure like to find one like him now!
I went back to Fort Riley and bought a really good mare named Lonie. She was a good one; I did well with her and my wife won the Hamburg Ladies Derby with her. When it came time for the ’56 Olympics, Gyp asked me to be on the team again but I was transferred to San Antonio to take over the Modern Pentathlon team. I went to the Pentagon to meet with the general who reassigned me and asked if I could wait on San Antonio until after the Games but he told me if I’d go right away they’d promote me so I did it. I wound up staying with the pentathlon team for over 40 years and in 1979, we became the first team ever to win both the team and individual Gold Medals in the World Championships.
As I write this article I’m approaching my 98th birthday (on February 2, 2018) and I still have 50 horses in my barn (at Russell Equestrian Center in San Antonio). I’ve seen a lot in my time and I’ve done a lot of things and I have to say that my life with horses has been a good one.
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