The Olympic Games in Tokyo planned for this summer should have been the swan song for four-time Olympian Elizabeth “Beezie” Madden, the most decorated U.S. female equestrian in Olympic history.
The Bayside native had planned to semi-retire from competitive show jumping and shift her focus to developing horses and riders to compete at a championship level. The coronavirus pandemic threw those plans for a loop after forcing a one-year postponement of the Summer Games.
Madden was on a short list of equestrians to travel to Tokyo this summer and appeared highly likely to make the Olympic team. Now, Madden is putting off any type of retirement as she looks to earn a spot on the team scheduled to compete in Japan next summer.
Madden won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in the team jumping competition. That same year, she became the first woman to top the $1 million mark in career earnings for show jumping.
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At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Madden won gold in team show jumping and a bronze medal in the individual portion of the competition. She also was part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and, at age 52, was the oldest female athlete on the U.S. Olympic team.
She’s won the World Cup final twice. With her victory in 2018 at age 54, Madden became the oldest athlete to capture the World Cup title.
Madden was in Florida as much of the country shut down when the pandemic took hold in March.
“We high-tailed it out of there to get back to our farm in New York,” Madden said during a break in a competition earlier this summer in North Carolina. “We were worried that we weren’t going to be able to get back.”
Living on the farm that she and her husband, John, own in the Upstate New York town of Cazenovia, near Syracuse, has allowed Madden to continue to train, but a lack of high-level competition has posed challenges.
“I am very lucky that I have been able to function at home and still be able to ride the horses. We have very few people coming in and out. Our staff lives on the farm.”
The pandemic’s challenges have been far reaching for one of the country’s top equestrians. The coronavirus pandemic initially halted all competitions from mid-March until June.
“The hardest part is having a target of what you are training for,” Madden said. “Nobody knew when we were going to start up again. And even now, we’re a little inhibited because we can’t go to Europe for competitions. That’s a problem for doing business, too, because we haven’t been able to travel back and forth to Europe to select horses.”
Some competitions have returned, with social distancing, the wearing of masks and competitors having stall aisles to themselves to limit the potential exposure and spread of COVID-19.
“We don’t mix with other people much at all,” Madden said.
McLain Ward has been a teammate of Madden’s for nearly two decades. They went to their first Olympics together in 2004 in Athens.
“It’s been a pretty incredible story together as teammates,” Ward said. “We’ve been able to accomplish some great days and we’ve also had some rough days.”
Ward described Madden as a “consummate professional athlete.”
“There’s predictability and dedication, so you know you are never going to come up short because she hasn’t given everything of herself,” Ward said. “I can’t say enough about her. I often say to her: ‘I have a few medals on my wall because of you.’”
Her quiet and steady personality also makes her a great teammate, Ward said.
“She’s also phenomenal with the animals and I often think she is more comfortable with them than even people,” he said. “Beezie is quieter and a little less boisterous than me. She’s true to her Milwaukee and Midwestern roots and I’m a little more of a New Yorker. It’s been a great blend. We have a very close personal friendship and our time spent as athletes together is forever one story in a lot of ways.”
Shifting the Olympics to 2021 has made this year anti-climactic, Madden said.
“We were hoping for an Olympic Games,” she said. “The hardest part is that it’s still a little bit up in the air, I would say, whether the Olympics can actually happen next year. I think if there is any possible way, they will, but I don’t know if there will be a way. So, it’s a little hard to get psyched up for the next year. At the same time, we’re planning on it.”
The delay could benefit the youngest horse, named Garant, that Madden rides in competition.
“He’s only nine years old this year and might possibly be my best horse,” she said. “Another year for him is actually an advantage as long as I get enough experience into him over the year.”
The peak years for horses in equestrian competition tends to be between the ages of 10 to 14, Madden explained.
Madden is also training with two other horses, a 12-year-old Belgian-bred horse named Chic Hin d’Hyrencourt and a 14-year-old called Breitling LS.
The Nicolet High School graduate began riding horses at the age of 3. She named her first pony Flicka, after the chestnut purebred Arabian mare that starred in the 1950s TV series “My Friend Flicka.” Madden spent time riding horses at the Milwaukee Hunt Club in River Hills and an equestrian center in Cedarburg before her parents, Joe and Kathy Patton, built a stable in Mequon.
Madden rarely returns to her hometown but has fond memories of her early life in the Milwaukee area.
“I had a great childhood there,” she said.
Equestrian competition receives little public fanfare, even during Olympic years, but competitors are deeply dedicated to the sport and their horses, Madden said.
“Most of us are drawn to it because of our love of the horses, working with horses and our love of competition,” she said. “I’ve been a competitive person all my life. You can blend the two passions together with this. I think the real challenge of it is the partnership between you and the horse. Having two athletes trying to be ready and peak at a certain time, especially when you are with an animal who you can’t tell them that this is going to be an important year.”
Being an equestrian is more than a standard athletic endeavor, especially when it comes to working with a 1,300-pound animal, as Madden well knows.
“It’s also about real strategy, planning and probably a bit of luck to have everything come together,” she said.
Team show jumping competition creates even more challenges.
“We have a team of four that has to come together all at the right time, Madden said. “You have the physical and mental part of having to get an animal ready. They have to stay happy and want to do their jobs. Our goal is to keep them happy. That’s when they perform their best.”
Madden has had a long run of success as an equestrian, including her achievements at the Olympic level. Competing in the Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport, she claimed.
“The Olympics is so important to our sport,” Madden said. “It’s not a real well-known sport but when you tell someone you went to the Olympic Games, that’s important. When you are there and during the period leading up to it, you get the real feeling of patriotism and that you’re really a part of the U.S. team. It’s a real special feeling that you don’t get at any other time when you are competing.”
Winning a team medal in the Olympics is especially rewarding, she said.
“I’ve always considered the team the most important part of it, because we get a lot of support from our federation and private people who put a lot of money into funding our sport,” Madden said. “So, I feel like it’s really important to our sport and our country that the team does well. The individual medal is icing on the cake, but that’s pretty cool, too.”
If Madden earns a spot for next summer’s Olympics, which seems likely, she’s certain to be one of the oldest athletes to compete in Tokyo, for which she derives an extra level of satisfaction.
“I think a lot of people can be successful for a long time at something but maybe they get burned out,” Madden said. “I think the sustained success is something to be proud of. You prove that you belong there and can stay there, but it’s difficult.”
Madden has shown no signs of slowing down or an erosion in skill, Ward said.
“She stills performs as someone right at the peak of their athletic game,” he said.
For now, Madden continues to train and compete when possible until the official Olympic equestrian team is selected late next spring or early summer.
Although she would have preferred to have competed in Tokyo this summer, Madden fully supported the decision to delay the Summer Games.
“There were too many unknowns. Too risky,” Madden said. “When you think of people from all over the world coming together, that would have been difficult.”