BY TIM WICKES
The Eagles whip the Patriots, win the Super Bowl, and for their glory they are presented with the Lombardi Trophy. My 24 year old son says, “Who the hell is Lombardi?” Vince Lombardi in the 1960’s was the iconic, bull chested, Brooklyn accented coach of the Green Bay Packers, the team that triumphed in the first two Super Bowls, hence the name. Funny thing, when the Chronicle came in the mail, the same kid looked at the cover and said, “Who the hell is Steinkraus?”
So it goes as legends flutter into the mist of history. The memory of their greatness is eclipsed by the greatness of the new legend performing before the eyes of the next generation. But like Vince Lombardi’s reign as the first great coach of modern American football, Bill Steinkraus is the first great – and still most iconic – rider of American show jumping. And like Lombardi in football, Steinkraus is still the guy at the top of the mountain.
Ok… so before I try to make a point here… a wee drop of the backstory. William Clark Steinkraus was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925. When he was nine, his family moved to Westport, CT. The next summer little Billy shipped off to summer camp in Canada where he had his first horse backing experience and clearly took to it like a duck to water. Six years later, he was the ASPCA Maclay winner at Madison Square Garden and a prodigy was discovered. The following year, his riding career took a time out as he went first to Yale (before turning 17 ) and a year later – like so many of the Greatest Generation – to war. He joined the 124th Calvary, shipped off to Burma (now Myanmar) as part of the army’s last mounted regiment, and helped to reopen the Burma Road, a critical supply route for the good guys in World War ll. Post war he went back to Yale and graduated in 1948, riding interwoven with academics.
Prior to 1950, Olympic equestrian athletes were fielded from the military as, theoretically, the horse sports were an outgrowth of Calvary training. World War ll effectively did away with horses in modern warfare and by 1950 the USOC realized that equestrian was now a civilian sport. And so the USET was born. The following year young ace hotshot riding sensation Bill Steinkraus, currently day jobbing on Wall Street by week and horse showing on weekends as his side hustle, was asked to join the Team. A year later in Helsinki on a horse named Hollandia and alongside John Russell and Arthur McCashin, Bill won a Team Bronze, the U.S.A.’S first Olympic show jumping medal. A new sun had risen. Steinkraus spent twenty years and six consecutive Olympic Games captaining our team and showing the way. Team Silver in 1960 and 1972 alone would have made him leader of the pack, but it’s that 1968 Individual Gold in mile high Mexico City that stamps Bill as a stone cold legend for life. He was America’s first (Joe Fargis in L.A., 1984 the only other) and as such he will always be our Edmund Hillary – the first guy to the top of the mountain. As the brilliance of youth gave way to elder statesman, he became the guy that everyone looked up to on and off a horse. From Chapot to Morris, from Kusner to Mairs, from Shapiro to Ridland he bridged the generational divide. More than anyone, Steinkraus is the guy that created the modern American show jumping rider. The coach was Bert de Nemethy, but the example was Bill Steinkraus.
Somehow this takes me back to the Green Bay Packers. Those great football teams of the 1960’s were coached by Vince Lombardi, but the quarterback was Bart Starr. He was the guy on leafy autumn afternoons all across middle America that every 12 year old boy dreamed of being, the poster on their bedroom wall. Five championships is the stuff that makes legends. Starr was the poster on Joe Montana’s wall. During the 80’s when Montana was leading the 49’ers to four Super Bowl wins, it was his poster that took the cat bird’s seat on little Tommy Brady’s wall in San Mateo. And today, 56 years after Bart Starr won his first championship and 28 years after Montana won his last, twelve year old boys and girls all over the country have a poster (or a fat head) of Tom Brady on their wall. Always remember, our idols have idols. And Bill Steinkraus was everybody’s Bart Starr, everybody’s Joe Montana and Tom Brady all rolled into one – smooth as silk and cool as the other side of the pillow. He was the guy on your idol’s idol’s wall.
The proof is in the pictures and videos. No matter what horse he’s on, Hollandia to Main Spring, Ksar d’Esprit to Snowbound, he’s always the same: back as straight and flat as a park bench, eyes looking right over his horse’s ears, and the perfect light contact release that George Morris has been preaching about since the Beatles. Make a point of looking at the photos from the 70’s and 80’s. Ridland, Matz, Fargis, Kursinski, and Smith – they all had that same look. And like their idol before them, they all looked like they were jumping some 3’6″ hunter fence when the oxer they were actually hurling over was as tall as Kent Farrington and as wide as the Rio Grande. And the same holds true today. Just look at the style of Beezie and McLain, of Laura and Reed, and Lucy and Kent, too. The eye is up, the back is straight, the leg is still and the release is perfect. The American style, the Steinkraus style. Bill was The American Rider, then and now. He is still the poster on the wall.