At age 71, most athletes have long since retired, but not Japanese equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu. Instead of watching the London Olympics as a spectator, he’ll be competing as the oldest Olympian in 92 years.
Hoketsu started riding at summer camp when he was 12. He said he once grabbed a tree branch and used it as a riding crop. The horse picked up speed. It was a thrill that would affect the rest of Hoketsu’s life.
“That was the first time I was on a horse when it cantered,” he said. “It was great. I wasn’t afraid at all. That was really the start of my riding life.”
Hoketsu set his sights on qualifying for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “It was my dream,” he said.
He qualified and placed 40th, but wasn’t deterred by the outcome. When he was in grad school in the United States, he was so dedicated that he even convinced his reluctant mother to send his riding gear from Japan. And throughout his long career in the pharmaceutical industry, Hoketsu said he’d wake up every morning at 5 a.m., go riding, eat breakfast and then head for the office.
London will be his third Olympics, after representing Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This time, he will only be competing in individual dressage, a sport he likens to figure skating on horseback. Most of his competition will be decades younger.
He’s made some tremendous sacrifices to be able to reach the Olympic pinnacle, telling Yahoo News
that he has not seen his wife in over a year.
He said he doesn’t expect to medal, but wants to improve on his performance at Beijing where he placed 34th out of approximately 50 entrants.
Hoketsu, who trains in Germany, said keeping in shape is a combination of pursuing the things that make him happy and, of course, keeping an exercise regimen, which he said is usually about an hour or so of stretching, muscle and balance work after a ride. He’s also a little more cautious while riding.
“I’m getting old, and I don’t want to fall off,” he said, adding that over the course of his riding career he has fallen many times. “I try to be a little more careful than I was before.”
Despite his age, Hoketsu won’t be the oldest Olympian ever. That title goes to Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn who was 72 years old when he competed at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Hoketsu could go for the record and thinks he’ll still be in shape to make a run for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, but says it’s his horse, Whisper, who will likely be too old. Whisper, who Hoketsu rode in Beijing, would be 19 then. The usual retirement age is 16 or 17.
Hoketsu said his immediate plans after the Olympics are uncertain.
“It depends how I feel after I finish,” he said. “If I continue to ride, I can’t take a long vacation. If I don’t ride for two weeks, it will take two to three weeks to really get back in physical condition.”
His advice for future Olympians?
“Continue to do one thing you like to do. I think that is much more important for your life than getting medals.”
Photo Gallery: Asian Athletes at the Olympics
Bronze medalist Choi Byungchul of South Korea, waves to the crowd during the medals ceremony after the men's individual foil fencing competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012, in London.
South Korea's Jo Hyo-bi, center is tackled by Norway's Karoline Dyhre Breivang, left, and Lynn-Kristin Koren, right, during their women's handball preliminary match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 1, 2012, in London.
South Korea's Ryu Eun-hee, center, shoots the ball, between Norway's Goril Snorroeggen, right, and Lynn-Kristin Koren, left, during their women's handball preliminary match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 1, 2012.
Kim Kum Sok of North Korea competes during the men's 69-kg weightlifting competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012.
A North Korea supporter waves a flag before the team's group G women's soccer match against the United States at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012 at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England.
Masashi Nishiyama of Japan, left, and Song Dae-Nam of South Korea, react after their men's 90-kg judo match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 1, 2012.
South Korea's Oh Jin-hyek shoots during an elimination round of the individual archery competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 1, 2012, in London.
South Korea's Chung Jae-sung, right, and Lee Yong-dae play against Malaysia's Koo Kien Keat, unseen, and Tan Boon Heong, at a men's doubles badminton match of the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012.