Lis Hartel: A Remarkable Olympian

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Lis Hartel was a Danish equestrian competitor in the 1940s and 1950s. She competed in the 1952 Olympics and the 1956 Olympics and she won medals at both.

However, her Olympic medals are just the starting point of her fascinating and inspirational story.

Learn more about Lis Hartel and her remarkable accomplishments on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Lis Hartel was born in 1921 in Hellerup, Denmark. At a very young age she took a liking to horses and began competitive horse riding. Her preferred event was dressage, but she also competed in horse jumping. 

Dressage for those who aren’t familiar with equestrian events is the premier event when it comes to horse training. Its closest analog would be to figure skating or a floor routine in gymnastics, where you combine artistic and athletic elements in an open space, usually to music……and with a horse.

As many people did at the time, she married at the young age of 20 and had several children in her early 20s as well. 

She continued with her horse training and in 1947 she was the runner-up at the Scandanavian Equestrian Championships, with a score which qualified her for the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

There was one small problem. Women couldn’t compete in dressage at the Olympics. In fact, no one other than male military officers were allowed to compete at the time. The equestrian events weren’t the only ones that had this antiquated rule. The modern pentathlon and the biathlon were also limited to military officers at one time.

Despite being good enough for the olympics she was shut out in 1948. 

In the post war atmosphere, the ridiculousness of the rule soon gave way and, not only were civilians allowed to compete in dressage, but women were as well. 

Equestrian events are still the only events at the olympics where men and women compete directly against each other. 

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Lis again qualified and competed in the first Olympics dressage competition which allowed both civilians and women to compete. In 1952, dressage was the only equestrian event open to women. Show jumping and eventing, the other two equestrian events were still off limits. 

Of the 134 equestrian competitors in Helsinki, exactly 4 of them were women. 

Lis went on to win the silver medal in Dressage in 1952, missing the gold by only 20 points out of 541. She not only did she become the first woman to win an olympic medal in any equestrian event, but the first woman to win any olympic medal in head-to-head competition with men. 

She continued her spectacular career for several more years. She would go on to become a seven time dressage champion in Denmark. She won the world championship in 1954, and won another silver medal at the 1956 Olympics. 

The 1956 Olympics were held in Melbourne, but the equestrian events were held in Stockholm several months earlier because of Australia’s quarantine regulations regarding animals.

If I were to end this story right here, this would be a pretty good story. A woman becomes the first in her field to find success, wins two olympic medals, and becomes the first to compete and defeat men in head-to-head competition. 

However, there is something I’ve left out. Something which really puts everything I’ve just told you in a completely different light.

Lis Hartel was paralized in her legs. 

In 1944, at the age of 23 when she was pregnant with her second child, she was struck with polio. The polio left her almost entirely paralized. The doctors told her she would probably never walk again and competitive horse riding was out of the question.

She set about an ambitious program of rehabilitation with the goal of being able to ride again. She had to struggle to move her hands and even had to learn to crawl again.

Within eight months she was able to get about on crutches. She was soon back on her horse Jubilee, although she took several nasty falls and she was unable to mount and dismount from the horse herself. 

Her second place finish at the 1947 Scandanivan Championships was only three years after her illness.

She remained permanently paralized below her knees, unable to move or feel anything in her feet, and also lost much of the feeling in her hands.

For an equestrian, your hands and legs are extremely important. That is the main way you feel and control the horse. She had to not only relearn how to ride, but she had to develop a totally new technique for how to ride because standard means weren’t available to her. 

Her horse had to relearn with her as well. The new cues she gave to Jubilee were very subtle and probably wouldn’t have worked with any other horse and rider pairing. Her horse Jubilee was the only horse she rode during her entire competitive riding career.

When she won the silver at the 1952 Olympics, the medal ceremony was perhaps the most memorable in olympic equestrian history. 

The gold medalist was Heni St Cyr, a Swedish a military officer. In one of the greatest displays of olympic sportsmanship, went over to Lis who was mounted on Jubilee, picked her up and personally carried her to the podium where she defiantly stood on her own two feet to receive her medal. Until that point, hardly anyone in attendance was aware of her disability.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the arena.

After her competitive riding career, Lis went on to become one of the leading advocates for the use of horses as therapy, as well as fundraising for victims of polio. She opened Europe’s first Therapeutic Riding Center. 

Lis passed away in 2009 at the age of 87. The Lis Hartel Foundation still exists today which promotes the use of horses as therapy for those with conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and autism.