Denmark’s Lis Hartel could only managed a pair of silver medals in the dressage competition of equestrian in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games held in Helsinki and Melbourne, respectively.
Those modest finishes proved enough though to earn for Lis the respect and accolade as one of the most revered athletes in her country’s Olympic history.
In 1944, at the height of Word War II, the then 23-year-old Lis contacted polio during her pregnancy. Others of lesser stuff would have bade her athletic career goodbye, especially because she was entirely paralyzed due to her sickness.
Nothing of that sort could stop Hartel though in her determined resolve to pursue her Olympic dream. While still in pregnancy, she started her rehabilitation. At first he struggled in learning to lift her arms again, the regained her thigh muscles.
Her daughter was born healthy prompting her to announce her comeback bid. First, she began by crawling and soon she was able to walk with crutches. Determined to return to competitive form and take part in her favorite event, she asked those who doubted her capability: ”Why can’t my horse be my legs?
Three years after her attack and still unable to use her legs, Lis registered to compete in the Scandinavian Riding Championships in 1947 and finished second. When the 1952 Summer Games were scheduled to be held in Helsinki, Hartel was chosen to be member of Denmark’s dressage team.
As one of the pioneers of the women’s dressage that was once exclusively reserved for men competitors, Lis amazed the athletic world when she pocketed the silver medal even as she was to be assisted in getting on and off her mount.
The medal ceremony turned out to be one of the most emotional and dramatic moments in all of Olympic history. The gold medal winner, Henry St. Cyr of Sweden, stood on the top of the podium. But when Hartel’s name was announced as the silver medallist, St. Cyr stepped down the platform and assisted her to the second place position as the crowd gave both a standing ovation.
Four years later in Stockholm (The actual Games were held in Melbourne but Australian quarantine regulation made it necessary to hold all the equestrian events Stockholm), Lis, won anew the silver medal and St, Cyr, the gold medal winner, again, helped her to her second place position at the podium.
Lis Hartel had become a living testament of a popular Danish saying: “Life is not holding a good hand; life is playing a poor hand well.” One of the least publicized or understood Olympic events is dressage, a part of the equestrian competition.
Dressage, a non-jumping event, is judged when horse and rider go through a series of gaits and maneuvers without oral command. They appear as a single entity with the rider guiding the mount with hand and leg pressure. All but invisible to the eye.