By Annan Hepner
Before Rebecca Hart and Angela “Annie” Peavy trotted down centerline in Rio de Janeiro, their journey leading up to the Paralympic Games required years of commitment, training and determination.
Hart was born with familial spastic paraplegia, and Peavy suffered a stroke prior to birth that left her paralyzed on her left side. Both began riding horses at a young age, and they became determined to join the growing sport of para-equestrian dressage. While they worked to achieve near perfection in their eight minutes in the spotlight at the Deodoro Olympic Equestrian Centre, their support network played a vital role in their success leading up to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
“2016 has been a special year, and the games in Rio have been the main highlight,” explained Hart, a three-time Paralympian. “A lot of time and effort was spent to qualify, and to have everything come to fruition and to reach our goals was very exciting for me.”
Hart and her horse Schroeter’s Romani, owned by Hart in conjunction with Margaret Duprey, Cherry Knoll Farm, Barbara Summer, and William and Sandy Kimmel, have had an exciting career together over the past two years with top finishes around the world. In January, at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Hart was the Grade II individual champion and team gold medalist at the CPEDI3*. The pair also traveled to Europe to gain more experience, and they placed first in the Grade II Individual Test at the CPEDI3* in Deauville, France.
Hart has had a standout career as a para-equestrian for the United States. She is a seven-time national champion and has represented the U.S. in two World Equestrian Games and three Paralympics. As an international competitor, Hart attributes her success to the strong support team made up of Cherry Knoll Farm’s Margaret Duprey and her trainer, Todd Flettrich, who are with her every step of the way.
“I have really developed as a rider working with Todd over the past two years, and he has been paramount in creating a training program for me,” Hart said. “Margaret has been to all of my qualifiers in Florida and was cheering me on at the games as well. It was so important for me to have them both in Rio, and I am forever grateful for their belief in me. It would not have been possible without them.”
Young rider Peavy has also enjoyed a successful year leading up to the Paralympic Games on her 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding Lancelot Warrior. She was the Grade III individual champion at the CPEDI3* in Wellington and earned top placings in France over the summer. She splits her time between Connecticut and Wellington, training for the past four years with Heather Blitz.
“Wellington has competitive shows and a large international-level atmosphere, which really helped us prepare for Rio,” Peavy explained. “When you live in Wellington, you have the opportunity to watch and meet top riders from around the world.”
Hart also enjoys being a Wellington resident after moving here more than a year ago. She spends her days working as a Starbucks barista before heading to the barn to train. She has focused on creating a solid partnership with her Danish Warmblood mare, as well as raising their expectations in the show ring.
As Team USA’s anchor rider and the team member with the most experience, Hart had significant pressure on her to lead the way. She began her Rio Paralympic Games with a fifth-place finish in the Grade ll Team Test with a score of 69.914 percent, and went on to place ninth in the individual championships with a score of 67.714 percent. Her combined score qualified her as the only U.S. para-equestrian to move on to the final freestyle day of competition. In the very contested Grade II division, Hart and Romani finished their freestyle in seventh place with a score of 67.650 percent.
“Though it was unfortunate that we didn’t leave Rio with the gold medal results we had dreamed of, I am very proud of Rebecca and Romani,” said Flettrich, a London Olympic U.S. dressage alternate and Hart’s trainer. “I wake up every day feeling honored that I have this team in my life. You have to love the journey together.”
Duprey has enjoyed her eight-year friendship with Hart, and she is inspired by Hart’s grit, drive to win and her tenacity to not let her disability hold her back.
“To watch Rebecca go down the centerline in Rio — it gave me chills,” Duprey said. “It was what we have all been working toward, and to watch her compete all three days was very exciting. Todd and I are part of the village that makes it successful. It’s always thrilling to represent your country, whether you are a rider, trainer or owner. It is an honor, even though it’s a lot of hard work to get there.”
Peavy enjoyed her Paralympic debut, and she rode Lancelot Warrior to a sixth-place finish with a 68.974 percent in the Grade III team test. In the individual championship, she earned an eighth-place finish on a score of 68.585 percent.
“It was a great first games for me, and it is an honor to represent my country,” Peavy said. “Becca [Hart] has competed in multiple Paralympics, and she was so supportive showing me the ropes. I felt confident going into the competition ring in Rio because we knew our job, and Lancelot is always focused on me. I had excitement nerves being there!”
After settling back into their routine in the United States, Hart and Peavy have been busy traveling across the country. They enjoyed touring the White House with their U.S. Paralympic teammates, meeting President Barack Obama and reminiscing on their experiences in Brazil with other Team USA Olympians. Hart has also visited college campuses and the Women’s Sports Foundation to give motivational speeches and promote her sport.
“The Paralympics in Rio was a wonderful experience with everyone on my team,” Hart said. “I am so thankful for the United States Equestrian Team Foundation, the United States Equestrian Federation and my groom Fernando Ortega for their dedication and hard work behind-the-scenes. They are an invaluable part of this sport!”