It’s not the competition that Lendon Gray remembers about her Olympic experience at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Gray was a member of the United States dressage team and saw the event as just another competition.

It’s the pomp and excitement that surround every part of the Olympics that Gray remembers vividly. The opening ceremonies, living in the Olympic village, and dining with athletes competing in other sports.

“I was there early enough so I was able to spend a lot of time at the track. I spent a lot of time at the pool, watching other competitors,” Gray said in a phone interview last week. “That was fantastic. Being at the Olympics, for me not so much for the competition, but for everything else, there’s just nothing like it. Truly nothing like it.”

Lendon Gray

That’s why Gray, an Old Town native, sympathizes with athletes competing at the Olympics currently underway in Tokyo. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these Games are played in empty arenas, and athletes can’t possibly get the same Olympic experience as past competitors.

“I feel a little badly for the Olympians this year because they’re basically going for the competition. They’re not even going to have spectators. In Korea, the dressage sport was nothing the Koreans knew about, so they bused in loads of kids. The stands were filled with these kids they bused in on school buses. They didn’t much care about what we were doing, except to look at the nice horsies,” Gray said.

“What a situation for them. So much of being a top international competitor is peaking at exactly the right moment. That’s something we even think about with our horses. And here you don’t even know if that moment is going to come. I feel so badly for them. It’s really a tough situation,” Gray said.

Dressage is still a focus of Gray’s life even at age 72. Dressage 4 Kids, the organization she started 23 years ago to help grow her sport, is doing very well. Gray, who now lives in Bedford, New York, spoke from a camp she was conducting in Maryland.

“I’m working very hard to bring young people into it and keep people educated. For me, I’ve done a lot of different equestrian sports, and to me this is the one where you’re most closely connected to the horse. Dressage is all about developing the horse as an athlete. It’s kind of like the gymnastics of the horse world. It is growing, absolutely,” Gray said. “I started it 23 years ago because mostly I was seeing more and more kids that were just being taught to ride, and that’s it. You ride this horse in this test and we buy you a trained horse and so forth. I was afraid we were losing some of the overall horsemanship knowledge.”

Dressage 4 Kids began in the Northeast and has expanded internationally, Gray said. The clinic she was conducting last week in Maryland was for more advanced riders and horses. Other clinics are for younger children, usually ages 7 and 8, riding their backyard ponies.

Horses have been a part of Gray’s life since her childhood in Old Town. Gray made the 1980 US dressage team that was unable to compete in the Olympics in Moscow due to the United States boycott of the games in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. It was a disappoint at the time, Gray said, but not devastating to her as it was to athletes who saw their one shot at the Olympics erased by politics.

“During the winter, January, February, March, there was all kinds of  talk. Are we going? Are we not going? Are they boycotting? Are they not boycotting? As we were preparing, we really had no idea if there was going to be an Olympics or not,” Gray said. “For me personally, I made the Olympic team, but I was not somebody who had a chance at getting a medal. I had a very sort of average horse. It wasn’t like if we didn’t go, I wasn’t going to get a medal I had a good chance of getting.”

Instead of Moscow, Gray went to England and competed in the Alternate Olympics with her horse, Beppo.

“Competition-wise, it was really the same as if we had been at the Olympics. We had all the top riders. A few of the riders from communist countries went to Russia, but none of them were contenders for medals,” Gray said. “In many ways, you’re only as good as your horse. I was this kid from Maine with this very average horse that I was able to make the team with because he was very well trained.”

Gray did get her Olympic opportunity eight years later, when she competed in Seoul.

“The Olympics was not my goal. I rode because I loved it. I loved the training. I loved being with the horses and developing them. I was just lucky enough to be ready at the right place at the right time,” Gray said.

Now, she’s trying to pass that love on to new riders. She knows it’s not cheap. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, stable fees can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per month. Then add on food, bedding, vet care, and insurance, and horse upkeep gets very expensive very quickly.

“We do everything we can to keep the cost down. We give lots of scholarships to make it possible for as many people as possible. Let’s face it. Keeping a horse is not cheap. Keeping a dog is not cheap, but keeping a horse is a lot less cheap,” Gray said.

With people looking for activities in which it’s easier to maintain social distance, equestrian sports have grown in popularity in the last year, Gray said.

“You’re outdoors. You don’t really have to be close to anybody. I’ve talked to a lot of instructors who are turning students away right and left,” Gray said.

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