“My dad’s experiences in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics would have been quite different from the Atlanta and Sydney Games,” says James Wofford of Upperville, Virginia. His father, the late Colonel John W. “Gyp” Wofford, was the first president of the United States Equestrian Team and the man responsible for fielding the country’s first civilian Olympic team in 1952.
“There were probably 1,500 athletes total in Los Angeles, compared to 11,000 in the 1996 Games and 10,000 in Sydney in 2000–with no sponsors’ banners and no three-hour opening ceremonies,” says Wofford. “All the riders were male and in military uniform.”
Wofford, a three-time Olympic three-day event rider, has been the coach of many Olympians, including gold medalists Karen and David O’Connor. Wofford was born after his father retired from competition and was only 10 when he died, but the colonel’s accomplishments are a family legacy.
“He was a reserve on the three-day team before the 1932 Olympics, but when one of the team horses broke down, he got to ride,” says Wofford. “His mount was Babe Watham, a brown remount mare of indiscriminate breeding who was a brilliant jumper, but she could also stop. Unfortunately, she picked the Olympics to show that side of herself.”
Twenty years later Colonel Wofford was chef d’equipe of the country’s first civilian equestrian team, which earned team bronzes in jumping and eventing and a creditable sixth place in dressage during the 1952 Helsinki, Finland, Games. Jimmy’s older brother, John E.B. “Jeb” Wofford, 19, was on the three-day team. The Woffords also provided the team with three event horses and Bill Steinkraus’ show jumping mount, Hollandia. The family’s Rimrock Farm near Fort Riley, Kansas, was used as a training center.
Walter Staley, then 18, was a member of the three-day team for the 1952 Games and went on to ride in two more Olympics for the USET. Staley, who carried the Olympic flame through Hannibal, Missouri, the spring before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, recalls what it was like to train under Colonel Wofford:
“He was a great believer in the military forward seat and trained us all to ride that way. There were some very steep precipices at Rimrock, and he directed us to walk our horses over the edge and slide down, maintaining the forward seat. Once you could do that, you gained confidence.
“Right before going to Europe, we trained in Camden, South Carolina. NBC came down to film a training session, and the colonel asked us to walk over the edge of a 20-foot sand pit. We did, like little ducks in a row. We were all so young–he was a father figure to us. We would do anything he asked. No one rides the military seat anymore, but it served us quite well.”