ELENA PETUSHKOVA – NUMBER-ONE RUSSIAN DRESSAGE RIDER
Olympic dressage gold medalist, Elena Petushkova, was one of the greatest exponents of the equestrian art and the first woman ever to become the World Champion in the event. Her devotion to equestrian sport and talent as a dressage rider were confirmed on many occasions, and her contribution to the sport –
both in and outside Russia – was outstanding.
“I began working with Elena Petushkova when she coached our senior squad, and I was the coach of the junior team,” recalls Olga Soboleva, the Head Coach of the Russian national Dressage Team. “She invited me to work together, and it was very important for me to work side by side with her all those years. Elena was a very honest and modest person, even though she achieved top results in sports. Aside from that, she succeeded as a coach and an administrator. During the Cold War years, Petushkova worked with the leading bodies of the International Equestrian Federation. She was respected universally – not just because she was a prominent equestrian athlete. A born diplomat, she could get along with both friends and foes and was regarded as the foremost authority in the field. In the 1990s, when the financing of sports in Russia was drastically reduced, Elena Petushkova, who at the time held the position of the President of the Russian Equestrian Federation, bent every effort to iron things out. I believe that the equestrian sport in Russia in those hard years was saved and preserved thanks to her.”
Petushkova’s rise to prominence in the equestrian art was amazing and totally unexpected – even for herself. A timid girl who diligently played gamuts on piano, she was a late starter in sports. Elena was 16 when she saw an announcement about a riding school in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. During her first lesson the coach inquired whether she learned to ride before. He couldn’t believe that the girl, obviously, a talented rider, was in the saddle for the first time. Elena quickly developed the taste for riding and, after leaving school, was offered to take up dressage, the sport that brought her world fame.
Petushkova later said, however, that she’d never thought about being a top-level sportswoman. She just thought about the happiness of riding a horse, the happiness of finding a common language with an animal, who often became a teacher of sorts for a rider. Elena was convinced that a horse must be more than just a partner for a rider. A well-trained horse, she said, must teach the rider – what riding is, what dressage is. Old horses who can do this are like
professors for the riders. The greatest horse Elena rode was Pepel, a wonderful black stallion, who was her friend and companion for a whole sixteen years.
Petushkova thus recalled her competitive career with Pepel:
“I can never remember how many points I was awarded. Although the milestones, the most difficult moments and the happiest times remain in my mind. One competition merges into another, and everything that Pepel and I experienced together seems like one long endless dressage test.”
In 1967, Elena and Pepel placed sixth at the European Dressage Championships, and that was the best performance of a woman rider, since dressage is one of the few sports where men and women compete together. At the 1968 Summer Olympics Petushkova won her first silver medal, finishing second in the team dressage event alongside Ivan Kalita and Ivan Kizimov. Kizimov later recalled: “Elena riding her black horse Pepel was our team’s visiting card, our prime. She won one gold and two silver medals at the Olympic Games and was a 13-time Soviet national champion – an absolute record for this country’s women riders. She was a very earnest, hard-working and sincere person. When some Western journalists called her ‘Miss Europe’, she was offended, saying that athletes were valued for their sporting achievements, and not for their good looks. At the press conference after the Olympic Games she volunteered to interpret for me, since she was fluent in English, and showed herself to an advantage again.” For Petushkova dressage was a form of ballet, so she believed it must be not only technically well-done, but very gracious and beautiful. When 30-year-old Petushkova became a World Dressage Champion in 1970, her performance was applauded by spectators and critics alike. “The Russian combination Petushkova – Pepel left the impression of harmony and easiness,” one of the judges said, describing it.
A world-famous dressage rider, Elena was universally known as Dr.Petushkova, since she was a distinguished scientist. Having graduated with honors from Moscow University, Elena received an academic degree in biochemistry and worked as a senior researcher at the University’s Department of Biology. She authored over 60 publications in Russian and foreign magazines. One of the books she wrote was titled, “Two Halves of My Heart”, meaning science and sports. Petushkova said she was not sure which career came first for her, but finally chose sports, when she came to work to the Russian Equestrian Federation in the 1990s. Elena Petushkova died of a brain tumor when she was 66. Her daughter Vlada recalled that Elena rarely spoke about her highly successful sports career, probably, due to being a very modest person, but she had every reason to be proud of her achievements in both science and sports.