Speaking to DW, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, one of the most successful women in show jumping, talks about being a pioneer in a male-dominated sport and why athletes should speak their mind when it comes to politics.
DW: Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, in your biography the phrase “she was the first” crops up a lot. In 2004 you were the first woman to be number 1 in the world rankings of show jumping. In 1999, you were the first woman to ride for Germany in a championship team. Later you were also the first woman to ride in the German team at the World Equestrian Games. When you look back, do you see yourself as a pioneer for women in a sport dominated by men?
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum: First I have to point out that I never could have envisioned coming so far. I always had dreams like every other young girl in this sport. But I’d never have dared to dream that I could break into what at the time was a male-dominated sport in Germany, and become the first woman to compete on a championship team. That was really like a dream come true.
Once I was in, and I realized that my presence on the German team was so important for the future of women in this sport, I realized I had to carry the flag and open up the doors for other women. I was very proud and happy to be able to do so. And I have seen in the years since, other women coming up in Germany and making the national team. So it has been a very rewarding experience.
You were born in the US and grew up in a country where — if you look at show jumping — the proportion of women in the national team was much higher in the past than it is in other countries today. Nevertheless, you came to Germany in 1991 to train here in Paul Schockemöhle’s stable.
In America it has always been a female dominated sport. Maybe not dominated but there are more females than males in the equestrian sports. There have been great male rides throughout the years but definitely more females. And when I came to Germany I was surprised to find out that it was a male-dominated sport here — and in Europe on the whole. But I came to Germany because that is where my life led me — and in the end my love. But like I said I almost never thought I could get as far as I did. I just wanted to try my best. And luckily enough it led me to the top.
If you look at the participant lists for show jumping here in Aachen or at other major equestrian events today, more and more women are taking part — although they are still in the minority. What do you make of this development?
I think it is a very positive development and I am proud to have been a part of it. When I was just beginning it was practically unheard of for more than one woman to be in the top 10. At some point in my top years there were actually five women in the top 10. That was absolutely a high point. And I think we have proven in Germany and in other countries that the sport is basically equal for men and women and it happens to be one of the only sports in the world that is like this. That is what makes it unique, special and very different from other sports.
You were a successful sportswoman even before you came to Germany, but you also studied political science at Princeton. What would have happened to you if your riding career hadn’t turned out as well as it did?
(laughs) That is a good question. I think, if I didn’t find my love for the sport here in Europe and my love for my husband, I would have gone back to the United States and who knows, maybe I would be the Democratic candidate running against Donald Trump in 2020.
More and more athletes are getting involved and expressing themselves politically. Especially in the US — be it Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James or Megan Rapinoe. What do you think about athletes using their fame to draw attention to political issues?
I think it’s a positive thing that people are able to speak their minds. And if they have a role in society either as a sports person or as a role model that people look to, I think it is important to have values and not be afraid to talk about them. In every sense, I think it’s important that role models don’t duck the issues and speak their minds.
Football’s Women’s World Cup, which ended a few days ago, was very much about the so-called gender pay gap, namely the difference in pay between women and men. How do you feel about that?
Women’s rights need to be respected and have been more and more respected over the years in almost all the countries in the world. However, there are countries where this isn’t the case. But we have to constantly fight for equality — whether as women, whether as African Americans, or as people of a different nationality. I think it is very important to realize that we all are equal. To paraphrase the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, everyone is created equal. That is a very important point and has to be repeated again and again.
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, born 1969 in Los Angeles, is one of the most successful show jumpers in the world. After her marriage to the German show jumper Markus Beerbaum in 1998, she became a German citizen. With the German team she won Team Gold at the 2010 World Championships, twice European Championship Gold (1999, 2005) and Olympic Bronze (2016). Michaels-Beerbaum was the first and so far only woman to top the world rankings in show jumping in 2004. In 2007, she became European Champion in individual show jumping.