Column: Carmel Valley’s Steffen Peters prepares for fifth Olympics in equestrian

Carmel Valley's Steffen Peters, right, shown with Suppenkasper and owner-sponsor Akiko Yamazaki at the recent Olympic Trials.
Carmel Valley’s Steffen Peters, right, shown with Suppenkasper and owner-sponsor Akiko Yamazaki at the recent Olympic Trials.
(Jerry Yang)

Second-oldest U.S. Olympian headed to Tokyo is a two-time medal winner


Standing at the front desk of the public pool in Wellington, Fla., just outside of West Palm Beach, Steffen Peters found himself on the verge of another Olympic milestone.

The Carmel Valley resident has represented the United States in Atlanta, Beijing, London and Rio, winning team bronze twice in the equestrian specialty dressage. Peters recently spent a month in Florida with his 13-year-old bay gelding named Suppenkasper to acclimate man and horse with the hot, humid weather waiting to soak competitors in sweat at the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo.

As he prepared for his daily swim workout — sprint for 10 minutes, break; four times in all — his Olympic reality changed. At 56, Peters was eligible for … a senior discount. No more of that $5, full-freight stuff.

The second oldest member of the U.S. team handed over a pair of $1 bills.

“When I give them my $2, they said, ‘You’re good,’ ” said Peters, the day before he and his Olympic teammates headed to Germany for some pre-Games prep work. “You kind of hope they check your ID, but they don’t. I’ll take all the perks I can get.”

Senior? Yes. At least by the definitions of some, including an aquatics center plopped into a place known as the equestrian capital of the world, with current and former residents ranging from Glenn Close and Vanilla Ice to Bill Gates.

Peters is not even the most senior on his own team, though. That distinction, according to the United States Olympic Committee, belongs to three-time equestrian medal winner Phillip Dutton — by 372 days.

“I’m somewhat proud of that,” Peters said of his, well, experience. “Some people have an issue with age, but I feel just as prepared physically as previous Games. Mentally, it’s a bit more challenging because that inner dictator gets in the way, doubting yourself. ‘Am I getting too old?’

“It tries to mess with you. You prove to yourself every single day you can do it.”

Dressage, roughly explained, involves a rider guiding a horse through a series of complex maneuvers with slight movements of his or her hands and legs, or the subtle shifting of weight.

Mental fatigue can match the physical demands. In many sports, athletes can rally to overcome mistakes. In dressage, an almost imperceptible miscue can prove fatal.

“We work for .01 percent of improvement,” Peters explained. “That’s the difference between a gold medal and third or fourth place. You take every single video of your performance and look at it frame by frame. What can I do better? How can I gain another .01 percent?

“It’s a grind.”

Peters has been grinding through horse competitions since he began competing across Europe as a 12-year-old living outside of Dusseldorf, Germany. That prancing, preening path nearly was sidetracked, however.

Five generations of his family operated a department store. His grandfather thought Steffen would take over. Images beyond menswear, toasters and handbags bounced around the boy’s head. He dreamed of horses and new horizons. He dreamed of a sunny, Southern California start.

A conversation with his father fought off the perils of retail life.

“Dad told me he didn’t have a choice after high school and he took over the business,” Peters said. “He said, ‘I want you to have a choice. If you want to try San Diego and see what America is like, go right ahead.’ He probably thought I’d do it a year or two.”

In the summer of 1984, the 18-year-old moved to San Diego. Peters lived in a friend’s Carmel Valley garage with nothing more than a bed and a desk for $200 a month, venturing inside to use the bathroom and shower.

“I was proud of living on my own, supporting myself,” he said.

Other than a return to Germany to fulfill the country’s required military service, San Diego is where Peters stayed. His family later paid to ship him Udon, purchased by his father when the horse was a 3-year-old. His dad later watched Udon and his son, who became a U.S. citizen in 1992, win team bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

A year later, he passed away. Steffen’s commitment never waned.

At a 2001 clinic he taught, Peters met Akiko Yamazaki. Five years later, the wife of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang suggested partnering in the sport. She offered the financial support to continue chasing Olympic medals.

So, Peters resumes the chase anew. Dressage begins July 24, despite tight COVID-19 restrictions that now include no fans after Tokyo declared a state of emergency.

“It’s very restricted,” Peters said. “Airport to hotel, hotel to the venue. There’s no shopping, no walking around. In Rio, I enjoyed talking to Michael Phelps, Kevin Durant and Serena Williams at the Olympic Village. That might not be possible this time.

“That’s a big bummer, but we have a clear mission.”

Pool to podium.