Games of the XVII Olympiad, Rome,
Pelham Resident 1941 - 1956 at 886 James Street
1960 U.S. Olympic Team, Equestrian, 3-Day Event
Photo: Michael riding "Grasshopper."
Courtesy of Michael Page
From a Conversation with the Pelham Town Historian
Michael Page's Journey to the Olympics
“The girl has some promise, but the boy should give it up.” So said Boris LaBoux, the instructor at the Split Rock Riding Academy in Pelham Manor when Barbara Page took her son Michael to try the thing he wanted to do most of all: ride horses. Actually, he was Colonel Boris LaBoux, or Laboudinsky as he was known while an officer in the Czar’s cavalry before fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution with his wife (a purported Russian princess) and two children. Perhaps his Russian noble background explained why he could not see how the boy’s passion could compensate for a perceived lack of natural ability. Maybe he could not comprehend the American attitude that anyone can achieve anything by working hard at it and that if it was a matter of genes, Americans being of such a great melting pot, could dig up one somewhere in one’s DNA to fit the need. Whatever the reason, Colonel Boris LaBoux would never have imagined that the boy he so quickly dismissed would go on to become Pelham's greatest equestrian and most decorated Olympic athlete.
Michael Page lived at 886 James Street and, in a recent conversation with the Town Historian, tells of spending his early childhood in Pelham, attending Siwanoy School, Pelham Junior High and Pelham Memorial High School. But you won’t find him in the PMHS 1956 yearbook; His family moved to Briarcliff Manor a few months before graduation. “My mother had wander lust,” he says now. The riding bug struck early, he recalls, from watching old movies about the Pony Express and seeing what a horse could do with a rider on its back. The old Russian Colonel deterred him not a whit and by age 15, he was on his bike every day to Twin Lakes in Eastchester (then called Saddle Tree Farm) to ride horses.
His mother was first to take him to try riding, but Michael credits his father, Owen, for allowing him to take an unconventional path in life. “My father knew what it meant to pursue a passion,” he says. “While his siblings all went off to Ivy League colleges, my father became a Shakespearean actor before going to college.” At his father’s urging, Michael shipped off to England with a suitcase and a saddle, trading traditional summer camp for classical riding school. When he returned to Pelham, he started showing, riding an old remount horse at Saddle Tree. In the midst of moving from Pelham to Briarcliff in his senior year of high school, he qualified for medal finals at Madison Square Garden where he won the AHSA Medal Finals and placed third in the ASPCA Maclay.
Like his father, he deferred college and spent the next several years in an unbelievable adventure hop-scotching across two continents and devoting his full time and attention to becoming the greatest event rider in the United States. After stints in Switzerland, France and then Germany, Michael returned to the French Cavalry School at Saumur as one of the first group of civilians to attend the non-commissioned officer’s course. It wasn’t long before French Colonel Margot who headed the school, took quite a different view of him than the Russian Colonel at Split Rock. “Starting tomorrow, you ride with the officers,” he told Michael. A nine-month commitment turned into two years of riding (without stirrups) as many as seven different horses a day, seven hours a day. “It was brutal,” he said in a later interview, “it either broke you, or you learned it.” He competed and placed sixth in the military division of the French National Championships at Fontainebleau.
Michael’s reputation as a great (and, at that time, rare) event rider reached the west coast of the United States. A telegram arrived from the U.S. Equestrian Team inviting him to ride at a private ranch in California and to train for the 3-Day team. It was there that he met “Copper Coin,” a horse that had already been to the Olympics for the Irish Team at the 1956 Stockholm Games. To call the horse feisty, would be an understatement, but Michael needed one with the stamina for a 22-mile classic Olympic 3-Day event. Re-named “Grasshopper” because he bucked like one, Michael later recalled him as “vicious.” “It took two people to hold him, and someone would throw me on because he wouldn’t stand still,” he said. He ran Grasshopper full out, up a shale mountain to gain the horse’s respect. He achieved that and more with Grasshopper, winning an individual gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago and competing in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Michael & Grasshopper
“After 2 ½ weeks of trying to control him, it was getting to the point that I was going to get hurt or he was going to get hurt, and there had to be some way of getting through to him in a way that made him respect me. He was bucking and vicious. It wasn't in good fun.... So I said, 'What I am going to do is no stirrups because I'm going to have to go through the cattle gate at 90mph, across the road, and then straight up the shale mountain, and every stride he is going to jump into the shale. He's only going to be able to do that a short amount of time, and then he's not going to be able to breathe anymore, so then he'll stop.' So we went through -- and I mean sparks flying across the road -- it was really cool!"
From an interview with The Chronicle of the Horse, July 10/17, 2017.
At right, Michael smiling and riding Grasshopper (photo courtesy of Michael Page)
Michael was drafted in the U.S. Army later in 1960 and was on track to becoming an officer after basic training at Fort Dix. But senior officers in the Army Cavalry learned of Michael's skills and orders suddenly arrived from the Pentagon assigning him to Fort Ord in Pebble Beach, California. It was a redux of his training at Saumur as he rode six different horses, six hours a day, this time at U.S., instead of French, military expense. At the next Pan American Games in 1963 at Sao Paulo, Michael and Grasshopper won both an individual and a team gold medal and a year later they were headed for the Olympic Games in Tokyo ....
Games of the XVIII Olympiad, Tokyo,
1964 U.S. Olympic Team, Equestrian, Team Silver Medal, 3-Day Event
Photo: Michael at far left with Olympic Team of Helena “Lana” DuPont,
Michael Plumb, Kevin Freeman and coach Stefen von Visy
Carmine Petriccione Photo
Grasshopper almost missed his third Olympic Games. After suffering a concussion, his training had to stop just a month before departure. He was nursed back to health in time for Michael Page to ride him in Tokyo and win a team silver medal.
Grasshopper retired after the games and Michael dialed back on riding to help his father with the family business, traveling around the country in sales and judging at equestrian events along the way. But it wasn’t long before he was tapped again by the USET, paired with a new horse, named Foster, and met its groom, named Georgette. Georgette became his wife and Foster his new mount and the three of them were off together as Michael resumed his equestrian career. They earned a team gold and an individual bronze at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnepeg.
Games of the XIX Olympiad, Mexico City, 1968
Michael Page's Third Olympics
1968 U.S. Olympic Team, Equestrian, Team Silver & Individual Bronze Medals, 3-Day Event
Photo: Michael riding "Foster"
Courtesy of Michael Page
Michael competed in his third Olympic Games in 1968 at Mexico City (see below) and won another team silver plus an individual bronze medal. While these would be the last Olympic Games where Michael rode, it was not the end of his Olympic career: he coached the Canadian 3-Day Event team at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and served as “Chef D’Equipe” for the U.S. 3-Day Event Olympic team in 1988 at Seoul and 1992 at Barcelona.
The podium at the Mexico City Olympics where Michael Page (right) and teammates (left to right) John Plumb, Kevin Freeman and James Wofford, were awarded a team silver medal.
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Page
In the 1980s, Michael and Georgette ran the Old Salem Farm in northern Westchester when it was owned by actor Paul Newman and then by hedge funder manager Paul Greenwood. He later became the resident trainer and instructor at the Kent School and stayed for 28 years. In 2018, Michael Page, still riding every day, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the United States Hunter/Jumper Association. After a recent brush with death resulting in multiple fractured ribs, he decided that, now in his 80s, it was time to take a well-earned rest from his life-long passion.
Watch a video interview of Michael Page when he was awarded the USHJA Lifetime Achievement Award
Deepest thanks to Michael Page for sharing the story of his journey to the Olympics and personal photographs and information for this post.