As his eventing career reached storied proportions, his personal life fell apart, but this eventing living legend is finally becoming the horseman he wants to be.
J. Michael Plumb stares at me intently from his cluttered desk in the tack room of his Southern Pines JMP Farm in North Carolina. “They think I’m a living legend?” he asks with mild surprise. “I don’t think I would call myself that.”
He sits back, and the swivel chair creaks. “What does that even mean?” he asks, turning the interview around.
I pause for just a moment and meet his eye. All I know of this man is second-hand, save for a single eye-opening phone conversation. Any Google search would highlight his unmatched career achievements, but this new accolade spoke to something deeper. It was that one honest phone conversation that made my response come easily: “A living legend is someone worthy to remember, worthy to honor, and yes, Mike, I think that’s you.”
His firsthand account was about to prove it.
An Unparalleled History
J. Michael Plumb is one of the most recognized and accomplished horsemen of the last century. His equestrian career has spanned more than six decades, and his extensive list of achievements prove that, without question, he’s one of the absolute best eventers to date.
Plumb’s three-day career launched at the Pan American Games in 1959 in Chicago, where he won individual and team silver medals. The next year, at age 20, he appeared in his first Olympic Games. He would be named to every Olympic eventing team between 1960 and 1984, including the alternate 1980 Games in Fontainebleau, France, and he competed in his last Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. He is the only U.S. athlete to compete in eight Olympic Games.
During his Olympic competitions he earned three consecutive team silver medals, two team gold and an individual silver. In addition, Plumb won one individual and two team gold medals at the Pan American Games in 1963 and 1967 and was a member of the winning team at the 1974 World Championships (England), also earning the silver medal in the individual competition.
In 1999, the Chronicle named Plumb one of the 50 Most Influential Horsemen of the 20th Century. In 2003, Plumb was inducted into the U.S. Eventing Hall of Fame, and in 2008 he became the first equestrian inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. On 10 different occasions, Plumb was awarded the “Leading Rider of the Year Award” by the U.S. Combined Training Association.
Plumb’s Olympic, World Championship and Pan American Games accomplishments are so numerous you practically need a flow chart to keep track. And yet, with his name firmly etched in the history books, it’s not his past but his present life that proves him worthy of the title “Living Legend.” His is a story of nearly undiluted success, yes. But it’s the dedication, humility and heart-wrenching humanity that make Plumb’s story worth remembering.
A Family Legacy
Plumb grew up the son of well-known horseman and all-around athlete, Charles Plumb Sr. and an equestrienne mother, Mary. His father played semi-pro baseball for a New York farm team and was an accomplished huntsman and steeplechase jockey. In 1929, he won the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup.
Mike followed in his father’s footsteps, playing football in high school and at the University of Delaware. In 1976, he rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup, placing second. (To this day, he declares it the scariest thing he’s ever done.) But it was his inherited love of horse sports that really stuck—driven, in part, by his parents’ commitment to his training.
Mike’s father was drawn to three-day eventing from foxhunting and steeplechase racing while the sport was still in its infancy. All through the 1960s he competed alongside his son before an accident on the cross-country course at Pebble Beach (Calif.) in 1969 left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Mike credits his father, who was his first coach and trainer, with instilling his formidable drive in him.
After his father, Mike had a long list of trainers, a list that reads like a “who’s who” in the sport, including Jack Le Goff, Michael Page and Jimmy Wofford.
“No equestrian has had the opportunities that I’ve had,” Mike says. “Name a great trainer, and I had them. I have my parents to thank for that. They always managed to have me in the right place at the right time with the right people.”
But it was more than good training that put Mike on eight Olympic teams. “When I first saw him ride as a teenager, he obviously had talent. But even more important, he was a hard worker and very eager to learn,” says William Steinkraus, who participated in five Olympic Games and won individual gold in show jumping in 1968.
Mike married Donnan Sharp, an Olympic dressage rider, in 1964 and had three boys: Charles “Charlie” Plumb Jr., a three-day event rider and coach himself who now lives and trains in Southern Pines, followed by Matthew and Hugh, both of whom are now race car drivers.
“It was a competitive household,” says Charlie with a laugh. “We were always competing: riding, playing football and everything else.” For 12 years, Mike coached his son, much as his father had done for him.
“Dad taught me a lot about the day-to-day routine,” says Charlie, remembering how working with his dad became Charlie’s entire world, learning first-hand his father’s painstaking, hands-on approach. “Dad was relentless about the methodical, everyday things about horses: knowing their legs, their feet and how they looked after every gallop. I don’t know if I will ever be as good as he is at those meticulous things, but I sure learned the importance of them.”