When Dani G. Waldman and her horse, Queensland, trot into the arena in Tokyo in just a few weeks, it will mark not just a personal triumph, but a national achievement.
Waldman, 36, is one of four riders representing Israel at this year’s Olympics, which marks Israel’s debut in equestrian events. And it’s something Waldman, who was born in New York and received Israeli citizenship in 2010, has been working toward for more than a decade.
“I came from a very sports-oriented family, and we always used to say, if you had a choice between the US and Israel, and you could represent Israel, then you should do that in international sports,” Waldman told The Times of Israel during a phone interview last week as she drove from Amsterdam to Germany for a competition. “So then as soon as I graduated college and knew that I was going to become a professional equestrian, that is when I sort of made the plans and the move to be able to ride for Israel.”
The presence of Israeli riders at the Olympics represents a dream come true for Waldman, whether or not the riders return with any medals.
“For me it’s a real huge sense of pride,” she said. “Since I got my Israeli citizenship more than 10 years ago, this has been my whole goal: to build this team for Israel… I’m thrilled that Israel will have representation in equestrian sports in the Olympics when they never have before. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Waldman — who has become known in part for the colorful feathers woven into her hair — grew up in both a very Zionist and a very athletic home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her father, Stuart Goldstein, was a top-ranked competitive squash player in the 1970s and 1980s. While New York City isn’t exactly horse country, Waldman became enamored with riding when she was just 8 years old.
“I just had a friend from school when I was about 8 years old,” she recalled. “One summer, I was out in Long Island, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m taking a riding lesson, do you want to come to the stable?’ And I sort of said, ‘Sure. I love horses.’ And that was that. I got hooked immediately.”
The journey to ride for Israel was not quite as straightforward. But fast forward almost 30 years, and Waldman — alongside fellow riders Ashlee Bond, a US native; Mexican-born Alberto Michan (who twice represented Mexico at the Olympics); and US-born Teddy Vlock — will proudly compete under the Israeli flag.
Waldman’s first trip to Israel was to mark her bat mitzvah, when she turned 12 in 1997. And her initiation to the country only deepened her strong feeling of connection.
“That was the first trip, I was 12 when I went, and we spent just over three weeks there,” she said. “And I sort of fell in love with the country… and over the years I’ve built now a group of people over there that I’m very close with. But it started from the bat mitzvah.”
Like Manhattan, Israel isn’t exactly known for its developed equestrian scene. But Waldman took that as a challenge, not a deterrent. And, she said, the horse riding field in Israel is more advanced than one may think.
“In a way there’s not so much, but in a way, there’s more than 200 stables in Israel, and Israel’s tiny,” she said. “It’s not nothing. There is a community.”
She said Israel is not so far behind other European countries in its equestrian presence, however, “it’s more that there’s no international competition in Israel, more because of the borders,” said Waldman, who is now largely based in the Netherlands with her husband, horse trainer and dealer Alan Waldman. The pair wed in 2019, and live mostly on their farm in Putten, Netherlands, although Waldman generally spends several months a year in Wellington, Florida, where she and her family own and operate Starwyn Farms.
She first came to the Netherlands more than eight years ago, for six weeks of training with her now-husband, which turned into six months, and then became permanent.
“I moved here initially because Europe really is sort of the epicenter of our sport,” Waldman said, noting that with a base in Holland, “I can go each week to competitions… and come home in between.”
Things are more challenging in Israel, where there are no international competitions and less ease of access for traveling horses. So she set to work on making friends and connections in the business with an eye toward establishing an Israeli team.
“I was able to make friends with a lot of people in the community, and then I said, ‘Hey, let’s try and get some momentum going and build a real solid international team,’” said Waldman. “So I started reaching out to other riders that I knew were Jewish, that I knew could also represent Israel, and just tried to kind of get it going.”
More than 10 years after she first received her Israeli citizenship, “now we’re at the point where it’s a real team.”
All that hard work paid off on a cloudy summer day in July 2019, when Waldman was part of the four-person team that secured Israel’s spot at the upcoming Olympics in a qualifying competition in Moscow.
And then came COVID, and with it the news that the Tokyo Olympics would not be taking place in 2020.
“Pre-COVID I was traveling every three or four days for competitions,” said Waldman. “And then came corona, and I literally just stopped. I didn’t do anything and it was horribly demotivating. I struggled, the horses struggled, the whole world struggled.”
And while it was difficult for her, as an athlete, to mentally handle the sudden about-face, it was even more challenging to care for her horses.
“We had no way of preparing the horses,” Waldman said. “In other sports you just have to deal with yourself. This was also trying to maintain the horse’s health. It was very difficult and frustrating.”
And while she normally spends anywhere from two to six weeks a year in Israel, Waldman hasn’t visited in two years. But despite the enormous adjustment, she found a silver lining in the delays.
“Of course it was frustrating because I wanted to go to the Olympics since I was a kid, so to postpone it a year when you already were qualified, it was very frustrating,” she added. But on a personal level, she said, “my top horse at the time was not okay… and I realized it could be worse, because now I’m getting an extra year for my horse to recover.”
On the global equestrian scene, Waldman has made waves for not just her skills and athletic talent, but also her outspokenness and her unique and eye-catching fashion. For years she has had the nickname “flying feathers,” for the dozens of colorful feathers semi-permanently woven into her hair, that billow in the wind behind her as she gallops across the track.
That decision, and some of her other unorthodox fashion choices, have garnered some controversy in the often staid world of equestrian competition. But Waldman wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It started with different colored hair, and always just trying to express individuality in a sport that’s so conservative,” Waldman said. “It was more just a personal thing of always trying to be an individual. And that was just my own personality. And then it was a fashion thing with the feathers.”
Today, she said, her sartorial choices have become her trademark and an emblem of her own unique voice.
“Now it’s become so much more and such a symbol of identity and individuality,” she said. Today, Waldman said, she leans into “the symbolism that comes with it… so now I love to kind of embrace it and change them out every couple of months and see what I can do with them.”
And Waldman is particularly proud that she will be competing in the only Olympic sport where men and women face off on completely equal ground.
“One of the coolest aspects of our whole game is that it doesn’t matter if you’re small, big, woman, man, female horse, male horse, stallion, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’re all equal, and it’s just about merit and performance.”
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