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William de Rham: An officer, an Olympian and a centenarian

Tuesday, 07 November 2023

Photo © IOC/Greg Martin. William de Rham proudly adding his signature to the Olympic Wall alongside that of Va Vite, his equine companion during the 1956 Olympic Games, at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in October 2023. Photo © IOC/Greg Martin.


Press release from FEI



The family name ‘de Rham’ is more synonymous with real estate than equestrian sport in Switzerland. But the two-hour long conversation with William de Rham was all about horses.

At 101 years of age, de Rham is the oldest living Swiss Olympian to have participated in the equestrian discipline of jumping. He admits that reading emails these days is difficult because of his failing eyesight, and that he cannot ride horses anymore because his balance is not quite what it used to be. Active in equestrian events for over 50 years, de Rham first competed in his teens and won his last event at the age of 71. "I rode horses every morning and evening from the age of 18 until 85. You need to be very flexible to ride a horse. And as any equestrian knows, if you don't ride for three months and then try to get back on a horse, the next day you're full of aches and pains. I’m convinced that riding so late in my life has played a role in maintaining my health," he says.

The height of his international career came when he competed with the Swiss team at the 1956 Olympics on his horse Va Vite. Although the Olympic Games were awarded to Melbourne that year, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm due to Australia’s quarantine regulations. He placed 19th in the individual event, and ninth in the team event alongside team mates Marc Büchler and Alexander Stoffel.

Photo © de Rham family. William de Rham and Va Vite. Photo © de Rham family.

On the table next to de Rham is a scrap book of newspaper clippings, competition photos, results and brochures from those weeks in Stockholm. One page displays a picture of a 34-year-old William de Rham looking sharp in his military uniform. A retired member of the Swiss Armed Forces, de Rham held the rank of Major when he competed at the Olympics that year. There’s over 65 years between that photo and the present day, but de Rham’s smile is immediately recognisable. 

There are also some familiar faces in the scrap book photos, including a young Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret watching the competition from the side lines. “There was an incredibly pleasant atmosphere in Stockholm with equestrians from all over the world coming together,” de Rham said. “Equestrians are a particular group of people and we all understood each other. But it was still surprising to see the Queen of Sweden walking among the crowd, and I even got to see the Queen of England with her sister Princess Margaret up close!”

For de Rham, equestrian is not just a sporting activity but a passion – a gift – that runs deep, and that was passed down to him and other members of his extended family from two generations before. De Rham doesn’t hide his disappointment that his children don’t share his passion for horses. But it is this distance that seems to have given his daughter Gisèle Collomb a profound respect and insight into her father’s love for horses. “My father never pushed us to ride,” explained Collomb. “He has always believed that a person’s connection with a horse cannot be forced and that it has to come freely. He has always loved nature and the strength of life that it gives, and he has physically benefitted from this through riding horses."

“He has led an absolutely extraordinary rider's life. Many people ride horses because they feel that animals understand them better than humans. But as daily life starts to take over, and they find a job or move into responsible roles, they stop riding. My father never let go of his passion and love for horses even though he had a busy day job in real estate."

Photo © de Rham family. 34-year-old William de Rham looking sharp in his military uniform. Photo © de Rham family.

When asked the question, “What have you learned from horses?” de Rham’s answer comes without hesitation." Horses have taught me patience and perseverance," he says. "You cannot expect a horse to work with you overnight. You need to develop your relationship with them every single day. You need to develop kindness, respect and trust." 

“Animals have a highly developed sense of what's going on around them. If you're upset one day and you try to ride your horse, chances are it won't go well as the horse feels it too. If you're afraid to jump an obstacle, the horse will feel it and be scared too. You need to be a calming influence on them and build their confidence. You have to understand that when you have this contact with another being like a horse, how you act and feel plays a significant role in their behaviour.”

In October 2023, de Rham was invited to sign the Olympic Wall at the Olympic House in Lausanne. Alongside his name, he proudly wrote the name of the horse who has clearly left a deep hoof print in his mind – Va Vite. “I bought Va Vite just after the war from a farmer in France for one thousand Swiss Francs. He was an excellent horse that had the character, generosity, and willingness to work with me. He gave me his all and I knew what I needed to do to get the most out of him during a competition,” said de Rham. “People were surprised that I put his name on the wall. But to me it was only normal that I did – we were a team after all.”

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