Paralympic Star Competes with Help from Starbucks Elite Athlete Program


Rebecca Hart reached a point in 2004 where it made sense to spend a little less time in the saddle. As an alternate on the U.S. Paralympic Dressage Team competing that September in Athens, she may have fallen just short of her goal to vie for international honors, but she’d seen plenty of success in her sport, which she’d taken up eight years earlier. Just out of high school, the time had come to concentrate on her coursework at Penn State.

Then she met Pippin.

While in Holland preparing for the Greek games, Hart found herself on the back of a Hanoverian Gelding who, unbeknownst to her, was nicknamed “the Hellion.” Her initial ride, however, proved to be anything but hellacious.

Dressage, often characterized as gymnastic-like training of a horse, requires uncanny communication between steed and rider. Hart was born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia, a progressive genetic disease that causes muscle wasting from the waist down. As a result, she’s dealt with considerable pain while on horseback. But not with Pippin.

“When I sat on this horse, I went, ‘Oh, my gosh! I have to have this horse,’” Hart recalled.

“It’s a very unique sensation. It’s a bit like dating, actually,” she added with a laugh. “Sometimes you just click with someone.”

Next came the call home to Pennsylvania. Her “ridiculously supportive” parents dug deep to finance the purchase of her “four-legged souvenir” with the understanding that she wouldn’t lose focus on her education. Somehow Hart balanced her academic and athletic pursuits. By 2008, she had graduated with a degree in business and her riding career was going strong.

Hart relocated from Pittsburgh to Unionville in southeast Pennsylvania to concentrate on her sport. Working out of the 75-acre Blue Hill Farm facility, she began looking for suitable employment. A regular at the nearby Kennett Square Starbucks, she applied there and was hired as a barista. Her new job afforded her an accommodating schedule and a steady paycheck. International competition, however, requires a significant and steady flow of funds.

“Unlike some other sports where you’re basically paying for yourself and equipment, in equestrian, you’ve got yourself and a 1,200 pound athletic partner,” she said. “Trying to fly to Europe with a horse is a lot harder than flying to Europe with, say, a tennis racquet.”

Finding the Funding

In 2010, Hart learned of Starbucks Elite Athlete Program. Geared toward athletes competing on a world-class level, it provides financial assistance to defray expenses. To qualify, applicants need to have one year under their belts with Starbucks, be in good standing and have amateur athletic status as defined by the governing authority of their sport.

Hart meets all requirements and has been receiving funds for a half-decade. “Starbucks has basically been a key supporter of my international career, since it can be financially restrictive,” she volunteers. “To be able to have that kind of financial support and have flexibility is phenomenal.”

“The Starbucks Elite Athlete Program is another way that we inspire our partners to deliver their very best,” said Erich Ho, who manages the program. “For fiscal year 2015, we are supporting a variety of athletes competing in events, including snowboarding, biathlon and beach volleyball.”

The Trail Ahead

As for Hart, the 30-year-old two-time Paralympian, two-time World Equestrian Games athlete and six-time USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage National Champion isn’t letting up.

Pippin is retired now and grazes outside Hart’s home. For the last year and a half, Hart has been riding a Danish warmblood. Romani, who, like Pippin, has allowed Hart to compete pain free, will be put through her paces throughout a demanding 2015-2016 schedule. The twosome will tour Europe this summer and then compete in the national championship in the fall and two international shows in January. Hart’s biggest looming target is the Paralympic Games in Rio in September 2016.

“It’s not a small feat to head into those games,” she remarked, “but it’s worth the effort.” 

Photos by Phelps Media Group

For questions about the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program, email thrive@starbucks.com.

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