Starbucks Athlete Goes for the Gold in Paralympics

Editor’s note: Rebecca Hart finished in seventh place in the freestyle competition and nine in the individual champion competition at the at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.

Rebecca Hart got all the confirmation she needed that she’d found the right assistant to take with her to 2016 Paralympic Games™ while competing in Wellington, Florida, earlier this year.

Hart, a Starbucks barista and elite dressage competitor, was in the middle of her ride, under the discerning view of competition judges, when she heard a helicopter flying alarmingly low overhead. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the chopper, which was responding to a nearby automobile accident, landing in a field adjourning the venue’s grandstand. Schroeter’s Romani, the Danish horse Hart had been paired with since 2014, began to show signs of stress. This wasn’t part of the normal routine.

“Romani is incredibly talented, but she can be a sensitive mare,” said Hart, who’s been riding since she was 10. “She kind of flicked her ears at me and I felt her ask me, ‘Are we OK?’ Had I not been right there to go, ‘Yup, we’re OK. Keep going,’ we could have lost the performance right there. For me, that was one of the most special moments in my career.”

Hart and Romani ultimately took home a victory that day, another step toward their goal of representing the United States in the 2016 Paralympic Games™ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 7-18. She competes Monday the 12th.

Dressage requires a rider and horse to expertly execute a series of predetermined movements. Hart was born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia, a progressive genetic disease that causes muscle wasting from the waist down. With many horses she’s ridden, pain is a major impediment. With Schroeter’s Romani, however, discomfort has never been an issue and the two have maintained a high standing in the para-equestrian dressage world.

An Elite Support System

The seven-time United States Equestrian Federation Para-Equestrian Dressage National Champion and veteran of the Paralympic Games in Hong Kong in 2008 and London in 2012, credits the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program with helping her get back to the Paralympics for a third time. The program provides funds and scheduling flexibility to partners (employees) in good standing who work on average 20 hours or more a week and have been with Starbucks for a year or longer. They must also maintain amateur status and participate at a world-class level in their sport.

“The Elite Athlete Program has been instrumental in making this last year happen, because there has been a lot of traveling and obviously a lot of financial strain,” Hart said. “It’s a huge part of why we’re heading to Rio.”

A Starbucks partner since 2008, Hart moved from Pennsylvania to Florida last year to be able to put more time into training, finding a new home at a Starbucks in Wellington, an equestrian stronghold. The community around her new Starbucks will be following her progress in Brazil, as will past partners in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and more still in Seattle, where the Elite Athletes Program is administered.

“Throughout our sponsorship with Rebecca, we have seen her hard work, passion and drive in making her dreams come true,” said Erich Ho, who manages the Elite Athlete Program. “With the entire Starbucks family behind her, we are cheering her on to bring home the gold in Rio.”

The 32-year-old enters the upcoming competition as the most experienced member of the four-member U.S. team and among the favorites to win, having bested the reigning gold medalist earlier this year.

“I’m confident going into these games,” she said. “That being said, I’m competing against the best in the world. Everyone is incredibly talented and among the best at what they do. I hope it’s my day. I’m feeling good about it. I know my horse is with me. She feels good and she’s feeling very strong. I’m hopeful.”

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