Britain has won Olympic team jumping gold for the first time in 60 years after a dramatic finale at Greenwich Park in London.
The atmosphere at the Greenwich venue for London 2012 was electric for the second and final day of the team competition which would decide the medal positions. Great Britain was the fourth team of the eight teams coming forward from Sunday’s competition which included Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Brazil, and the USA.
The course, designed by Bob Ellis, was both big and technical and asked many questions. Related distances that needed lengthening one minute and shortening the next in addition to twisting and turning their way around the 13 fences that required 16 jumping efforts.
Nick Skelton, the first combination for the British team with the 9 year-old KWPN Stallion Big Star owned by Beverley Widdowson, pulled out the first clear round of the competition with a stunning performance. Lengthening, shortening and not once looking like the fences were going to be a problem for them, the home crowd were left under no illusion as to what a brilliant partnership and combined talent they are.
“He is a freak, there really isn’t anything he can’t do. Long, short, he can do it all – he’s an absolute genius,” Skelton said.
Ben Maher with his own and Quainton Stud’s 10 year-old dark bay stallion Tripple X looked set to reproduce their clear rounds of the last two days but an unfortunate rolling of a pole incurred at fence 10, a vertical later on in the course saw them return home with 4 penalties.
“He felt the best he’s jumped today out of the last two days. He was finding it all quite easy and I was having to hold him back,” Maher said. “It was always a long distance to fence 10 and I thought it was going to make it easy but I ended up a bit of a way off. It was unfortunate, but my horse was fantastic and one down isn’t a bad round.”
Competing in their first Olympics, Scott Brash with Hello Sanctos, a 12 year-old bay gelding owned by Lady Kirkham and Lord and Lady Harris, rode into the arena amid a thunderous cheer and waving of union flags. A combination that have been competing together only since the start of the year, their route to the Olympics has been inspirational, even more so when they produced the most stunning clear round which had the spectators up on their feet stamping and cheering.
“Sanctos was amazing today. He didn’t fault and he’s just gone better and better; he has just been amazing,” Brash said. “Being here has been fantastic, the crowd are unbelievable and I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like this again. It really has been the best day of my life.”
Peter Charles with Vindicat W, a 12 year-old bay gelding jointly owned by Olga White, Tara Charles and Team Murka, were the anchor for the team as they hadbeen each day. Vindicat W, appearing to feel much more comfortable in the arena, produced a foot perfect round until the penultimate fence, a gate which lowered accruing 4 penalties. Coming through the time just slightly over the time allowed meant a time penalty also being accrued meaning a finish of 5 penalties.
Following their rounds it was then a lot of nail biting that followed waiting for the last rider for The Netherlands, Gerco Schroder and his horse London, to come forward as they were the only team that could be in the hunt for a Gold Medal with Britain. With Gerco having a fence down, Britain was reliant on them having another fence or a time penalty to avoid being forced into a jump-off. With Schroder keeping focused and jumping clear thereafter and within the time it meant that all team riders for both nations would be asked to jump again.
For Skelton and Charles, level at this success has been a long time coming. “It’s taken me 54 years,” Skelton said. “It’s unbelievable and what a place to do it! I have a wonderful horse and it’s a dream come true. It’s great for our country and great for our sport. The lads have done great,” he added, turning to his team-mates, “and I’m really pleased for Pete (Charles). He has had a rough trip but he came good in the end.”
For 52-year-old Charles it was no easy ride. “I got off to a bad start, but this is as good as it gets!” he said as he grasped the gold medal hanging around his neck.
For Brash and Maher, Olympic glory has come early in their careers, but they both realised just what has been achieved, and recognised that they were fortunate to contribute to it. “I’m delighted for the older guys. All these years they’ve worked hard, riding loads of different horses, and it’s great to play a part in helping them to achieve this – everyone played their part,” said 26-year-old Brash, who is the youngest team member.
Brash broke into the British team for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky (USA) just two years ago, but really only clinched his place in the Olympic side with performances over the last eight months riding Hello Sanctos. He hails from Peebles in Scotland and, in an interesting coincidence, there was also a Scotsman on the only other British team to claim Olympic gold back in 1952. That was Douglas Stewart who rode Aherlow alongside Wilfred White (Nizefela) and Harry Llewellyn (Foxhunter).
Just eight nations battled it out in the second round of the team competition, and there was little dividing them as the class began. Brazil and the USA were carrying eight faults each following the first round, Canada was carrying five and Great Britain, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland were sharing silver medal position with four faults apiece while Saudi Arabia held the lead with just one time fault on the board.
But course designer Bob Ellis would quickly separate them with a big, demanding 13-fence track that was relentless from the outset. The opening oxer and following vertical led to a tricky three-fence line that began with the London 2012 vertical at three, followed by the White Cliffs open water at four and the Cutty Sark vertical at fence five. The stride distance between the first two here proved difficult to get and there were plenty of wet feet, but the most spectacular water-crossing was made by Avenzio, ridden by Japan’s Taizo Sugitani, who rose like a helicopter and danced around in the air before descending on the landing side.
The triple combination at fence seven was the next trouble-spot as the middle and final elements fell consistently, while the wide Nelson’s Column oxer at eight also claimed a number of victims, as did the Greenwich Meantime double at nine and the related-distance vertical at 10. And there was no let-up on the way home with another massive oxer at 11, and the penultimate maximum-height gate and big final oxer all taking their toll.
The three-man Brazilian team disappeared from the reckoning when middle-man, Filho Fernandez riding Maestro St Lois, collected 46 faults on a nightmare tour of the track, and when the US added 20 more to their tally, their 28-fault total would also leave them well out of the frame.
Captain Canada, Ian Millar, left just the first element of the double at nine on the floor in an otherwise flawless tour of the track, but with only three team members remaining, the 17 picked up between Jill Henselwood (George) and Eric Lamaze (Derly Chin de Muze) put paid to Canadian chances. The Swedes lost their grip when Lisen Fredricson’s 12 faults had to be taken in to account after Henrik von Eckermann and Allerdings collected 16, and they had to settle for joint-sixth with the USA at the end of the day.
A clear round from Switzerland’s Pius Schwizer and Carlina put pressure on the Saudi Arabians whose anchorman, Abdullah Sharbatly, could not afford a double-error. But when the 2012 FEI World Equestrian Games individual silver medallist returned with just six faults, the Saudi side that also included Prince Abdullah Al Saud (Davos), Kamal Bahamdan (Noblesse des Tess) and Ramzy Al Dukhami (Bayard van de Villa There) had bronze in their grasp.
The clash between the Dutch and British was spell-binding, Skelton opening the British account with a fabulous clear from Big Star, and Maher and his lovely stallion Tripple X lowering the oxer at eight before Brash put them right back in the game with a fabulous foot-perfect run with Hello Sanctos. Charles’ five faults with Vindicat was the discard this time around to leave them on a first-round total of four and a two-round total of eight.
The Dutch meanwhile opened with eight faults from Jur Vrieling and Bubalu, who put a foot in the water and clipped the front element of the triple combination, but clears from both Maikel van der Vleuten (Verdi) and Marc Houtzager (Tamino) were followed by a single mistake from Gerco Schroder and London to leave them on level pegging with the British. It would take a jump-off to separate the two teams, and a thriller was guaranteed as time would also be taken into account.
The jump-off over a shortened course would see all four British riders come forward with the three best rounds to count. First to go was Skelton and Big Star for Great Britain and yet again, they produced another clear – all the more notable as the combination had jumped clear across all days of competition so far.
Next for GB was Maher who entered the arena with the pressure of knowing that the Dutch rider just before him had gone clear and that a clear in a good time would be needed. He didn’t disappoint as he produced a foot-perfect clear in a fast time, adding substantial pressure on the Dutch team.
With Maikel van de Vleuten who followed having 8 faults for The Netherlands, Brash entered the arena with tension mounting. An unlucky touch at fence 2, a vertical, saw them incur 4 penalties. The third Dutch rider, returned back with 4 penalties meaning that if Charles went clear the Gold medal would be Britain’s.
As Peter Charles entered the arena, the packed grandstands knew the importance of this round and you could have heard a pin drop as the starting bell went.
With Vindicat W having got better and better each day growing in confidence in front of the enormous crowds which had initially unsettled him, they pulled out all the stops. With the crowd on the edge of the seats riding each fence with him, Charles jumped clear with the crowd erupting in their euphoria knowing that Great Britain had won its first jumping gold medal for sixty years.
The last time Britain won an Olympic gold medal was at Helsinki in 1952 and this was the first jumping medal of any description since a team silver in Los Angeles 28 years ago.
Charles said afterwards: “I wasn’t much good for the rest of the week but I did good in the end! I got off to a bad start, but this is dream come true!”
It was also a dream come true for the entire stadium and the massive numbers of viewers following a fabulous piece of Olympic history live on television across the world.
The British team comprised of two of the greatest fighters in the game and two rising stars showed grit, talent and huge determination. The toughest of commentators could hardly hold back the tears that also filled Skelton’s eyes. So much pride and delight in achieving that ultimate goal. And it’s not over yet.
“We have the best horse and rider in the world right now, Nick Skelton,” said Charles of the man who goes into Wednesday’s individual final without having touched a pole so far. Double gold for Britain is not just a distant dream, it’s a strong possibility.
Skelton said he was more nervous watching his team-mates than riding himself.
“I wish I could have gone four times,” he said. “They’ve done great, the lads have done great. Absolutely brilliant.
“I’ve got a wonderful horse, wonderful owners, it’s a dream come true.
“After I broke my neck in 2000 I decided to get back in action for Athens (Olympic Games 2004) and did it with Arko. This horse (Big Star) was bought specially for these Olympics.”
Skelton will now go for a second gold in the Individual event, and he said: “One’s good. Absolutely brilliant. Great for the country, great for our sport. It’s taken all these years.”
The riders said …
Japan’s Taizo Sugitani talking about his horse’s wild jump over the open water: “Sometimes he does that and doesn’t know where to put his feet on landing. The course is very technical and there is nowhere to breathe.”
Germany’s Janne-Friedericke Meyer, who pulled up her horse, Lambrasco, before the last fence and then went on to complete the course: “The course was just too difficult for us at this level, you have to be honest with yourself when you’ve reached the end. You have to put the horse first so I said, ‘Ok let’s stop now and think to the future.”
Kevin Staut (France) on his round with four faults from Silvana: “It’s not good enough but I’m happy really. It is difficult to get motivated to try and qualify individually as we are not as a team anymore. It’s a fantastic stadium and a special course, the fences are so artistic and the Brits really get behind you. It is my first Olympics and I’m really happy. My horse deserves a day off now!”
Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, whose mare, Bella Donna, produced a spectacular clear over the fences but collected one time fault: “She was so wonderful, I made a bad decision yesterday with a distance but I made a good judgment today and hope to make another on Wednesday.”
Australia’s Edwina Alexander who picked up four faults with Itot du Chateau: “He is a little more tired than usual, which is understandable. He gave me a lot of help at the triple combination.”
Scott Brash, talking about riding alongside much older riders, Skelton and Charles: “I’d love to be still going in my fifties. I’ve learned so much from being in this team. If Nick is first to go you expect him to go clear and Pete is unbelievable under pressure.”
Ben Maher – “I feel like I’m in my fifties. I’ve aged 20 years today! Being on this team with Peter and Nick has always been positive, we all believed we had a chance.”
Peter Charles, talking about the difficulty he had with Vindicat in Saturday’s first round of jumping: “He froze on me a bit, he was really spooked by the crowd, I had to sort that out yesterday and he came back today and was great!”
Nick Skelton, talking about his horse Big Star: “He’s in tremendous form, he couldn’t be jumping any better than he is, so far this week he has been impeccable and if it goes our way we will be in there on Wednesday.”
Jur Vrieling (NED): “we were always going for gold, but we are very happy to win silver.”
Ramzy al Duhami (KSA): “we had this goal in mind for a long time, to be in the top of the sport is something, but not so easy for us, you need a string of horses. Our focus we have had all year is to get our horses ready for the Olympic Games and to be on top of our game when we got here – and the result is here!”