In the Nick of time: Comeback gold for horse sport’s Big Stars

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Nick Skelton and Big Star at Rio. © Eric Knoll
Nick Skelton and Big Star at Rio. © Eric Knoll

He may not fit the image of the ultimate Olympic athlete, but British equestrian Nick Skelton has beaten the odds to win his country’s first individual showjumping gold medal.

Skelton broke his neck in a fall 16 years ago, has a replacement hip, and he’s 58 years old, but at Rio last week he jumped to the ultimate victory with Big Star, who has also struggled with injury for the past two years.

The man who helped claim his country’s first Olympic team jumping medals – and golden ones at that – for 60 years in London four years ago, simply galloped the rest into the ground when pacesetter in a third-round jump-off against the clock with Big Star.

Sweden’s Peder Fredricson and the brilliant All In claimed silver when producing the only other fault-free performance in the closing stages, while Canada’s Eric Lamaze took the bronze when posting the fastest time but leaving a fence on the floor with Fine Lady.

Nick-Skelton2
© Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans

Skelton is not a man known for displays of emotion, but he couldn’t hold back the tears when he climbed on to the podium to receive the ultimate sporting accolade. And the response of his fellow-riders showed just how respected he is, 2008 Olympic champion Lamaze grinning as though he was taking the gold himself as he congratulated the British rider with an enormous hug.

“I’ve been in this sport a long, long time and to win this at my age makes me so happy, I always wanted to do it and nearly did it in London,” Skelton said, referring to his fifth-place finish in 2012.

Nick-Skelton3
© Richard Juilliart

First to go in jump-off for the medals, the equestrian equivalent of a penalty shoot-out, Skelton decided “to go as fast as I could but be safe and not take risks, he’s a quick horse anyway. I wanted to put pressure on everyone else and I had luck on my side”, he explained afterwards. As it happened his target time of 42.82 seconds would prove unbeatable.

“My biggest nerves of the Games was waiting for the others to go in the jump-off,” Skelton admitted. “I didn’t look too hard, I walked around and took an odd look but I had to watch Eric and he made me sweat for a minute!”

He can hardly believe that the horse that carried him to that glorious team victory on home turf four years ago has managed to overcome adversity and injury to do it all again for the individual title.

“Today was amazing,” Skelton said.

“Big Star has been a bit rusty. The last time he won was in Aachen in 2013 and it’s taken two years to get him back on track again. A lot of people put a lot of time into bringing him back. He’s always been amazing, he wants to do it all and he has all the right attributes – he’s the best horse I’ve ever had and the best I’m ever likely to have. I’m so pleased for him. On his way back we nursed him and nursed him and today he came good for me.

“It’s pretty emotional for all my team, my groom Mark has been in my team for 30 years, he works with this horse nine hours a day.”

© Richard Juilliart
© Richard Juilliart

Skelton is a pretty tough cookie himself. The courage and tenacity he showed in his own recovery after breaking his neck in a fall in 2000, retiring in 2001 and then changing his mind the following year, and the pain he battles with on an ongoing basis might be enough to put a stop to most competitive careers.

He needed a set of steps to climb back into the saddle after the medal ceremony. “I’ve got chronic back pain so getting legged up is painful and I have a metal hip on my left side so I only get on like this.”

But the tearful smile said it all. “I’m not going to stop riding now, the only horse I ride is Big Star and when he stops I’ll stop,”  Skelton said.

Contributor

This article has been written by a contributor to Horsetalk.co.nz.

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