Britain’s Ben Maher has won the showjumping individual gold medal at Tokyo 2020 with Explosion W, making the cut into the six-horse jumpoff and outrunning Sweden’s Peder Fredricson who won silver with All In, and The Netherlands’ Maikel van der Vleuten and Beauville Z who won the bronze.
Maher and the 12-year-old Explosion W led after the previous day’s qualifying competition, so had the best of the draw and were last to go. Course designer, Spain’s Santiago Varela, outdid himself once again with a first-round track that tested courage, scope and speed, and six of the 30 starters, including three from Sweden, qualified for the jump-off.
All six jumped clear again, and when pathfinder Daisuke Fukushima crossed the line with Chanyon in 43.76 seconds to set the first target it was a huge moment for the sport in Japan. Sweden’s Malin Baryard-Johnsson was next to go with her feisty mare, Indiana, who broke the beam three seconds quicker but then compatriot Peder Fredricson raised the bar to a whole new level with a beautifully executed run that saw him race across the line with All In in 38.02 seconds.
All eyes were on Maher, 38, who was next to go. The four-time Olympian who won team gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games is a formidable competitor, and with Explosion W is in a class of his own. He knew the expectations were high but he handled it with grim determination and Explosion W got him home in 37.85 seconds which never looked possible to beat.
Last of the Swedes, Henrik von Eckermann gave it his best shot with King Edward who stopped the clock in 39.71 seconds. That seemed plenty good enough for bronze, but Dutchman Maikel van der Vleuten set off with his jaw set square and steered Beauville Z home in 38.90 seconds to squeeze him off the podium.
Britain’s fifth medal
Maher’s gold is Great Britain’s fifth equestrian medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and only the second Individual gold his country has claimed since Jumping joined the Olympic Games in 1912. Compatriot Nick Skelton was the first Briton to win the Individual title when reigning supreme five years ago in Brazil. Only Britain and Germany have ever won back-to-back Individual Olympic Jumping titles, Ludger Beerbaum (Classic Touch, Barcelona 1992) and Ulrich Kirchhoff (Jus de Pommes, Atlanta 1996) posting Germany’s consecutive victories.
“There are so many people I owe this to in the end, obviously Explosion is the main one but there are vets, farriers that have been with me for 15 years, my team back home, Cormac Kenny who is my groom. My family, my fiancee Sophie — we are getting married in two weeks time — so many people. I’m looking forward to getting home and having a great celebration,” Maher said.
He said there had been a lot of pressure in the past two weeks. “It doesn’t seem real. I think it will sink in tonight or tomorrow when I wake up. I may be biased but I believe I am on the best horse, he’s incredible and I’m very fortunate to be able to ride him,” Maher said. “I don’t know what was more pressure, this or getting married in two weeks!”
Planned back surgery in January 2020 kept Maher out of the saddle for several months, which gave him just two competitions before the pandemic hit. However, the surgery has given him a new lease on life. “I feel younger than I probably am – this is my fourth Olympic Games and I’m the oldest one on the team here. I was in the gym for two days a week for nearly 12 weeks with a guy called Ed in America who got me fit just a week after surgery, and I had sessions with [World Class Programme] physio Jennie Owst over Zoom.”
Ultimately, though, the success comes down to the partnership between Ben and the incredible Explosion W – a horse who looks set to follow the likes of Milton and Big Star into the hearts of the British public.
“I’ve had many good horses in my career, but I won’t ride another one like him again, and that’s a big statement,” Maher said. “He’s just such an intelligent horse, a fun horse to be around, and he’s a real athlete. He’s not a normal horse. I’m just really enjoying riding him and hopefully, it lasts a long time.”
Peder’s second silver
Peder Fredricson was happy with silver, but it wasn’t the target. “All the top riders want to take the gold medal but today it was Ben’s day, he did a great round and that’s the way it goes, it’s really small margins.” Britain’s Nick Skelton pipped him for gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but the following year All in won the Individual European title before an injury in December 2017 left the horse out of action for 18 months. He only came back into competition work in April this year.
“I always had it in mind to have him in top shape here but we were running a bit late with Covid and then the horse virus, and I was running out of time to get him the last bit of competition fit. I would say he just came into a peak when he came here,” he said.
Maikel van der Vleuten said he came to the Olympics with Beauville Z with no expectations. “I have quite an inexperienced horse at championship level. I was trying to go for it without overdoing him and it worked out well. To be third with this horse at this level is a little bit like gold for me.”
Cian O’Connor and Kilkenny finished the best of the three Irish riders in the final, in seventh equal place, but Kilkenny suffered a bleeding nose during the event and has been withdrawn from Ireland’s team. That means reserve combination Shane Sweetnam and Alejandro will join Bertram Allen (Pacino Amiro) and Darragh Kenny (VDL Cartello) on the Irish team.
Next up for the showjumpers is the team qualifier on Friday night, followed by the final on Saturday night, August 7.
A change has been made to the British team, with Scott Brash withdrawing Jefferson after he sustained “a minor strain” in the individual final. Brash and Jefferson finished in seventh equal place. Harry Charles and Romeo 88 will now join Ben Maher and Explosion W, and Holly Smith and Denver in the team lineup. It will be Smith’s Olympic debut.
Teams will consist of three athlete/horse combinations with all three scores counting for the result. The first team competition is open to 19 teams of three athletes and all teams will start on a zero score. Disqualification of one combination will result in the disqualification of their entire team.
Team scores will be decided by adding the penalties incurred by all three team members. Athletes who withdraw, are eliminated or retire from the competition will not be given a score and their team will be placed according to the combined scores of the remaining two team members. Three-member teams will be placed ahead of teams of two.
The best 10 teams, including those tied for 10th place, will qualify for the team final. Starting order will be in reverse order of merit from the first team competition.
One substitution of an athlete/horse combination is permitted per team. Substitutes are not permitted to compete in a jump-off.
Additional reporting: Winnie Murphy