In Britain there are certain things that indicate that Summer is approaching, such as the Cheltenham Festival or the Grand National. Horse racing takes centre stage in offices and pubs as tips are shared and sweepstakes are entered into with everyone having their opinion on who will win. Jockeys such as Sir AP McCoy and Frankie Dettori have become household names but there is one thing that their sport does not allow them to achieve, an Olympic medal. There is of course, Equestrian at the Olympic Games and the story of Nick Skelton is one that everybody, young or old, should be aware of.
To set the scene, in recent history, Equestrian has become somewhat of a medal guarantee for the Great British Olympic team. The Eventing team won medals at every games between 2000 and 2012, whilst Charlotte Dujardin has won everything there is and broken world records with her horse Valegro, in the Dressage. Although success in Dressage and Eventing has appeared to come easily to Team GB since the start of the century, it is the third discipline, Jumping, where the struggles have been apparent.
Prior to Rio 2016, Team GB had never won a gold medal in the Individual Jumping and hadn't won a medal of any colour since the 1972 games. It was the one strand of the Equestrian that Great Britain had never won a gold medal in. That all changed in 2016 and the nation found an unlikely hero to end that medal drought. Nick Skelton, riding the appropriately named Big Star fulfilled the dream of a lifetime when he was able to add individual gold to the team gold he had won at London 2012.
What you have read so far may not sound any more impressive than any other Olympic medalist but it is when you understand the story of Skelton a little more that you realise just how outstanding his achievements have been. At the Rio Olympics, Skelton was 58 years old and had competed at six previous Olympic Games but never managed to win an individual medal. With time clearly against him, the 2016 Olympics would be his last chance to take home that elusive medal.
For anyone that may think that the man from Warwickshire had lived an easy life and not had to deal with the problems that other athletes may have, think again. In September 2000, Skelton was competing at a competition near Liverpool when he was unseated from his horse and landed on his head. The fall was a serious one and resulted in a broken neck, forcing him to retire from the sport in 2001. Not one to give up, Skelton recovered and began competing again in 2002, making his way back to the top of the sport. His team success in 2012 may also have seemed unlikely after he underwent a total hip replacement in 2011. Where most people may decide that enough is enough and retire, Skelton was not going to miss his home Olympics.
At London 2012, along with Scott Brash, Peter Charles and Ben Maher, Skelton won Olympic gold despite the broken neck 16 years previous and the hip replacement in 2011. That gold medal had to be fought for in a jump-off against a strong Netherlands team, but the Brits were able to handle the pressure. In 2016, Skelton would roll the Olympic dice for a seventh time with Big Star making his second Olympic appearance.
Rio 2016 did not start off perfectly for Skelton and the British fans would have been forgiven for writing him off early. He knocked down a fence in each of his first three qualifying runs and picked up a time penalty too. After the three rounds of qualifying Skelton had made the final by the skin of his teeth as he finished in 33rd place with only 35 riders making the final. With the scores reset for the final however, Skelton would have his chance, over two runs, to finally accomplish his dream.
It was Friday the 19th August 2016, the final of the Individual Jumping. Each rider would have two runs with the penalty points from each run added together, the rider with the fewest points would be crowned Olympic champion. For the first time that week, Skelton managed a clean run but so did 12 other riders meaning that 13 people were tied for the gold medal after the first run. A second clean run in a row would see Skelton enter a jump-off with the five other riders that had all scored zero. The gold medal would not be won without a fight.
Peter Fredricson and Eric Lamaze would prove to be Skelton's biggest rivals as both riders had not dislodged a single fence during any of their five runs so far. Lamaze had taken the gold in 2008 and looked rock solid in Rio heading into the jump-off. Skelton was the first up and went clear with with a time of 42.82 to really put the pressure onto the remaining five riders. Fences from the subsequent riders started to topple and although Lamaze completed the course faster than Skelton, the falling to the second to last fence gave him four penalty points that would end his gold medal hopes. The only other rider to hold their nerve in the jump off was Fredricson who, like Skelton, went clear. A time of 43.35 though was not good enough and it meant that Skelton had won the gold medal by half a second in what had been an incredible day of jumping for the Brit.
In winning the gold medal, he had become Great Britain's oldest gold medal winner for more than 100 years. The nation took notice of this outstanding achievement as Skelton was nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award where he came third with more than 100,000 votes. Seen as an example to those that are young and old, even Judy Murray admitted that she had voted for Skelton, rather than her son, Andy. His OBE was upgraded in 2017 to a CBE and he announced his retirement, for a second time, in April 2017 although I think that this time the retirement will stick.
Most Olympians that we see standing on the podium are in their physical prime. They are usually between 20 and 30 years old in most sports and will comment on how they have worked their whole lives for that Olympic medal. After coming so close in Athens and London, Nick Skelton was 58 years old when he finally got his hands on an individual gold medal, something he had been working for and dreaming of, for more than 50 years. Many people would give up. Coming home empty handed from the Olympics two or three times would be enough to crush anybodies self belief. Skelton came home empty handed five times. He suffered a broken neck and underwent major surgery on both his hip and knee. He competed at London, his sixth Olympics, aboard Big Star and finally won a medal.
In all likelihood that team success in London gave him the confidence that Big Star would be able to lead him to individual glory in 2016, providing his own body could hold up for another four years. Skelton became a household name just like McCoy and Dettori and although showjumping may not be as popular in Britain as the Grand National, no one will ever forget the story of the 58 year old man from Warwickshire who finally achieved his dream of becoming Olympic champion at the seventh time of asking. A true inspiration.
Want to read about another Team GB success in Rio? Click here