For the past 4 days, I’ve been glued to the eventing coverage of the Olympics, and I feel almost bereft that it’s now over! Of course there is plenty more action to come, including the pure dressage and showjumping from an equestrian perspective, but being an aspiring eventer, it’s this that captures my heart most.
Coming into the games, we knew that we were in fine fettle and well placed to throw down a challenge, but of course with stiff competition and so many influential factors, the Olympics was wide open.
The fascinating thing for me was the fact that each rider on our team had their own story; Nicola Wilson, the Pathfinder, the trailblazer. She came in at the 11th hour after fate put Piggy French out of the picture when her ride was injured. Nicola’s hugely popular horse with his own gazelle-like jumping style is no stranger to championships, and Opposition Buzz is a household name. His XC phase is unquestionably his strongest, and his abundance of energy means keeping him relaxed and contained for the dressage is sometimes quite tricky.
Zara Phillips, the Royal contingent. Many felt that her inclusion was a PR decision, and the media didn’t help her cause by continually making the headlines about her. She would be keen to prove herself in her first Olympic games on her beautiful, relatively inexperienced High Kingdom. She had also been included in the Championships of 2006, but was unable to take her chance when her lovely Toytown was injured.
Mary King – taking part in her 6th Olympics on the trot at 51 years of age. Her trademark smile endears her to the masses, and her name has been synonymous with British Eventing for years. You almost can’t imagine a games without her, and she is already talking about Rio in 4 years time.
William Fox-Pitt, the current World number 1, and it’s easy to see why. The tall, unmistakable figure was lining up for the Rolex Gland Slam this year having won Kentucky and Burghley, but was unable to complete when the final of the three events (badminton) was cancelled. He has notched up an envious winning record at the highest level, including winning 5 of the top Four star events. Regrettably though, in spite of his extensive list of honours, what eludes him is an individual medal, and he’d be looking to take any chance to put that right.
Tina Cook, the daughter of racehorse trainer Josh Gifford, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Her horse Miners Frolic, not surprisingly an ex racehorse, is a once in a lifetime kind of a horse for someone who wouldn’t necessarily have the ‘depth of squad’ the other riders might. Tina has recorded plenty of successes with this lovely horse including form at previous championships, but was on the brink of losing him last year after a bad reaction to treatment. To bring him back to this level is a mammoth task and a testament to them both.
At any stage throughout the competition, chances could be scuppered by an injury, a slip, a fall, a spook, a refusal, a wrong stride, or a time penalty for any of the 5 team members. At every stage, right up until the last rider crosses the finish line of the showjumping, all placings are liable to change, and a celebration is short lived.
We trained to go for gold and that was always the target, but every step of the way the German team asserted their authority on the competition as anticipated. Relying on such a strong German team to err would be foolish, and all we could do was to remain focussed and do our utmost to avoid mistakes.
Solid performances in the dressage would place us in a respectable bronze medal position, with standout performances from Mary King and Tina Cook. Arguably our best phase followed with XC day, and I for one watched in awe and held my breath as each and every one of our Brit riders attacked the Greenwich course with vigour, making light of the undulating terrain and tricky fences that troubled many. Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz set the standard with one of the fastest rounds of the day, and the pair did exactly what they were there to do, flying home clear with an exhilarating round that said to other competitors ‘that’s how it’s done’. Mary’s round was hair raising at times with a few sticky moments, Tina’s was classy, and William’s was solid despite the disappointment of Lionheart finishing very tired and clocking up some time faults.
Perhaps the unexpected hero of XC day was Zara Phillips however, and she rode it like a girl on a mission! There was only one acceptable outcome for her, and boy did it show. Her TB High Kingdom absolutely seemed to eat up the ground, and made light of the course, with Zara’s gutsy riding proving a talking point – most notably when seeing a long stride at a fence that had caught many out. No chance of High Kingdom catching his hooves and falling like a few before him, she saw it, rode for it, and flew it. Her intentions were clear for all to see and they looked as good as any partnership we’d see that day. Certainly nothing ‘also-ran’ or making up the numbers about that performance! Even just thinking about it now brings a lump to my throat...
Coming into the final phase, there was everything to play for, medals to be lost and won. Again, the Germans were playing ‘catch me if you can’ and we did our level best to do that. I was reticent when Lionheart entered the arena, wondering if he had enough petrol in the tank after yesterdays exertions, but it proved not to be an issue. He really lived up to his name and pinged the fences effortlessly and cleanly, never looking like he’d touch a pole. What a testament to those looking after the horses! Another emotional moment.
Zara had a mix up early on when undecided on what stride to go on at fence 2, leaving High Kingdom with nowhere to go and they clocked 4 faults like Nicola Wilson before her, but she recovered brilliantly to keep her head and remained with just 4 to add. Mary had gone clear, and it just left Tina and her beloved ‘Henry’ to go. Such enormous pressure on these two, with the medal hopes of the home nation firmly pinned on them; how would they cope? What followed was nothing short of artistry, and they produced a textbook round which anyone would have been proud of. Greenwich erupted and Team GB had secured a silver medal in the Olympics!
The German team was uncatchable, and the serious talents of Michael Jung and Sandra Auffarth were clinical, no mistakes on their part; the Gold was in their sights and they were not giving up for anyone. Individual medals would elude the World number 1 again, but Zara, Mary and Tina all went through to jump another round to determine overall individual honours. Zara put her previous mix up behind her and pulled a super clear out of the bag, but both Mary and Tina recorded 8 faults, strangely at the same two fences. Unsurprisingly, it was the Germans who once again claimed gold with their extreme talent Michael Jung (incidentally celebrating his 30th birthday in style), but this time the Brits were unable to contend for placings.
Our riders were disappointed not to have claimed a medal individually, but every single one of them can hold their heads high and be proud of what they achieved and their overall performances. What was most impressive was the true sense of team spirit, and the sheer consistency we demonstrated across the board. Despite the media doing their best to make it the Zara Phillips show, every rider was recognised on merit for their contribution that saw off stiff competition from the likes of a star studded, experienced New Zealand team, and the Swedes didn’t allow much breathing room either.
Those familiar with the sport will know that the preparation for such an event is not months, but years. Heartbreak and plan B’s are frequent (just ask Piggy French), the training relentless and even weather can scupper your training schedule when your next event falls foul of British Summertime. For some media outlets, they will always focus on the image that they wish to project about such equestrian sports, touting their reflections on who wore what, whose lorry cost the most, the posh people who watched, and how any event coverage would always be highjacked by the presence of royalty. What they fail to mention, both deliberately and sometimes through pure ignorance, is the sheer graft involved with competing to this standard, and the team of people behind the horse and rider.
A mixture of raw talent, determination and hard work got these riders to where they are today – and a little bit of luck sometimes needed to give them the breaks. It is an expensive sport, just competing costs are high let alone the ongoing care, livery and training of the horses, and often riders are reliant upon owners giving them the ride on a top horse; but apparently this is something that they should be penalised for? They get up at stupid o’clock every morning. They train in all weathers regardless, and unlike football players, they don’t work for just a few hours a day. Even when the horses are all exercised, they still have to be groomed, stabled, fed, rugged etc, and all it takes is one small injury to dash the hopes of a top horse after 10 years of training.
Eventing and other equestrian sports are not just for rich people; many make sacrifices on a daily basis to be involved in the industry and do what they love. It’s more than a sport, it’s a passion and a way of life, and not one person will be able to compete at the top level without years of conditioning of both themselves and their horses. But we still can’t be happy for them, still can’t focus on their fantastic achievement, still keep them at arms length because it’s a sport for toffs anyway. Being at the top of your game in any sport demands respect, and in eventing it’s not just one but three disciplines that need to be mastered, but of course we can’t credit that because we can’t be bothered to look into what it involves. I’m sad that so many people will not congratulate our medallists for their achievements, simply because the media can’t help but perpetuate the myth that saves them from having to do some proper journalism and get half a clue about eventing to write a proper report.
I hope that the legacy of our Equestrian Eventing GB Team grows over time, and our athletes (because make no mistake that’s what they are) are given the credit and recognition they so deserve. Anyone who has half an idea of what they’ve been through and the strength of character required to get to Greenwich and come back with a silver medal no less, will gladly congratulate our team and be immensely and staunchly proud of them.
FYI, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Telegraph et al, there is far, far more to eventing than Royalty and posh people. You are aware that we won silver, yes? That’s your headline right there.