August 19, 2016 -- It’s safe to say that when Nick Skelton got out of bed this morning, he wasn’t expecting or betting on becoming the next Olympic champion. The 58-year-old rider from Great Britain came within a hairsbreadth of winning individual gold on home soil four years ago in London, but with injuries plaguing his horse over the last three years and not much time spent competing at all Skelton was an unlikely bet to end up at the top of the Olympic podium.
Yet on Friday, August 19th, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he stunned the world by jumping two clear rounds and a jumpoff to win the 2016 individual Olympic gold medal. He rode first in a six-horse jumpoff aboard Beverly and Gary’s Widdowson’s Big Star, a 13-year-old KWPN stallion by Quick Star. He then watched from the slightly elevated warm-up area at Deodoro’s National Equestrian Center as the other riders tried to catch him.
But they couldn’t, and Nick, his owners, his partner Laura Kraut and his longtime groom all burst into tears as they were mobbed with congratulations from other riders and their teams after the last horse hit a rail. It was, truly, a scenario that Olympic dreams are made of.
“Today was absolutely amazing,” Nick said. “I think it’s really for me, the cap of my career. I’ve been in the sport a long time and to win this now at my age, I’m so happy and it’s amazing.”
A Second Great Comeback
Four years ago, Nick’s team gold medal at London was considered his great comeback, the pinnacle of this career. He recovered from a broken neck and a broken back to return to the sport in 2011, and after he won team gold in London he was awarded an OBE by the Queen of England.
Big Star has shown lightly all year; he looked his best in May at the Nations Cup of La Baule, where he jumped a strong double clear with Nick in what was seen as the horse’s comeback. But Big Star’s recent record pales in comparison to the horses that made it to today’s Olympic final, and it was only with a dose of luck that Nick and his horse came on perfect form just as their competitors were tiring.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, to win individual and team too,” Nick said. “To actually win this at my age and when you’re lucky enough to get this horse it’s very emotional for everyone, my team and my groom Mark.”
Nick’s groom Mark Beever has worked with Nick for the last 31 years, an incredible stretch of time in a tough profession. Mark buried his face in Big Star’s neck and tried in vain to compose himself, but he was crying tears of joy all the way down to the Olympic podium.
The top 35 individual riders returned to compete for medals on a clean slate of zero faults today making it anyone’s class to win. The top-performing pair of Eric Lamaze and Fine Lady 5 for Canada made it all the way to the jumpoff as did the USA’s Kent Farrington with Voyeur.
However, after a long week of jumping, rails caught up with the majority of the riders, dropping Eric and Kent out of gold medal position. Kent and Voyeur picked up two rails to finish an eventual 5th.
Unusually Big Jumpoff
Kent voiced his opinion about the level of the course, which saw 13 go clear in Round A, and a further 9 clear in Round B. The 6 double clears went on to the jumpoff.
“Six horses in a jump-off is a lot,” Kent said. “I think that’s too many for an Olympic Games, so not an ideal setup. That’s our sport and that’s what it was today, so we all had to give it a shot and go for it. I don’t know that there have ever been six horses jumping off for a gold medal at the end.”
And Eric’s simply incredible Fine Lady 5, a 13-year-old Hanoverian mare by Forsyth that is owned by Artisan Farms, touched a rail for the first time all week in the jumpoff, for four faults. He had the fastest time in the jumpoff and would place in individual bronze position.
“It was a Grand Prix today and you needed luck on your side,” Eric said after his first round. “That’s what the winner’s going to have to have and an amazing horse with no mistakes.”
Peder Fredricson and All In had no mistakes but they were just a little too slow for a gold medal today. Peder is largely unknown to North American show-jumping fans but as an Olympic veteran and one of the faces of global fashion brand H&M, he is a national star in his native Sweden. And his performances were nothing but class all week long. All In, a 10-year-old SBS gelding by Kashmir Van Schuttershof, jumped clear round after clear round to qualify for the individual final and had a perfect score today. He claimed individual silver on a jumpoff time of 43.35 seconds, just below Nick’s 42.82.
“I actually saw Nick, and I tried to ride faster but I couldn’t.” Peder explained. “I knew it was going to be a really fast jumpoff. There are not so many times that so many riders are going for the gold at the Olympics.”
Also qualified for the jumpoff were Steve Guerdat and Nino De Buissonnets and Sheikh Ali Al Thani of Qatar aboard First Devison. They would place 4th and 6th, respectively.
Medal hopefuls Mclain Ward and Azur saw their podium dreams dashed when they had B of the triple combination in Round A down. It was a major disappointment for Mclain, who felt that Azur could be the last horse in his career to give him an Olympic medal. He would go clear in Round B, but finished well out of the top three.
“The mare jumped brilliant again,” Mclain said. “I was a little worried about the back rail of B. It's really the only jump she's really had down all year so maybe I overrode her there a little bit and then the two got very short. The course was very repetitively testing a big-strided horse because everything is short, short, short. That was certainly a bit of a challenge for us and it was just one mistake too many.”
However, no one could deny that it was a brilliant day of show jumping competition and a memorable finish to the equestrian sports at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. The Brazilian public came out in droves and packed into the massive stadium at Deodoro from 10:00am when the first horse jumped until the medal winners took their victory lap at 3:00pm. It was an Olympic atmosphere that will be remembered, not only by Nick Skelton, but also by everyone who was lucky enough to witness an achievement that he will never forget.