Sometimes we get to observe history and just occasionally if we’re really lucky we get to be part of it, even if be it a very small part.
The Olympic Games in Rio gave us quite a few pieces of equestrian history, from Olympic gold in the dressage as Charlotte Dujardin broke the Olympic record in her way to become defending Olympic champion. But it was the show jumping final win that stuck me so personally, as it was won by a man that I’ve known personally all my life; Nick Skelton with the well-named Big Star!
As I write this, we’re flying back to London and the passengers on the British Airways flight have just applauded him onboard. A nation has taken him to their hearts, not only a team gold in London—which was astonishing in itself—but also an individual gold this year in a story that could well grace the silver screen, if only anyone would believe it was true! It’s been well documented that their road to gold was anything but a smooth path, more a Copacabana pavement. (A few bricks missing along the way.)
I’ve always tried to maintain a little professionalism along the way but when I called home the gold in Rio I don’t mind telling that there were tears running down my face. To watch a man who has put himself through unbelievable pain and determination to come back in a way that could only be played out by Sly Stallone in a Rocky movie.
Here I am during the Rio show jumping, so honored to be involved. Photo by Mollie Bailey
I make no apologies for focusing on the Olympic individual in this blog because as much as the other achievements at these Games were as always phenomenal, the jumping final was a roller-coaster ride so fraught with emotion that any time a fairytale that was looking possible could become derailed.
I want also make an acknowledgement of several other performances through the week before taking you a little behind the scenes of that day; Eric Lamaze—solid as a rock all week and proving again his will and planning and strategy to aim for the big championships will continue to keep in the mix for medals. Peder Fredricson and All In, who quietly kept leaving all the rails up, round after round all walking away with well deserved medals and performances that at any time could have been golden ones.
McLain Ward however is the one I feel for—Azur had looked every inch a potential Olympic champion but one fence would keep them out of a chance to go toe to toe with the others, as we all hoped would happen. The USA’s team silver was a mighty achievement and I am so pleased for Will Connell and the U.S. performance squad for medalling in every discipline—brilliant!
Anyway, before I land myself in trouble here for missing someone out, let me focus back on the jumping individual final. OK yes, as a Brit I am biased, but for me it was on a knife-edge all the way and I hope it had the sporting world hooked, as only the Olympics can.
It’s funny—when you are actually involved at the Games you end up in a bubble and often have much less idea of the big picture of what is going on around the other sports and how the world is reacting to them, while being at home watching on the TV takes you into each sport as it unfolds. We get a very different position, however we get to feel the tangible electricity of the stadium, as a sporting lighting bolt hits. In theses Games lightening struck twice!
For my own personal part, the whole of the Games have been a rocky ride. The welcome from the Brazilian people was friendly and welcoming and they have opened their arms to us. Rio is a city of extremes, rich and poor, poverty that you could see in the flavelas as you made your way to the venues but more as we travelled on the public transport. And I don’t mean the nice BRT Olympic lines—I mean the real face squashed against someone’s armpit public trains, where people would, no matter how tight the space (I mean, you can’t slip a piece of paper between each other tight) move along the train selling anything from sweets to phone chargers, just to make a buck.
Neatly packaged in plastic bags in some cases, others selling cookies from a box tied with string, either way they were working to keep their heads above water and to work their way to a little bit of income. All of this was done with a smile, zest and enthusiasm—actually what it showed was human will, determined will to keep going and survive. This will and embracing of life translated to every part of every volunteer and supporter that we saw and heard in the stadiums.
The reality of Rio’s backstory put into perspective what is important in life but also relaxed our minds too. OK, things were not perfect in terms of organization, but hey, we were here for sport. We could walk away at the end of this and it would still just be sport, not living our lives on the breadline.
Where am I going you might rightly ask. Well, I’m coming back to human spirit, the iron determination to keep going, from the guys selling Kit Kats on the train for a meager living, through to our own story unfolding.
An Olympic champion in jumping that had broken his neck, who was told that he would never ride again, to a horse that without doubt is one of the best in the world, who looked like his career was over due to injury too. The last time this pair had gone against the clock in a jump-off was in 2013, in Aachen to win the grand prix. And the rider, well he hadn’t been in that situation in a while either, but that iron will came out in both on the final day—the pair that they said were finished and done proved them wrong and did it!
For me it was not just about being a bystander but having the honor of calling the gold and trying to tell the story to the enthralled crowd in a stadium that only Brazil could turn from the polite applause seen in equestrian sport to a rip-roaring, foot-stomping cheering mob that gave a feel more akin to a soccer match than a jumping event. But do you know what; that was also what was great about it.
This was a gloves-off bout between the world’s best; it was a grandfather on the back of powerhouse that had looked more akin to a bucking bull when I saw them re-emerge in Florida back in January. And they emerged victorious.
I felt like I’d been on part of that journey with them, as a privileged observer. I watched from the arena the agony in London in 2012, as another shot at the individual gold slipped from Nick’s grasp. Each week I’d discuss with him the age-old question of the past two years; so how’s Henry doing, when and will he come back?
Well come back they did! In the best possible way.
I’ve just walked through the airport in Rio with Nick and the British team entourage, as we queued for the plane the number of people wanting a selfie grew. I was lucky enough to get mine at the post medal Team Great Britain celebration party and that’s as much as you’re finding out about that night!
What I do know is seeing Eric Lamaze putting his arm around Nick as they walked to the podium said all that the rest of the equine world was saying too—in that moment we were all right behind you mate! Both of you!
Nick Skelton and Eric Lamaze. Photo by Lindsay Berreth
“The important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Baron de Coubertin, Founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Surely it’s time for another honor to be bestowed on this pair—I hope by the Winter Equestrian Festival I’ll be introducing Sir Nick ;-). That’ll be up to Her Majesty but we’ll have to wait and see.
Steven Wilde got his start in commentating in 2001 and has gone on to announce and commentate at some of the world’s biggest venues, in all the Olympic disciplines. His voice has been heard at Hickstead, Blenheim and Barbury Horse Trials, and the 2012 London Olympic Games. He grew up in the sport of show jumping, as his mother was an international rider, and he’s been successful at at organizing shows as well.