Fiona Bigwood on Rio selection: fighting spirit and postponing children’s birthdays

  • “At one point, I was giving up,” says Fiona Bigwood, recounting her extraordinary path to her first ever Olympic call-up.

    In April 2014, at Keysoe EC in Bedfordshire, she was riding in the warm-up when disaster struck.

    “The horse I was riding [Sir Donato] was very nervous of others and he panicked and we both hit the deck. I was knocked out and woke up with double vision. The doctors kept saying that in 99% of cases it gets better by itself, but mine didn’t.”

    She was out of the saddle for some time, and only returned to it on a horse she completely trusted: Atterupgaards Othilia.

    “I was stopping,” she recalls. “ I was so close to giving up, but the mare made me fight back.

    “I don’t trust most horses 100%, but ‘Tillie’ kept me going and I can trust her. It’s my right eye that’s affected, which is why I tilt my head.”

    Fiona and Tillie’s powerful comeback showed such promise for Olympic selection — their scores peaking at 79.19% in the grand prix special at Saumur in May — that she has elected to postpone the series of operations she needs to correct the double vision caused by the accident in 2014 until the autumn.

    Her head injury has had some of the same effects as William Fox-Pitt’s crushing fall, from which he too has made an astonishing come-back.

    “I was sitting next to William Fox-Pitt at a wedding recently,” she adds, “and we talked about it. The hardest thing about the injury is judging distance. I’d turn down the centre line, except I wasn’t on the centre line. I couldn’t judge when I was supposed to turn.

    “It was my competitive spirit that kept me going. I’ve wanted this ever since I was a kid.”

    It wasn’t easy fighting back to full riding fitness, and Fiona has had to make personal compromises on her road to Rio.

    “This year I haven’t been to any of the kids’ sports days or to any prize-givings. And we even postponed one of their birthdays as we were at a show and not around. He’ll never know that though,” she says with a grin.

    Family life may yet crescendo for the children though, as their father Anders Dahl is half of the two-man fight for Denmark’s sole place at Rio, which comes to a head at Aachen.

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    Is it odd for Fiona competing for a different nation to her husband?

    “It’s strange not socializing with him, but we did it when we both rode at the Europeans. Our daughter even said, ‘Mummy, you will beat Daddy!’

    “We don’t want them to miss any more mummy/daddy time though, so they’ll all be coming with us, along with the mother-in-laws.”

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