One year ago today (19 August) we reached the end of the emotional rollercoaster ride that was the Olympic showjumping in Rio. After Great Britain’s team disappointment, and some close-shaves along the way, it was the heroic pairing of Nick Skelton and Big Star’s turn to shine. To celebrate the anniversary of this momentous day, we relive some of the highlights of their epic journey to Olympic gold — you may just need those tissues once again…
1. Oh that jump!
Big Star began his Olympic campaign with three surprise four-fault rounds. Nick put it down to being “a bit rusty” after a long spell on the sidelines. But there was no denying the 13-year-old stallion’s will to clear every maximum height fence – knees up! “He hadn’t jumped anything that big for a long time,” said Nick. “I’d done some fairly decent stuff at home, but it’s nothing like going in the ring — you need the adrenalin and the excitement. But I always had total belief in him.”
2. Into the blue
Despite this dazzling image of the pair clearing the open water, the obstacle caused a bit of controversy for the pair in the second round. On team day, pathfinder Nick had been furious to be given four faults for touching the tape at the 4.3m wide water. “That horse has never been in a water jump in his life and I didn’t think he was in that one,” he said. The Brits appealed, but unsuccessfully — it would not have affected the result, however.
3. Soaring through to the individual final
Despite the disappointment of the British team crashing out of contention, Nick and Big Star were progressing through sweetly as individuals. “When he had the vertical down [in the treble combination] in the second round of the team competition, I thought, ‘That’s it he’s never going to hit another one’,” said Nick. “When you walked in the ring on Big Star, you had no worries — he felt as if he could jump absolutely anything.” The pair squeaked through as one of the final 35 individual riders where, crucially, they all began on a clean sheet.
4. The ‘runaway train’ at full pelt
The pair’s confidence was sky high coming into the individual final and, according to Nick, Big Star was jumping better than ever. He didn’t touch a pole over the next two rounds and, with six combinations remaining faultless, the Olympic medals would be decided in a race against the clock. “Just before I set off in the jump-off, I thought ‘Well, this is it. It’s my last chance — there ain’t going to be another time!’” said Nick, who acted as trailblazer. Big Star’s owner Gary Widdowson once described his pride and joy’s way of going as a bit like a “runaway train”, but the 13-year-old stallion’s electrifying turn of speed lit up the Deodoro arena. We all held a collective breath as the lightning quick Eric Lamaze entered the arena on Fine Lady 5 — then erupted with joy when, agonizingly for the Canadian, that penultimate rail fell. Nick and Big Star were Olympic champions.
5. Riding the emotional wave
Is that a speck of dust in your eye, Mark Beever? After a lifetime in the saddle and 16 years after breaking his neck, Nick had fulfilled the ultimate comeback — and we don’t blame his lifelong groom for shedding a tear or two. “I’m glad it was sunny so I could have my sunglasses on, because I had such red eyes!” said Mark. “But to win gold was just the best thing to ever happen and an amazing feeling to walk in there knowing it was because you were gold medallists. I just wanted to let out a big scream!”
6. Thank you, Henry!
This heartfelt image summed up everything about the Olympic spirit — winning a medal is the ultimate accolade for any athlete, but, when it comes to the equestrian events, it’s all down to an absolute partnership between horse and rider, meaning there’s always one more person to thank. “I always thought Big Star was something special and if there was a horse that could win gold, it was him,” said Nick.
7. ‘It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy’
Despite missing out on Olympic gold by the cruellest blow, bronze medallist Eric Lamaze joined the new champion for this touching moment. Nick chose this picture as one of his favourite images from the Games and Eric has a print hanging on his wall at home. “Eric said to me: ‘Unbelievable — it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy’,” said Nick.
After a career spanning over four decades and having represented his country at every Olympics since 1988 bar one (Sydney 2000, when he’d broken his neck), one of the sport’s most popular riders finally won the individual title that had been the driving force behind his twilight years in the saddle. In 2012, when Nick was part of the gold medal-winning team, he was in such a rush to step up on the podium he jumped the gun and gave us all a giggle, but this time around the podium pro was perfectly poised for his victory salute.
9. ‘I’ve had a long, long career and to do it now is unbelievable to me’
The ice cool showjumper melted on that podium as the national anthem belted out around the world – and an entire nation wept with him. If anyone deserved that gold medal it was Nick and Big Star and together they wrote the perfect final chapter in what is one of the sport’s greatest stories.
10. Rule Britannia
At the age of 58, Nick Skelton, became Great Britain’s first individual Olympic showjumping champion and Britain’s oldest Olympic medallist since 1908. One thing’s for sure, we’ll never forget that magical day in Rio…
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