Legends of the sport: Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper Nick Skelton *H&H Plus*

  • The great showjumper gilded an already exceptional career with gold in Rio in 2016. Jennifer Donald traces the steps that led to that impressive crowning moment

    “When you saw the hunched shoulders and attacking position of Skelly about to do the business, you knew the class wasn’t over,” says Graham Fletcher of double Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton CBE.

    For 40 years, that familiar silhouette set the benchmark in arenas all over the world. With his natural talent, attention to detail and fierce competitiveness, Nick could out-jump, out-gallop and out-turn anybody. He was a born winner, amassing an unparalleled trove of silverware, medals and grand prix titles.

    But in the twilight of his exceptional career – and long after most sportsmen have called time – one prize still eluded him. Then on an historic afternoon in 2016, 58-year-old Nick and the legendary stallion Big Star claimed the greatest accolade of all.

    “Just before I set off in the jump-off in Rio, I thought: ‘This is my last chance – there ain’t going to be another one’,” says Nick. “But winning Olympic gold was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me.”

    An epic page-turner

    Nick’s story is an epic page-turner of devastating setbacks, hard graft and heroic success, beginning 62 years ago in Warwickshire.

    Nick was pony-mad, with a talent for getting into scrapes. He learnt to ride on 11.2hh Oxo, who joined the Skelton family at the age of two – when Nick was 18 months old – for £40. This equine saint lived to the age of 39 and taught both Nick’s sons to ride.

    “I used to go to all the gymkhanas and even then I liked winning,” remembers Nick.

    His team-mate turned commentator Steve Hadley says of the future champion: “Nick was always a great competitor, even as a kid in the bending race. I’ve never seen anyone have so much belief in their own judgement to be able to make a horse jump at its absolute best.”

    Nick inherited his love for horses from his parents, as well as his father David’s passion for racing, and an early ambition to become a jump jockey was sparked on annual visits to watch the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

    That his sons Dan and Harry have forged paths as leading National Hunt trainer and jockey induces immense pride in their father.

    “It’s not easy following in the footsteps of a parent who has been successful in something, particularly in sport,” says Nick. “But I’m very proud of how successful they’ve been.”

    It was on a similar pilgrimage to Horse of the Year Show that the seeds were sown for Nick’s career. “I used to sit at the warm-up and watch David Broome, Harvey Smith and the Schockemöhles,” he recalls.

    “David rode in a rhythm that looked so effortless and I thought: ‘If I’m going to do this one day, I want to do it like him’.”

    After several successful years jumping on ponies, it would be David’s sister Liz and her husband Ted Edgar who recognised Nick’s talent and helped pave the path for this ambitious 15-year-old straight out of school.

    He earned £7 for working seven days a week, but he stayed with the famous Everest team for more than 12 years – grabbing every opportunity and making a massive impact on the sport.

    One of his abiding memories is winning the 1980 leading showjumper at Wembley riding Maybe. “I was up against Harvey Smith on Olympic Star in the jump-off,” he says. “I was 22 and beat him. That felt good.”

    But typical of Nick – to him, nothing seems impossible. It’s a trait he would display time and again, not least when at Olympia in 1978 he and Lastic broke the British high jump record at 2.32m – just over 7ft 7in.

    As Nick Brooks-Ward remembers: “His sheer bravery that night and his trust in Lastic was something that became a benchmark for his career.”

    The pair featured on the front pages of all the newspapers the following day. “Although not actually clearing it – smashing it to pieces the time before!” says Nick.

    Soon after, he and Lastic won the grand prix in Geneva and then came his first Nations Cup call-up. Even in his rookie days, Nick played the pathfinder role – setting the gauntlet and instilling confidence in his team-mates for the next 37 years.

    “I’m impatient and I like to get it over and done with,” says Nick, who represented his country an astonishing 180 times. “I will always feel very honoured to have done that – to hear your national anthem is a great thing.”

    His first taste of an Olympics came with Maybe in the 1980 alternative Games in Rotterdam.

    “It may not be counted in the history books, but I still have the medal. It was a massive step forward for me,” says Nick, who came away with team silver – he, Graham Fletcher, Tim Grubb and John Whitaker were beaten by just a time-fault by Canada.

    It speaks volumes that Nick was selected for a further seven Olympics, but the gold medals for which he is now so famous didn’t come easily. The silverware, however, readily filled his shelves and his name is etched on nearly every major trophy.

    The hallowed turf of Spruce Meadows and Aachen have been the scene of some of Nick’s greatest triumphs.

    He won the Nations Cup on his first visit to Aachen in 1981 and only had to wait 12 months before joining the illustrious grand prix roll of honour, which he went on to win a further three times.

    “It was my first big title at the age of 25 – Aachen is the Wimbledon of showjumping and it’s the best feeling,” says Nick, who had to jump four rounds in heavy rain to win that first grand prix with If Ever.

    ‘A massive influence’

    The 1980s and ’90s marked an incredible era of Rule Britannia in the sport; it was the time of “the three amigos” – Nick, John and Michael Whitaker – who dominated teams, hauled in the medals and took the sport to a new level.

    “Nick was always a good man to have on your team,” acknowledges John. “He’s been a massive influence on a lot of people, myself included.”

    While John had his legendary partner Milton, Nick had the white-faced Apollo, who gave 28-year-old Nick his first individual medal – bronze at the 1986 World Championships, decided in those days by the top four riders all swapping horses.

    “I’m pretty satisfied with all I achieved, but I would have liked to have won a World Championship,” reflects Nick.

    Apollo loved the big occasion, and as well as championship gold medals, he proved his versatility with puissance wins, two Aachen grands prix and the second and third of Nick’s consecutive Hickstead Derby victories.

    “I’ve been watching showjumping since I was a small boy but that is the finest competition and jump-off I have ever seen,” said Hickstead’s owner Douglas Bunn after Nick beat Joe Turi (Kruger) and Philip Heffer (Viewpoint) in a three-way tie-breaker in 1989.

    Apollo went on to make a tremendous hunter for Nick’s stepmother in retirement, living to the venerable age of 31.

    By this time, young groom Mark Beever had joined the team, an association that has continued for over 30 years. The astute horseman has devoted meticulous care to each of Nick’s horses and looked after one of the yard’s all-time favourites, the 16.1hh mare Dollar Girl, with whom Nick won the World Cup title in 1995, helped Britain to European team silver the same year and scorched home first in a string of grands prix. She won over £1m.

    “She was very intelligent and every morning she had her head out looking for you,” remembers Nick. “She had all the ability but you had to make her do it.”

    The decade ended with Hopes Are High – owned by Lord and Lady Harris – taking Nick to his third World Championship team bronze, third Du Maurier, a fifth Dublin grand prix and his fourth King George V Gold Cup.

    A horrific fall

    For two decades, Nick had ruled the showjumping circuit, but his world came crashing down at the start of the new millennium when he broke his neck in a horrific fall at Parkgate Show, later receiving the bombshell prognosis that another fall could be fatal – at 43, his career was deemed to be over.

    “I never think about the injury now, but things could have turned out very differently,” says Nick, who endured a torrid time, unable to accept a life out of the saddle. “But if Arko hadn’t been waiting in the wings, I don’t think I’d have bothered coming back.”

    A fortuitous meeting with John and Pat Hales in Ireland shortly before the accident would provide the perfect tonic for Nick and a reason to defy every doctor in the country, as he returned to the saddle on their youngster Arko III, two years after his fall.

    Nick was back where he belonged, and this partnership went on to win over £1.2m in a meteoric wave of major successes.

    Great Britain didn’t qualify a team for the Athens Olympics, but Nick was selected as an individual.

    “You can make excuses, such as Arko not being experienced enough, but I didn’t ride him properly, so I got the result I deserved – I didn’t win,” says Nick with the frustration of having the gold medal snatched from his grasp in the final round. “I felt really down for a long time. I thought that was my chance and I’d blown it.”

    An evolving sport

    Most admirable in Nick is that in a career spanning four decades, he has adapted to an evolving sport and kept winning on many different horses. But the final credits go to Big Star, who was spotted as a five-year old by Nick’s partner Laura Kraut, relaying that he was “the best she’d ever seen”.

    Gary and Beverley Widdowson, two of the sport’s greatest supporters, signed the cheque and would later turn down eye-watering sums for their horse. In Florida one year, Mark Bellissimo introduced them to Donald Trump by saying: “They own the best horse in the world and even you haven’t enough money to buy it.”

    Nick says: “I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of the owners – Sue Welch, the Hales family, Gary and Beverley – I owe it to them all.”

    By 2012 the emerging megastar had stamped his arrival in the sport’s top tier and was Nick’s choice for London. There was little expectation – it was 28 years since Britain’s jumpers collected an Olympic medal – so when Nick, Peter Charles, Ben Maher and Scott Brash won gold, the cheers reverberated across the city.

    “Many of you will remember Skelly’s premature leap on to the podium at London 2012,” says Graham Fletcher. “It gave us a glimpse of just how much riding and winning for his country means to him.”

    But the full heartache of the sport played out again in the individual as, with every chance of gold, a rail fell, leaving Nick “devastated”.

    H&H’s Olympic reporter Catherine Austen summed up: “Four faults – what an excuse to keep going for another four years,” and thanks to nine-year-old Big Star having age on his side, Nick brushed off the disappointment to make Rio the goal.

    The irrepressible stallion suffered a string of injuries along the way, while his rider was plagued by debilitating back pain and had undergone a hip replacement, knee and shoulder surgery. That both made it to Rio was nothing short of a miracle.

    “Around February of Olympic year, I thought: ‘We’re not going to make this,’” says Nick. “But Big Star is an unbelievable character – he knows the occasion.”

    The then 13-year-old stallion’s last win prior to Rio was back in 2013 when Nick claimed his fourth Aachen grand prix, 31 years after his first title there. But according to Nick: “That was the last time we tried to win – everything else was in preparation for Rio.”

    Then on that momentous day, displaying brilliant horsemanship despite unimaginable pressure, he and Big Star proved they were the absolute best, Nick stepping up on the podium as Britain’s first-ever Olympic showjumping champion.

    “If you want something in life, you have to drive for it – but I’ve also been very lucky,” says Nick. “Big Star should have been on that podium, too – I dedicated that medal to him.”

    The story could easily have ended there, but Nick added a final postscript in the ring at an epic Nations Cup final in Barcelona in October followed by the legend’s final appearance, a second-placed finish in the Toronto grand prix in November.

    Then came the shock announcement that he – and Big Star – would be bowing out.

    “It probably was the toughest decision of my life, because you never want it all to end,” says Nick. “But I wasn’t getting any younger and it was nice for the two of us to end on the highest note possible.”

    Slipping out of his Team GBR jacket for the final time at Royal Windsor in 2017 remains one of the most poignant moments in showjumping history. This time around, he was content to leave the sport that has provided a lifetime of adventures.

    “I’m more relaxed now – when I was riding, I suffered from real stress that stemmed from a fear of failure,” reveals Nick, before adding: “There was a day last winter when I had a proper jump on Big Star and he felt fantastic. The temptation was there – for a while I really thought Tokyo was a possibility. But that fear of failure returned and became the turning point – quit while you’re ahead, I reminded myself.”

    There was talk of a movie being made, and Laura Kraut’s film-writer son Bobby took up the mantle to write the screenplay; all it needs is the green light from Hollywood so we may relive this incredible story once again.

    Nick always claims: “It’s not what you win in a day or a week, it’s what you win in a lifetime” and it’s fair to say he nailed it.

    “What would I tell my 15-year-old self? Don’t panic, it will all come good at the end.”

    Harvey Smith on Nick

    “He was always so dedicated, and he just improved until he won the gold medal in Rio.

    “When Nick first started out, David Broome and I were the leaders, so when the next generation came through – Nick, John and Michael Whitaker – they had the best schooling ground because the only way they were ever going to win was by getting as good as us. We raised the bar for them, if you like.

    “We doubted Nick a bit when he first joined us on Nations Cup teams because he always seemed to be riding as an individual; to him it was all about the grand prix. But as time went on, he became more of a team player – the best team player there was, in fact.”

    The horses that meant the most

    Arko III

    Lisa Hales says of the family’s Argentinus stallion: “Nick and Arko had such an amazing partnership. British showjumping has a lot to thank Arko for – if he hadn’t brought Nick out of retirement, there would have been no Big Star and no Olympic gold.”

    Nick adds: “Arko was such a beautiful, classic style of jumper. He wasn’t the easiest horse because he was a bit mouthy, but he was very careful and extremely brave. He was special.”

    Big Star

    Nick teamed up with the Widdowsons’ Dutch warmblood stallion “Henry” as a five-year-old and the son of Quick Star became only the second horse after Hans Günter Winkler’s Halla in 1960 to win gold at two Olympic Games.

    “He’s the ultimate horse – brave, with all the scope, he’s careful, he has so many gears and he’s clever,” says Nick. “Big Star felt as if he could jump absolutely everything. I always thought if there was a horse that could win gold, it was him.”

    John Whitaker on Nick

    “There are no grey areas with Nick and he says what he thinks, but he’s always positive. Over the years we travelled a lot together, and had some good times along the way, but you can guarantee that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, at 8pm he falls asleep.

    “There was no better man when he was on a mission and he was utterly focused on winning the right classes. After winning that brilliant team gold in London but missing out on the individual, he knew Big Star had it in him; for the next four years he planned it and he did it, and for that he’ll always be remembered.”

    Did you know?

    • Nick took part in the first-ever team chase at Hickstead in 1974, televised live on the BBC. His team mates were Ted Edgar, Bob Ellis and Rowland Fernyhough. Nick ended up in hospital for four days after falling at a ditch.
    • He has watched every episode of Only Fools and Horses “too many times to remember”. His sons gave him a replica of Del Boy’s three-wheeler one Christmas, complete with blow-up doll and a set of furry dice.
    • The saddle Nick rode in at the Rio Olympics, he’d been using for 35 years: “I’m not superstitious, I’m just a creature of habit.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 9 July 2020