Twelve months ago, William was a hot favourite for the British eventing team — the recent winner of Badminton on two-time championship medallist Chilli Morning.
But all that went out the window when he suffered a serious fall last October and spent over a week in an induced coma. William finally rode again just before Christmas and started competing six weeks later than usual this season, in mid-April.
Surely giving up would have been the sensible option?
“Lots of people felt very strongly that enough was enough and I certainly thought about that, but horses are a big part of my life and give me a lot of pleasure,” he said.
“I love being around horses so they were a big part in my rehab — they really gave me something to go for and push myself. I couldn’t walk upstairs for the first few weeks, I had to have a little rest halfway, so my body had completely deteriorated. The horses really got me back to being fit and being back on the job.”
Through his rehabilitation, William’s faith in Chilli Morning — and in the selectors’ desire to take Chris and Lisa Stone’s horse to Rio — was a strong motivator.
“I always thought that Chilli’s a good horse so I felt very confident in him,” he said. “I felt that if I was ok they would take me because they wanted Chilli.
“Rio was always Chilli’s target, so I feel quite strongly that he should do it. I don’t need to go to Rio, I’ve done four Olympics, but I would really like to go on Chilli and his owners have been so supportive and deserve to go.
“I think having a horse like Chilli Morning has really helped because he was always in the hunt. I knew I had one of the best horses, but did they want me? Quite often it’s not that way round — you think, ‘I’m one of the good riders, but is my horse good enough?’ I didn’t have that doubt, though I did doubt whether I would be up for it all.”
William knew that he had to produce a solid result at Bramham to be selected.
“The selectors could not have made any excuses for me at that stage,” he said. “I think up until then they’d been very long-suffering. I hadn’t had the pressure on me, but by Bramham it was kind of, this is it now, we’ve got no more time, so if you can’t do it for Bramham, you can’t do it for Rio.”
He admits his wife, Alice, would “very much like me to give up”.
“But she also wants me to do what I want to do, she doesn’t want to be in the way, she’d support me whatever I chose I think,” he said. “But she’s had a very tough eight months.”
‘One fence became four’
A crucial part of William’s comeback has been the help of optometrist Dr Shayler, who restored his vision in four months instead of the year most experts were predicting.
“In the beginning I couldn’t see very well, but then I felt fine but my double vision and blurred vision made me feel very aware of my disability,” he said.
“I could ride on the flat, but jumping was tricky when one fence became four and you didn’t really know which one you were jumping until the last minute. So my horses put up with an awful lot of surprises and they got used to a lot of missing, a lot of funny angles. Chilli’s great at that, he’s very confident and he didn’t care at all.”
William said Dr Shayler “made me his project” and he had to do exercises twice a day for three months.
He explained: “Dr Shayler did drill me, I was looking down tubes — I had to do all sorts of weird things. It was boring, but it was to re-train my eyes to be straight and not be blurred or crossed.”
‘Chilli could do well — if I don’t let him down’
William says this selection is more of a team effort than any previously.
“Lots of people have helped — very often it’s your performance that gets you there, but this time it’s not been like that,” he says, mentioning his team at home who kept the yard turning and rode the horses through the winter before he was back in action.
He also had phenomenal support through UK Sport, particularly physio and personal trainer Kate Davis.
“I lost a lot more strength than you’d imagine,” he said. “I couldn’t pick up a child, I couldn’t even walk to the stables, so my body has had a real shock.
“But I’ve always felt good — I’ve been very lucky. I’ve not had a headache since my fall and I can’t remember not having a headache for eight months. So I can’t say I’m feeling bad, but physically it’s taken a bit — in the two weeks I was unconscious I lost 12 kilogrammes. I put it back on because I got very greedy; all I wanted to do was eat and sleep.”
What would it mean to win a medal?
“I don’t know if winning a medal would be any more special than it would have been in the beginning, but it’d probably be more of an achievement now when I think where I’ve come from,” he said. “Chilli’s very capable of being a good horse and he could well do in Rio if I don’t let him down.”