Skelton gold, Fredricson silver, Lamaze bronze in Rio

It didn’t seem like it could happen. With three past Olympic individual gold medalists in the mix, Nick Skelton looked a bit like an outsider in terms of the odds for earning the  2016 individual gold. But Nick, who has beaten the odds so many times, this afternoon became the first British show jumper to take the individual Olympic title.

Photographie Eric KNOLL. Jeux Olympiques de Rio 2016. Olympic Games Rio 2016. Jumping Nick SKELTON (GBR). BIG STAR
Nick Skelton and Big Star. (Eric Knoll photo)

He has come back from a variety of injuries, including a broken neck that prompted physicians to advise him he shouldn’t ride. However, you don’t say that to Nick. Big Star, his horse of a lifetime, had been injured, and needed to be managed very carefully to make it to Rio in the kind of shape it took to go through to a jump-off for the title.

Fifth individually with Big Star in London 2012, where he rode on only the second British team to take gold in the Olympics, Nick at 58 was the second-oldest show jumper in Rio. (His teammate, John Whitaker, is 61 and gets top honors in that category.) His seven Olympic appearances are the most for any British Olympian in any sport.

Nick had a rail in the team competition, where the British squad didn’t make the cut to the second round. But he was resting up for today, when all 34 qualifiers started equal on zero penalties.

Time faults weren’t a major factor in the first round, where the fences were big while Guilherme Jorge’s route couldn’t be called tricky. But among the 27 who came back for the second round, a tighter time caught 10 riders, four of whom would otherwise have been clear.

Six competitors did go clean in both rounds, providing an incredibly exciting tiebreaker, something not often seen in the Olympics. Sadly, McLain Ward of the U.S., with a rail in the last element of the triple combination during the first round on the incredible Azur, did not qualify for the jump-off despite a clear in the second round because the two scores added together gave him a total of 4 penalties.

“I personally think the first course was really suited to the small horses, the horses that like to add strides, but that’s the test and we have to answer that test,” said McLain, whose mare has a big step.

“I’m thrilled with the horse, although disappointed with the day.”

His silver medal teammate, Lucy Davis on Barron, had 12 penalties in the first round and did not progress to the second round.

“My horse is very sensitive, and I think he feels not only the physical fatigue, but also all the stress gets to him as well, and he needed my help today a bit more than I gave him,” said Lucy.

“So I definitely take responsibility for those rails.”

But Kent Farrington of the U.S. produced two convincing clears with Voyeur, setting him up as a finalist.

Nick was in the unenviable position of being first to go in the jump-off over a shorter course with sweeping turns against two gold medalists, the title defender Steve Guerdat of Switzerland on Nino des Buissonets and the 2008 gold medalist, Eric Lamaze of Canada on Fine Lady. (Poor Jeroen Dubbeldam of the Netherlands, the 2000 winner, had a single time fault to finish a frustrating seventh on Zenith, a horse that now will be auctioned off.)

Nick finished fault-free before a packed stadium at the Deodoro Equestrian Center in 42.82 seconds, a time that looked beatable, but not easily.

He decided “to go as fast as I could but be safe and not take risks. He’s a quick horse anyway. I wanted to put pressure on everyone else and I had luck on my side.”

Steve’s chances ended when he had the first fence down, finishing in 43.08. Ali Al Thani of Qatar, an upcoming country in the sport that impressed with the quality of its Jan Tops-coached riders and horses, had two down in 45.03. Kent also toppled a pole at the first, and at the last as well to finish in 42.23, a time that would have edged Nick had he been clear.

Sweden’s Peder Fredericson did what he could on the lovely All In, finishing without faults, but in 43.35, which would be good enough for silver.

Everyone waited on Eric, who is known for speed, and Fine Lady was just the horse to beat Nick’s time. Beat it she did, in 42.09, but at the cost of having the next-to-last fence down, even though Eric went wide there. So he claimed bronze instead of gold.

“The Olympics is the most difficult challenge in our sport,” said Eric.

“We try our hardest to do our best. Anybody in that jump-off deserved a medal. Most of us go to shows every week and you can win a big grand prix, but an Olympic medal–well, that stays with you forever.”

While Nick tried not to focus on what the others were doing, he conceded, “I had to watch Eric and he made me sweat for a minute.”

When it was clear he had won, Nick–looking suddenly overwhelmed and a bit teary– was greeted with a flurry of hugs and handshakes.

“I’ve been in this sport a long, long time and to win this at my age makes me so happy,” he said.

The big question now is, will Nick retire with that individual gold he always wanted? Don’t bet on it. The lure of the arena may be just too tempting.

“I’m not going to stop riding now,” he advised. “The only horse I ride is Big Star and when he stops, I’ll stop.”

Of course, there’s the World Cup finals in Omaha next year (oh, wait, he already won the World Cup title) so we’ll just have to wait and see. The 2018 WEG may beckon.

I can’t say enough about Gui’s courses. He is a master who produced good sport, but not at the expense of the horses and riders.

I remember how long it took the Brazilians to announce he would do the courses; I was asking him every time I saw him, “Did you hear yet?” But choosing him was the only outcome possible. How lucky is a country that can have one of its own do the job, and so beautifully.

That’s a wrap for the equestrian portion of the Olympics. I’m sure many of the riders are already thinking about 2020 Tokyo, which had its own fence in the finals.

The U.S. can be proud of its Rio results, with a medal in each discipline. Germany was the only other country to be able to make that claim. It’s a big contrast from London, when no medals came back to America with the riders.

Phillip Dutton’s individual eventing bronze in Brazil with Mighty Nice was well-deserved after the decades he has devoted to the sport. The team bronze in dressage stands as a testament to the dedication of technical adviser Robert Dover and trainer Debbie McDonald, as well as the talent and efforts of the riders, three of whom had never ridden in the Olympics previously. And team silver in show jumping was the end product of a well-calculated process overseen by coach Robert Ridland.

Let’s not forget the support staff, who did yeoman work under often difficult circumstances to enable the riders and trainers to perform their best on the world’s biggest stage.

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