In an exclusive extract from GOLD: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Nick Skelton recounts the emotion of calling time on his career after more than 40 years in the saddle — and the moment that he realised his childhood dream
WHEN I made the decision that Big Star and I would retire, it was just a month before Royal Windsor. That would be the place to do it, I thought. I rang Nick Brooks-Ward, the Operations Director at HPower Group, which runs Royal Windsor and Olympia, and the “man behind the microphone” at plenty of other shows. Hands-free is one thing but Nick had to actually stop his car when he heard what I said, that I was calling time on my competitive career, finally, and that Big Star was joining me. I always said we’d stop together and the time had come [...]
I’m sure Big Star knew pretty quickly he wouldn’t be jumping there. He is so intelligent. He must have been thinking: I haven’t been jumped at home, what am I doing here? [...]
Several people asked me how I felt about Sunday being my last time in the ring wearing white breeches and my team jacket, and my reply was I’d be sticking them all on eBay on the Monday morning. I didn’t, but apart from
a few bits and pieces, most of my tack had already been offloaded to Dan Skelton Racing. I’d got my head around it, the thought of never competing again after forty-three years […]
The stands were packed, Big Star soaked up the applause. Mike Tucker, who’d hung up his microphone at Badminton after forty years as the BBC’s equestrian commentator, came out of retirement to introduce us, and Nick took over to interview me. When we came to a halt beside Nick, Big Star neighed. Then when the music had stopped and Nick asked over the microphone would I stay on Big Star, he neighed again and the crowd went wild. I don’t know what he was saying but our time
‘As the crowd cheered and laughed, Big Star bucked, jangling the medals round my neck, making the point that it was his day as much as mine’
had come and there was no going back. As the crowd cheered and laughed, Big Star bucked, jangling the medals round my neck, making the point that it was his day as much as mine.
If I’d been going to break down, it would have been when Nick Brooks-Ward read out the text he’d had from Harry: Dad, I’m so sorry I’m not there, but when I asked you if I should go racing today or come down to Windsor, you said, ‘Go and do your job and try and ride some winners.’ I thought, that is what has got you to where you are: your hard work, dedication and determination. My first great memory of you in the ring was when Dollar Girl won the World Cup final in ’95. You went through so much from then to Rio 2016, and when you finally reached your childhood dream to take individual gold it was the best day of my life. I am the proudest son alive and so glad you’ve stopped at the top. I hope I will make you as proud as I am of you one day [...]
WHEN we’d finished in Rio and Big Star and I had the gold in the bag, some people were already asking whether I would stop then and there, while others were saying we’d be looking forward to Tokyo. Fast-forward four years and Big Star would be 17 and I’d be 62, so realistically I thought that was pretty unlikely [...]
Could I have retired right at that moment? Yes, I could have.
Thinking emotionally, at that point I had achieved everything I had ever wanted to. But looking back, having given it a bit of thought, the main reason I didn’t retire then was
because it had taken quite a while to get Big Star to Rio, in a condition to do what he did there and achieve everything he had, and I thought it would be a shame for him to stop […]
There is something about winning the Olympics. Years and years ago, starting out, the Olympics were something I was aware of, watched on telly, heard about, but it wasn’t part of my agenda. That changed when I went to Seoul in 1988. Then I realised that this was the most unbelievable experience; with so many countries and such a sports extravaganza, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. From that moment I knew this was where I wanted to win. Seeing the likes of Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt winning gold medals, it dawned on me why those medals were so important to them. An Olympic gold is the highest thing you can win [...] The chance only comes around every four years. Nothing else can compare — no big class money, no million-euro challenge, nothing gets close to the highest prize and honour you can win, that Olympic gold medal. To do it in London was great, amazing, but to do it as an individual in Rio, after a forty-three year career? That was the highest achievement ever for me. It was also an achievement never to be repeated by me and Big Star, and I’d known that since the day I stood on the podium in Rio with tears streaming down my face [...]
The reason so many people followed my success was not because they were hardened fans of showjumping but because of my age and the story of my comeback, the injuries I’ve had and how it all came right that day in Rio in spite of all the pain and the battles to get there [...]
BIG STAR might produce big or little stars, and that’ll be great to see. But for me there will never be another like him. He’s the ultimate, the best, and my best friend
and partner. Together we achieved my ultimate ambition: Olympic gold.
[Big Star’s owners] Gary and Beverley Widdowson have a house on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands [...] Gary and
Bev and Justin and Kathleen, their son and daughter-in-law, stayed there after London 2012. There’s an island across from Tortola called Jost van Dyke and on that island there’s a beach bar called One Love. They were all there having drinks and eats and partying one afternoon. It’s a quirky place, full of character, and people write all sorts of things on any surface they can find. Kathleen got up — probably after she’d had a few drinks — and wrote “Big Star Rio 2016”.
After Rio, in November 2016, I went out there with Laura [Kraut], Gary and Beverley, Will and Pippa Funnell, David and Karin McPherson and our non-horsey friends Sean and Corinne. After all the excitement of Rio, the endless round of press interviews, appearances and what have you, it was real relaxation and fun with friends. Naturally, we went to the One Love Bar. There was something I had to do. I got a marker pen, found where Kathleen had written her bit and added my contribution: “Mission accomplished, Nick Skelton”.
Nick with team-mates Michael Whitaker and David Broome in 1988
‘The stands were packed, Big Star soaked up the applause’ — Nick officially retires with his Olympic champion at the Royal Windsor Horse Show this year
Nick and his 1995 World Cup final winner Dollar Girl, one of son Harry’s ‘first great memories’
An emotional Nick after receiving his individual gold medal at the Rio Olympics
● Copyright (c) Nick Skelton,
2017. Extracted from GOLD: MY
AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Nick Skelton published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, on 19 October, priced £20 in hardback. Also available in ebook and audio.