‘Mis­sion ac­com­plished’

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

Horse & Hound - - Nick Skelton Autobiography -

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.

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