What a remarkable year Nick Skelton has had. After narrowly missing out on an individual medal at the London Olympics in 2012 and, later, Big Star’ injuries cast a doubt over the combination’s presence at Rio 2016, the Warwickshire rider not only made it to the Olympics but managed to win Britain’s first ever individual showjumping gold.
But then Skelton has made a habit of defying the odds. Here, we look back at how he triumphed over the many challenges life threw at him.
Having started riding when he was a toddler, Skelton quickly began collecting medals. His first big win came in the 1974 Junior European Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, when he and Maybe were part of the team that won silver. He was preparing to defend the medal a year later at Dornbirn, in Austria, when Maybe went lame. But Skelton already showed the mettle that would see him through some many challenges during his career. Undaunted, he found himself another horse, O.K. and went on not only to help the British team keep their silver but also to claim individual gold.
Victories came fast and furious during the 1980s and 1990s: he took the King George V Gold Cup four times (in 1984, 1993, 1996 and 1999) and the Hickstead Derby three times (in 1987, 1988 and 1989, plus several team bronze, silver and gold medals at European and World championships, including team silver and individual bronze at the Aachen World Championship in 1986 and team gold individual bronze at the European Championships in St Gallen in 1987.
As famous for his legendary temper as for his riding prowess, Skelton already had four Olympic championships under his belt when he suffered a bad vertical fall at the Park Gate Horse Trials and broke his neck, just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Doctors said that he might never be able to ride again. Crushed, he was forced to go into retirement at just 42 years of age — only to come back with a vengeance a year later.
In 2002, after an extraordinary recovery that took doctors by surprise, he began competing again, aboard Arko III. The pair claimed the British Open title in 2004 and made it to the Athens Olympics, where they came tantalisingly close to gold, only to lose everything at the very end, when three fences down in an unlucky final round scuppered any chance of gaining a medal.
After Arko retired, Skelton formed a new, successful partnership with Big Star. But he soon had to face another setback when he needed first a hip replacement (in 2011) then surgery to his left shoulder. But Skelton wasn’t deterred. Armed with a brand new hip, he and Big Star went on to win team gold at the 2012 London Olympics, although a clipped fence in the last round denied them an individual medal.
Lest the combination rest on their London laurels, fate threw them another challenge when Big Star suffered a leg injury first in August 2013 then, again, in July 2014, which meant he had to give competitions a miss for a long time. Big Star and Skelton returned to competing in October 2015 and back to major events in May 2016, just in time for Rio. And what an Olympic adventure did they have! Although they collected some faults in the early stages of the competition, the combination put in a fast, foot-perfect performance to win individual gold.
After the Olympics, Skelton and Big Star led the British showjumping team to second place, behind Germany, in the FEI Furusiyya Nations Cup final in Barcelona in September, before taking third spot in the fifth leg of the in the fifth leg of the Longines FEI World Cup in Toronto.
To top it all off, Skelton has claimed not one but three prestigious awards in the past few months. First came the British Showjumping Award in October, followed by the Horse & Hound Lifetime Achievement Award, which he claimed on 3 November, and, a couple of weeks later, the FEI Best Athlete Award. He’s also in with a good chance to bag the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. Apparently, Skelton’s motto is “don’t give up”—and never has anyone lived up to it more than he does.
You can see Nick Skelton lead the Olympic parade at Olympia, alongside Charlotte Dujardin, on the evening of Friday, 16 December.
Top image: Nick Skelton wins individual Olympic gold at Rio by Richard Juilliart, courtesy of the FEI