Memorable year for British equestrian

BIG DAY: From left, Mary King, Nicola Wilson, William Fox-Pitt, Tina Cook and Zara Phillips celebrate with their Silver medal

BIG DAY: From left, Mary King, Nicola Wilson, William Fox-Pitt, Tina Cook and Zara Phillips celebrate with their Silver medal

First published in Sport

LONDON 2012 will go down in the history of British equestrian sport as a golden Olympic Games.

During an unforgettable fortnight at Greenwich Park, Britain’s dressage riders, showjumpers and eventers all delivered the goods when pressure was at its most intense.

The results were staggering.

British dressage broke its Olympic medal duck by winning two golds and a silver, while the showjumping team took a first gold for 60 years and the eventing quintet landed team silver behind red-hot favourites Germany.

A total of five medals across three disciplines surpassed Britain’s previous best Olympics performance, while Greenwich as a venue gained rave reviews from the public, seasoned Games observers and officials.

The team of Charlotte Dujardin, Carl Hester and Laura Bechtolsheimer had already put British dressage in uncharted territory by arriving at London as gold medal favourites after being crowned European champions the previous summer.

They were accompanied by acute pressure, a sense of expectancy that Britain could deliver in a sport where it had never previously won an Olympic medal of any colour and always been bit-part players while Germany and Holland dominated.

But led by the brilliant Dujardin, who had never ridden in a top-flight grand prix until 18 months before the Games, Britain delivered.

The team crown was claimed emphatically, and Dujardin also won individual gold aboard her horse-of-a-lifetime Valegro, sealing it in style with a freestyle to music routine that featured strains of Land of Hope and Glory accompanied by 20,000 Union Jack-waving British fans.

It was wonderful sporting theatre, a fitting Greenwich finale, as Dujardin joined an exclusive club of British female double Olympic champions.

Dujardin had gone from grand prix debutant to double Olympic gold medallist, via a world record and three Olympic records, with astonishing speed, and after Bechtolsheimer added an individual bronze it underlined that British dressage fans had experienced something way beyond their wildest dreams.

The same could be said for success-starved followers of British showjumping.

They dared to hope, of course, that Nick Skelton, Ben Maher, Scott Brash and Peter Charles could collect a medal, but it had been 28 years since Britain’s last podium finish - a team silver in Los Angeles - and 60 years after Harry Llewellyn, Willie White and Dougie Stewart were crowned Olympic champions in Helsinki.

Optimism surrounded the British quartet, though, with Skelton and the mighty stallion Big Star having posted regular wins on Europe’s grand prix circuit, while Maher (Tripple X III), Brash (Hello Sanctos) and Charles (Murka’s Vindicat) were capable of providing high-quality support.

And so it proved as Britain won a pulsating team competition, beating Holland in a jump-off that was an equine equivalent of a penalty shootout.

Charles and Vindicat jumped the gold medal-clinching round, clearing the replica Tower Bridge fence with a leap that took Britain into dreamland after being rejuvenated as a world force by their team manager - Dutch-born Rob Hoekstra.

Skelton and Big Star had just one fence down across the entire team and individual schedule, but they were agonisingly denied an individual medal, with Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat crowned Olympic champion and Ireland’s Cian O’Connor collecting bronze.

The British eventing team - William Fox-Pitt, Mary King, Zara Phillips, Tina Cook and Nicola Wilson - had a proud Olympic record to protect of 17 post-war medals collected by riders such as Richard Meade, Lucinda Green, Ian Stark and Pippa Funnell.

Germany, spearheaded by their reigning world and European champion Michael Jung, were deemed to be gold medallists-in-waiting despite the unknown element of designer Sue Benson’s crosscountry course amid Greenwich Park’s unfamiliar and undulating terrain.

Cross-country day, lit up by gloriously sunny weather and a crowd of 50,000-plus, had everything. There were falls, edge-of-the-saddle riding and some fancied contenders crashing out.

But the Brits delivered, with Morton-on-Swale’s Wilson (Opposition Buzz), Phillips (High Kingdom) and Cook (Miners Frolic) all jumping clear inside the time to leave Britain in a strong position approaching the showjumping finale.

And they did enough to secure silver, Britain’s first equestrian success of London 2012 that sparked an unprecedented and unforgettable medal rush, while Germany took team gold and Jung added an Olympic title to his spectacular career portfolio.

Wilson said: “Opposition Buzz has made my dreams come true.

“It’s recognition for all our supporters and all those people who helped get us there. It has been just such a wonderful privilege to be able to compete in such a fantastic games that Britain has put on - I’m just incredibly proud and humbled at the same time.

“The atmosphere was just indescribable, “ she added.

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