British show jumping legend Nick Skelton has been competing for so long that he has ridden close to 20 different horses in his career.
But in four decades of competing at the highest level – and having broken his neck and retired from the sport once – he had never won Olympic gold until London.
Skelton, 54, helped Britain claim its first jumping title for 60 years in the team event –the country’s first equestrian medal of any kind since Los Angeles in 1984.
His long-awaited victory – and the ecstatic reaction of the crowd watching the thrilling final at Greenwich Park – helped to boost show jumping’s profile among newcomers to the sport.
But Skelton’s generous post-final interview – minutes after he had reached the summit of his career after an agonisingly long wait – revealed why the horseman, who received an OBE for services to equestrianism in 2012 and has had two hip operations and suffered a serious knee injury, is so revered by his fellow sportsmen and women.
He said: “I wish I could have gone four times. They’ve done great, the lads have done great. Absolutely brilliant. I've got a wonderful horse and wonderful owners – it’s a dream come true.”
In a career stretching back to the mid-1970s, Skelton has won medals in four World Championships, gold in three European and one Junior European competitions, and one World Cup title.
Riding famous horses such as Maybe, If Ever, Apollo and St James, he has also won the Hickstead Derby in England three times and the Derby four times. He has 60 Grand Prix titles – but having competed in six Games since his debut at Barcelona in 1992, Olympic gold had never come his way.
The rider, from Exhall in the Midlands, had plenty of early success on Maybe, which unfortunately went lame before the Junior European Championships in 1975, meaning that Skelton’s place in the team looked lost.
However, he went on to win individual gold on a different steed, and three years later set a British jump record of 7ft 7in. When Skelton partnered with St James the following year, he broke into the senior GB team.
After 20 years of success in the sport, he broke his neck in 2000 and retired the following year – but he was back in the saddle by 2002 and went on to win the British Open title in 2004. Disappointment awaited him at the Athens Olympic Games that year, however, when he and his horse, Arko III, were leading until the final round but missed out on the top spot.
All those years of being pipped to the top spot were wiped out when Skelton, riding Big Star, finally achieved his dream at the 2012 Games before a partisan home crowd.
And although the champion – whose first appointment after the Games was to have a back operation – missed out on gold in the individual competition, having clipped a fence in the final round, he insists he has no plans to retire. Good news for equestrian fans everywhere.