LONDON (Reuters) - Alex Hua Tian was understandably distraught when, competing in three-day eventing as China’s first and only Olympic equestrian, he was thrown from his horse at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Now 26, and with Rio firmly in his sights, the tall rider with the ‘one-in-a-billion’ nickname feels that painful experience may ultimately have been all for the best.
“It was a fairy tale really, and the fairy tale ended when I fell off in Hong Kong at the cross-country,” he told Reuters during competition at last weekend’s prestigious Badminton Horse Trials.
”It was a real heartbreaking moment personally for me ... but without that experience and investment I wouldn’t be here now, doing it professionally.
“Although at the time it was a really devastating blow ... it’s something that I have to thank a lot for because it gave me a taste but it didn’t give me everything. And it’s certainly given me the drive to keep pushing.”
Everything had come almost too easily until then for Hua Tian, who attended the elite Eton College independent boys’ school near London that has produced 19 British prime ministers including David Cameron.
His English mother had been involved with the Beijing bid committee while wealthy Guanghzou property tycoon Jiang Fengcan, caught up in the excitement, provided all the funding he could have dreamt of.
After Beijing, Hua Tian finished his studies and then set out to qualify for London 2012 but it proved somewhat harder.
”We were guilty of being very complacent and the funds didn’t come, our horses were injured at the wrong time and I just missed qualifying by a hair’s breadth,“ he said. ”But I feel like all of these things have helped me plan.
“From that moment on, I’ve had a four-year plan ... we mapped out exactly where we would need funds, what we would need to spend it on, what horses we needed and when. And so far ... it all went to plan.”
Hua Tian, who now runs a stables with his partner Sarah in north-west England, has three horses qualified for Rio; 17-year-old campaigner Harbour Pilot, nine-year-old Don Geniro and newcomer Diamond Sundance.
Plenty can still go wrong in the coming months, particularly when horses are involved, but Hua Tian said he felt “about as secure as we can be.”
The main aim for Rio, he said with a self-deprecating wince, was not to fall off.
Joking aside, the bigger mission is to help develop the sport in China and continue his presence as a pioneer rather than building up any great expectation of finishing in the medals.
”Traditionally, Chinese athletes are heralded when they are successful and dropped when they are not,“ he said. ”With equestrian sports, we are trying to educate people that there is far more depth to the sport than just performance and success.
”There are so many stories about the partnership between the rider and the horse, so much history and heritage behind the sport in terms of the culture ... that’s what we’re trying to promote.
”My performance, we rarely talk about. I am not a gold medal winning prospect for Rio. I know that and I tell everybody that.
“I don’t want the public in China expecting me to go out there and win a gold medal and be disappointed when I don’t. Because I’m not going to.”
Eventing faces many obstacles in China, not least the lack of a quarantine protocol which makes it impossible to transport horses out of the country -- the reason why the equestrian events at the Beijing Games were held in Hong Kong.
State funding is also mainly directed at national sports like table tennis and badminton.
Yet Hua Tian, in a sport where it is not unusual for competitors to keep going into their 50s and 60s, is confident that one day he will be part of an Olympic team of Chinese riders.
“I look forward to the day when I have a team but at the moment I am content looking after my own back, competing for China, proud to fly my flag but also competing as an individual and being as competitive as I can,” he said.
Editing by Peter Rutherford