SHELFIELD GREEN, England (Reuters) - Seventeen years after breaking his neck and being told he would never ride again, double Olympic show jumping champion Nick Skelton is finally heading into retirement.
“I’ve had a good innings, and got out in one piece,” the 59-year-old Briton said at his stables, set in the Warwickshire countryside near William Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Only just, one might add. The 2012 Olympic team gold medalist and 2016 individual jumping winner will carry with him the scars of battle when he and horse Big Star bow out at the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 14.
“I broke my neck in 2000. I’ve broken my leg, my collarbone I think twice, I’ve broken my hand, I’ve had a hip replacement, two knee surgeries, shoulder rotator cuff repair and a bicep reattached,” Skelton told Reuters.
“Apart from that, that’s all.
“You actually don’t normally get these sort of injuries in show jumping. I don’t think (57-year-old Olympic compatriot) Michael Whitaker has ever broken anything. I’ve just been unlucky, I suppose.”
Skelton can also count himself extraordinarily lucky after suffering a career-threatening fall just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
He had to wear a head brace for four months and doctors found he had severed a ligament between his spinal cord and brain. Skelton was 42 and riding horses the only life he knew.
“Many of the surgeons I saw said I was lucky to even get up, really,” he said, defining his return as a combination of stubborn and bloody-minded determination.
“It never crossed my mind to think ‘Oh god, make sure I don’t fall. I’ll do myself in again.’ When you think like that is the time when you should stop anyway,” he said. “You have to give it all or nothing.”
He is one who has given it all with the former ‘bad boy’ of show jumping, his exploits chronicled in a 2001 autobiography ‘Only Falls and Horses’, departing as a national treasure.
When tennis world number one and Wimbledon winner Andy Murray won last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, he revealed that even his wife Kim had voted for the show jumper.
Skelton’s back has long been a problem and the oldest British Olympic medalist since 1908 joked that sponsor Land Rover are not as long in the tooth as him.
“I just think it’s the right time to retire, at the top with the horse in good shape,” he said. “He can have a good retirement and go to stud and I shall continue with the young horses and riding.
“People said in Rio ‘So you’ll make Tokyo (2020) now with him’ but he’d be 17 years old and a lot of things can go wrong in four years,” added Skelton.
“I just thought 17 is really too old for a horse to compete at that top level. It’s not impossible but it’s highly unlikely and I’d be 62 or 63 so that’s definitely pushing the boundaries a bit.”
In Big Star — “very intelligent, huge amounts of ability, very brave” — Skelton had a horse he could trust with his life.
“That’s the thing. That’s also a factor,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to find one like him again. I’ve never seen one as good as him.”
The sport, too, has changed since the days when tabloid media highlighted clashes with rivals — including being punched out cold by show jumping great Harvey Smith, now a good friend.
“I was a kid, and kids are cheeky aren’t they. And that’s what I was in those days. Probably got put in my place,” recalled Skelton.
“You see these riders now in the gym every morning. Before, they never did. They’d be in the bar most of the time and just get out and do the job. You could get away with it in those days, you can’t now.
“They always say the old times were the best, but they probably were.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis