Racing: THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW - Mr Olympiarides again He scaled the heights as one of the world's leading jumpers but now Nick Skelton is passing on his skills to others. He talks to Helen Bruce - Forced to retire through injury, Nick Skelton is now helping young hopefuls along the road to glory
The Birmingham Post - United Kingdom; Dec 22, 2001
BY HELEN BRUCE

Olympia is a special show for Nick Skelton, the Midland showjumper whose worldbeating career last year came to an abrupt end.

The festive international event has been the stage for some of his greatest show-stopping feats which will live forever in showjumping legend.

He has vowed that this year will be no exception, despite having been told that he can never ride again.

This Christmas the formidable Skelton drive to win will be coursing through the veins of his protegs, two of the best young riders in Britain.

Skelton broke his neck in September 2000 while competing, when his horse ploughed through a triple bar fence, reared up and jettisoned the then 42-year-old five foot into the air, from where he dropped headfirst like a stone. The vertebrae healed but the ligament between the bone and spinal cord snapped and fell away, allowing movement. There was no support for his neck.

If he were to ride again, and have another fall or a whiplash injury, the bone could touch the spinal cord --- a potentially fatal situation.

It was the end of 27 years of international competition, during which the Warwickshire rider represented Great Britain 137 times, including at four Olympic Games, two Junior European Championships, seven European Championships and five World Championships.

He won the Hickstead Derby three times, the King George V Gold Cup four times and the World Cup once, having been second and third in previous years.

But Olympia holds memories which will never be erased, including three Grand Prix wins. Skelton made history there as early as 1978, when everynewspaper in the land carried the news that the 21-year-old had broken the British High Jump record.

Riding Lastic, the pair jumped 7ft 7in and 5/16 to set a standard which endures to this day.

He won the World Cup qualifier on St James in 1983 at Olympia and was named the show's leading rider in 1992.

In 1995, Olympia saw some of its most exciting showjumping ever with Skelton coming second to Ludger Beerbaum in the Volvo Word Cup qualifier by 100th of a second.

In 1996, he won the Masters on Zalza and the Christmas Stocking on Quick Star. 1997 saw him win the Christmas Stakes on Showtime and Take Your Own Line on JJ. Showtime also won the Christmas Hamper for him in 1998.

Speaking at his yard in Shrewley, near Warwick, Skelton said: ``Olympia is one of my favourite shows. It's the last of the year and it's Christmas, which makes it very special and you get a good turnout of public.''

The two riders he is taking to Olympia are his full-time students Scott Smith, aged 27, who has this year already won the the King's Cup in Madrid and the Barcelona Grand Prix, and Robert Whitaker, the legendary rider John Whitaker's 18-year-old son and a prodigious talent in his own right.

Skelton is confident his horses and riders will do well, and is philosophical about his enforced career change.

He said: ``I have been lucky to be successful enough riding for my country so many times but I have finished my career as far as riding goes.

''It came as a bit of a shock; I reallythought I would be able to ride again. I had to find a new career --- buying and selling a few horses and training.

''In fact, life's a lot more hectic than it used to be when I was riding.

''We're busy 24 hours a day trying to cram everything in --- you can't just switch off.

''We have got five horses going to Olympia.

''For somebody that has done it I can help these riders on what to expect at theshow and how to train these horses.''

Scott Smith will be competing on one of Skelton's former rides, the ten-year-old black stallion Jalisco, the leading national horse in England in 2000.

He is also taking his European Championships mount Cabri d'Elle for the World Cup Qualifier and the Grand Prix classes, and the Dutch-bred bay mare Image for the speed classes.

Originally from Doncaster, Smith has been based at the Skeltons since early spring and, in Nick's words, has ``done very good''.

Smith said: ``The major thing Nick is helping me with is with my general routine building up to a show and planning the strategy.

''He's not told me how to ride but he's teaching me how to win when things aren't necessarily going perfectly.''

Skelton conceded that he was hard on the pupils --- ``You have to be, don't you?'' --- but itappears to be like summer campcompared with his own apprenticeship under the iron rod of veteran showjumper Ted Edgar. Scott said the routine was tough but fair.

''We start out at 7.30am, we get on the horse and start riding about 8am and ride as many as we can before lunchtime and tidy up in the afternoon.

''I generally ride about six to eight horses every day,'' he said. The teenaged Robert Whitaker has, said the understated Skelton, ``got a lot to live up to in his father''.

John Whitaker, along with his brother Michael, dominated British showjumping for decades alongside Skelton and continue to do so to this day.

But earlier this week Robert was positive about his Olympia performance in the Young Showjumper of the Year class, which took place yesterday.

He will be riding another of Nick's old mounts, the bay stallion Arko, which Skelton admits he wishes he was still riding as he believed it could become a top horse.

Robert said: ``The horse has been on really good form this year, winning lots of classes.

''He can jump big fences easily. He's quite straightforward to ride. We have had quite a lot of experience and should have a good chance.''

The future of the Skelton line also looks assured, with 16-yearold Princethorpe pupil Daniel doing his A-levels and competing well on horses, while 12-year-old Henley High School pupil Harry makes his name in pony classes. Whether or not they turn professional is up to them.

Skelton said: ``Showjumping is very difficult nowadays. You need a very good horse, and it's not easy.

''A good one is expensive --- it can cost more than pounds 1 million.

''Daniel wants to stay on at school. But you can stay on these days and still ride, you shouldn't jack it in like I did at 15.

''They have to make their own minds up if they want to do it. I'llback them as much as I can and help them whatever they decide.'' The British showjumping team has suffered mixed fortunes since the heyday of the Whitaker/Skelton era in the 80s and 90s.

Top international results have eluded the team, which has failed to breed fresh riding talent or obtain the world's top horses.

Now, despite being out of the saddle himself, Nick Skelton looks set to be firmly positioned in the driving seat as he guides the nation's talented youngsters to a winning position in the future of showjumping.

FACT FILEl Nick Skelton was born on December 30, 1957 when his parents Norma and David were living in Exhall, Coventry.

l He was bought his first pony, Oxo, when he was just 18 months old.

l He attended Coventry Preparatory School, moving house to Berkswell, Warwickshire, at the age of six, then Bablake Boys School.

l Skelton started competed in affiliated BSJA shows at 11, with 13.2hh pony Tarquin.

l Skelton dropped out of school aged 15 and went to work for professional showjumpers Liz and Ted Edgar in Leek Wootton, Warwickshire.

l He moved to Sheerly, Warwickshire, after parting from the Edgars in 1985.

l He went on to win 1,252 classes, 62 International Grand Prix, appeared on 122 Nations Cup teams, represented Great Britain in 18 championships and won more than pounds 4 million in prize money.

l The last ride of his life was on Lalique in the International Trial at the Parkgate Show, near Chester, in September 2000.


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