We thought we’d seen the last of British showjumpers leaving us on the edge of our seats and deep in the throes of nervous anxiety.
In Rio five years ago, it was Nick Skelton, 58, on Big Star, holding his nerve in a jump-off in the baking heat. Yesterday, it was his successor, Ben Maher, in precisely the same dramatic circumstances and competition, on the horse he has compared to a Ferrari.
Maher went third last on Explosion W in the jump-off, clearing all the fences in a time of 37.85sec that saw him pip Swedish rider Peder Fredricson to gold by 17 hundredths of a second. It was a competition of incredibly small margins.
Team GB’s Ben Maher (middle) won Olympic gold in the individual showjumping event in Tokyo
The first person Maher, 38, tried to call at the end was his fiancee, US showjumper Sophie Gracida, who he is due to marry in two weeks’ time. ‘I couldn’t really hear,’ he said. ‘There was a lot of screaming and crying and in the end it was a pointless conversation so hopefully I will get back to her later.’
It would be a wedding party for the ages at their stables in Hertfordshire, Maher promised.
His medal was achieved in the face of immense pressure. There had been a level of expectation coming into this event that Skelton had not experienced in Rio.
Explosion W had been kept back for him. ‘With that comes pressure, people expect and some comments here or there that I don’t pick up on sit in the back of my mind,’ he said.
On board Explosion W, Maher won by 17 hundredths of a second in the six-way jump-off
The intensity of the jump-off was compounded by Tokyo’s high humidity. Maher had expected to jump last, as the fastest qualifier for the final, and was thrown by having to go before the strong Dutch rider Maikel van der Vleuten, who would know the time to beat.
Fredricson’s display on his horse All In was hugely accomplished and looked hard to surpass.
Then, after not taking the second and third jump as quickly as he had wanted, Maher faced a precarious moment. As he tried to speed up across the middle of the course, he instinctively felt he was asking his horse for more than he was prepared to do and sensed a crisis coming.
‘Normally he is in sync with me,’ Maher said. ‘But, just as I got a few strides away, he questioned what I was asking him to do. I felt him just take a breather. He doesn’t do that very often. For a moment there it could have gone very wrong. But he grew wings and hurdled the jump.’ Van der Vleuten could only take bronze.
Maher’s victory means the individual jumping gold medal will remain in Great Britain again
The win adds to a successful Olympic equestrian return for Team GB. The medal haul of five already matches the tally won at London 2012, Britain’s best equestrian Olympics.
The jumping team who compete on Saturday could well eclipse that. Sweden are favourites but Maher’s success will buoy the squad.
It is Maher’s first individual gold at his fourth Olympics. He was part of the quartet that won team gold in London but efforts in Beijing, London and Rio have all failed to yield up a medal to call his own. His win also follows back surgery in January 2020 that left him unable to walk or put his own shoes on.
Inevitably, talk turned to Skelton last night, a rider Maher had learned from.
‘I am not from a showjumping family or background,’ he said. ‘So I have always looked up to other riders since I was a small boy watching Olympia or Hickstead at home on TV. I tried to learn from them.’
But it was his ride, Explosion W, he wanted to discuss most.
‘He is just an intelligent horse, a fun horse to be around and a real athlete,’ said Maher. ‘He’s not a normal horse. All the nerves I had today went away when I jumped fence one. Something clicked. He just fills me with confidence.’
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