Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein: Well done Zara - Royal salute from princess to the showgirl
The daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan tells Sue Mott why Zara Phillips's display last week in the showjumping stirred so many memories
A right royal hug conferred sympathy and understanding at Greenwich Park last week. No words needed to be said. The Queen's granddaughter, distressed by having one fence down in the deciding showjumping round of the Olympic three-day event, was consoled by a king's daughter, who knew the feeling only too well. As Zara Phillips' horse, High Kingdom, dislodged one red bar – accompanied by a mass intake of breath from the Brit-packed, nerve-racked arena – HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, involuntarily replayed an old film in her head.
The Pan-Arab Games, 1999. "My father had just passed away and it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done, even though it was a relatively low-level competition," she said. "I actually had the last fence down for the team to lose gold. I never forgave myself for it – even now.
"I re-rode that fence in my head a thousand times. It was all I could think about for a year. I watched the video over and over again and couldn't understand what I could have done differently. So I do understand how Zara feels."
Speaking as a former competitor of royal lineage rather than her other role as president of FEI, the world governing body, 38-year-old Princess Haya insisted: "Zara did amazingly well. Absolutely amazing given the reaction she got when she rode into the area. The wall of sound was literally goodwill, but to think that she lived with that kind of enormous pressure for the last few weeks. I don't think she could have done better.
"I think she's proved that she belonged where she was on the team and carried the weight with real dignity and complete professionalism. I thought hers was one of the best and coolest cross-country rounds I've ever seen, considering the pressure, the conditions, the course.
"I remember that everyone assumed the Olympic Games were the hardest competition I ever rode in and they weren't. Olympics, World Championships – they all completely paled beside the Pan Arab Games in my own country just after my father had died.
"When people are horrid to you, you get up and fight. When you are in another country, you feel they want their own rider to win. But in your own home country you're carrying their hopes. The hopes of a nation are resting on your shoulders and that's a huge weight. I think every British athlete feels the same and very few sports psychologists can prepare you for that."
As King Hussein's daughter and now a wife of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Princess Haya has much in common with members of royal families who muck out.
She was a little girl of just three when her mother, Queen Alia, King Hussein's third wife, died in a helicopter accident at the age of 28. With extraordinarily delicate intuition, her father gave her an orphaned pony to bring up herself, triggering a love for horses and riding that has been undeflectable. "He opened up a whole world for me. He wrote the rest of my life story."
That first little pony, Bint Alreeh – or "daughter of the wind" – became her ally and refuge in a teeming royal household as well as the catalyst for her future career. Under the tutelage of English trainers when she was sent to boarding school aged 11, the young princess tried the "showing ponies", a relatively decorous pursuit compared to pelting over jumps. "But I was useless because you have to have long legs, be very pretty and keep your britches clean." She subsequently competed as a showjumper for Jordan in the 2000 Olympics and was known to her father as "trucker" for being the only woman in the country with an HGV licence.
Now retired (although she thought about competing at London 2012) and the mother of two children, she is in Greenwich in her role as president of the FEI, but would be equally happy with a broom in her hand. "I don't know if there's any rule about the president of the FEI offering herself as a groom?" she wondered.
"In the last 15 to 20 years, something that has really increased the mass appeal of the Games is the medal count and it's the ugliest thing for athletes to work with. At the end of my career, it was very hard to bear. You are trying to do your best and give everything you have.
"But there is a government, a national Olympic committee, a national federation looking at you as an investment for which they expect a return. A failure to return with the medal is seen as a failure on the investment.
"It's very impersonal. It's kind of difficult to rationalise in your head if you're a swimmer and meet Michael Phelps. It's not that you haven't tried as hard as you can. That you haven't lived it, breathed it and wanted it. But you've met someone better than you. Medal counts are rough, very rough on athletes."
She understands, however, that athletes are not to be deterred. "I do have to say – touch wood – that I have never been scared of anything. The only thing I was really frightened of when growing up was losing my father. He was such an extraordinary man. I loved him so much. I grew up hoping I would go before him. But anything else...
"If I saw a difficult horse now and people were crying, 'No, don't go near it. It's too much for you', I'd be straight in there. The worst thing for me to hear is, 'Don't do that'."
In fact, she does not rule out a helicopter jump in her eighties, now that our own monarch has paved the way. "Yes, that sounds like something I'd want to do."
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