Tim Stockdale: Broken neck but Olympic dream is still alive

The showjumper could barely walk after surviving a horror fall but he has defied doctors and got back on the horse. Now he aims to complete a miracle recovery by riding for GB at his home Games

Looking back, Tim Stockdale is mortified by his peremptory words to the doctor, just a couple of hours after being admitted to hospital last October. "You know, I've got Olympics to go to next year," he said. "So sharpen your pencil."

If things go well at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, starting today, Britain's leading showjumper in Beijing could seal his recovery from a broken neck with selection for his home Games. If the obsession to compete in London never left him, it certainly took on a different flavour during those first days and weeks in hospital. He felt dread, fury, shame. Other patients had suffered more innocuous accidents, and would leave in a wheelchair. He saw their stoicism; also despairs too harrowing to be described here.

For five days, nobody could tell Stockdale his own fate. His mind raced. Not so much the accident itself: after the girths gave way, he remembered only flicked glimpses of a young gelding's shoes and the blurred turf of a Welsh hillside and, in the corner of his eye, a fence post. And nor, at least after those few delirious hours, did he dwell on the Olympics. Instead, at 47, his panic embraced the fundamentals: his wife and two young sons; the staff and patrons at his Northamptonshire stables.

"I was tearful, despairing," he recalls. "I was tied to the bed, in agony. And what was I going to do if I couldn't ride again? What would happen to my business?" He gestures now towards the converted farm buildings, huddled in their unpretentious suburban setting. "It was not supposed to end like this. The day I retired was always going to be of my choosing. I'm a bit of a control freak. This was not in my blueprint."

Then, as the grotesque swelling on his neck subsided, Stockdale sensed the doctors relax. Every syllable that seemed less guarded, he seized and cherished. "I'd had tremendous trauma, and injury – but the cord was intact," he says. "They'd been worried the swelling might be acting like a splint, holding things together, that they might start to see issues when it went down.

"I was on six-hourly morphine. For the last hour, I'd be in a lot of pain – but that's when they were testing me with the pins all over. And you appreciate then that you need to stop worrying about showjumping competitions."

When his reprieve was confirmed, however, even his corrected perspectives proved restless. Immobilised for weeks, with three fractured vertebrae, he launched a bitter tirade at the nurse who ventured to tell him how lucky he had been. From the moment he detected that relaxation in the atmosphere, Stockdale started to plan what he would have to be doing, and when, to give himself a chance of the Olympics.

Perversely, it took this horror to renew Stockdale's spirit. He now sees he had become jaded, after 20 years on the international circuit. "It's really charged the batteries, kicked me up the old arse," he says. "It's given me an incentive. I have had downs since, downs I wasn't prepared for. At first I couldn't walk across the yard without sitting down. I couldn't walk up the stairs, when I used to bound up two at a time. But on 20 January, I was on horseback – one month ahead of schedule."

The next milestone was to leave the ground again, and Stockdale was pleasantly surprised by his first experiments. "But two weeks later I went to a little show down the road," he says. "And you'd have thought: 'He's drunk, he's all over the place.' They were coming at me like Exocet missiles. That was a down day. I realised how far off I was."

That was only the end of March. But he has since been heartened by fourth place at a grand prix in France, and feels everything falling into place for Windsor. The wonderful mare he rode in Beijing, Corlato, has since had her career ended by injury. In a marketplace distorted by simply staggering sums paid for proven horses, Stockdale feels suitably gratified to have stumbled across Kalico Bay.

"He's a very clean, measured jumper," he says. "Doesn't ever feel like he has to put a lot of effort in. It's like the difference between a Ferrari and a Bentley. You'll be driving along and look down and you're doing 120mph. In a Ferrari, you know already because of the engine torque and everything."

It was that perennial search for the next rough diamond that took him fatefully off the beaten track, to that Welsh hillside. But Stockdale is not dispirited if lesser riders have deeper pockets. "It's no accident the same top names keep cropping up," he explains. "They keep getting good horses because they make those horses. OK, the odd joker in the pack does come through, but you won't see the same longevity. The reason they need to spend all these millions on a horse is because they're not capable of producing one. So I turn that into a positive – that gives me an absolute buzz and a half. My own record says I'm not a one-trick pony. And the beauty of horses is that they always take you at face value. They don't care how much your house is worth, or your car. In a lot of ways, it's a very honest sport."

With equivalent candour, the builder's son admits that his own artistry is not innate. "I have not got any natural talent when it comes to horses," he says bluntly. "What I've been able to do is work out exactly where it fits together. I'm not a natural, flair rider – but I'm very well planned and disciplined. I'm more of an Ivan Lendl than a John McEnroe."

He confesses with equal frankness the hostilities that must be suspended by those selected in the home cause at Greenwich. "We're all fiercely competitive," Stockdale admits. "I don't go out for meals with many of my showjumping comrades, or colleagues, or whatever you want to call them. But when we're on a team, we're definitely behind each other. After my accident, people really pulled round – some I'd never have dreamt of.

"It's like a good army unit. Watch them in the bar, they might be having a fight. But if an outsider comes in and says: 'Blues and Royals, you're a bunch of girls' blouses!' Wallop! Everyone's on top. 'You don't do that to one of ours.' And I think we're a bit like that."

Except they don't actually fight? "Oh yes. Not me, personally, but without any shadow of doubt there's a few been thumped. A few years ago we needed a very long table. But when they're together, they're right together."

If he makes it, moreover, his compatriots will have an obvious talisman. For what Stockdale learnt in hospital would serve any Olympian, not to mention many whose struggles are ultimately more serious. He remembers lying in hospital, thinking: "We can't do this." But he found two reasons to turn things round. "One: you don't have a choice. And two: you can."

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is at Windsor Castle until Sunday. For tickets, visit www.rwhs.co.uk or call 0844 5814960

Olympic news you may have missed...

Argentina's Olympic Committee has moved to distance itself from a television advertisement linking the Falklands War to the London Games. "We strongly believe the Games are not a platform for politics," said the AOC president, Gerardo Werthein. "Using the Olympic Games to make political gestures of any kind is not acceptable."

What's coming up...

Today until Sunday The modern pentathlon World Championships continue in Rome. There is British interest tomorrow when Heather Fell is among four Britons in action in the semi-finals.

Who's up?

Hannah Cockroft Wheelchair racer is first to set a world record at Olympic Stadium, covering 100m in 18.56sec.

Jenna Randall & Olivia Federici Duo have been included in Team GB's nine-women synchronised swimming team.

Who's down?

GB men's water polo side Have been handed a tough draw with champions Hungary.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas