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
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