ATLANTA COUNTDOWN: King happy to take a leading part into unknown territory

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The Independent Online
Mary King is waiting, with typical equanimity, to hear whether she will be riding King William in the team or individual contest of the Olympic three-day event. The nonsense of having separate competitions (it is hoped for the one and only time) means that she cannot compete in both simultaneously, as has always happened in the past.

"I will be happy with whatever the selectors decide," King said on the eve of her departure for Atlanta last week. "Everyone dreams of being the individual champion, but if they were to choose me for the individual, I would possibly be very disappointed not to be part of the team."

She suspects, however, that she will be asked to go first for the team - as she did when Britain won the world title in 1994 and again when they became European Open champions in 1995. On both those occasions they defeated the all-powerful New Zealanders, who will again be favourites on account of their dominant form at Badminton this year.

It takes a generous person to go first for the team, at a time when there is little, if any, feedback on how the course is riding. King's kindness is apparent in her manner; she is unfailingly courteous to journalists and autograph hunters as well as fellow competitors.

King William normally boosts team confidence when going first, by jumping a wonderful cross-country round. The horse was, however, ominously tired over the last part of the course at the World Games in 1994. It transpired that he was suffering from dehydration and, with Atlanta in mind, a new regime of horse management was instigated.

When they travelled to Italy for the European Open last year, the horses were weighed three times a day and their drinking was monitored. All of them had lost weight while travelling and again during the cross-country - oddly enough, regaining it much quicker after the exertion of the competition than the inactivity of the long journey.

King is confident that the horses' welfare is in capable hands. She is also hopeful that King William's habit of clobbering show jumping fences - he lowered five of them at the 1992 Olympics - is a thing of the past. During team training last month, King and Ian Stark went for a session with Lars Sederholm, who devised various confidence-boosting exercises for both of them.

"It's lovely to have Scotty back on the squad," King said of Stark, who was one of her team-mates at the last Olympics. That was an unhappy occasion for the Scot, whose Murphy Himself failed the final horse inspection and so dropped the team from second to fifth place. He went home early, but King stayed on and had a whale of a time in the Olympic Village.

Competing then under her maiden name of Thomson, she has since married David King, who gave the horse his prefix as well as the rider her surname, and they have a daughter, Emily. After winning team gold and individual bronze medals in the European Open last year, King had astonished her team-mates by announcing that she was five months pregnant.

Emily was born in January and leaving her behind for five weeks - the infant remains in the care of Gill Thomas, Mary's mother - has been the most painful part of King's Olympic venture. Since the birth, there have been discussions as to whether or not King has the same determination and ability to see a stride. She sees that nothing has changed. "I don't feel in the least bit different since having a baby," she said. "It hasn't affected my riding at all."