Pippa Funnell: Funnell goes for gold after Grand Slam glory

Unique eventing triumph may not have received due recognition but next summer's Olympic Games could change that
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Like a number of other sports-lovers I know, I watched the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Awards last Sunday through my fingers. Whoever decided to involve Hazel Irvine, Ken Doherty and Mark Williams in a spoof of The Matrix should be force-fed snooker balls. Next to that, the use of Dirty Den to reflect on the year's golf looked like a masterpiece of editorial judgement, and it most emphatically wasn't.

When it came to the actual awards, however, none of us could have any quibbles. Steve Redgrave was the right and proper winner of the Golden Personality trophy, at least on the basis that "personality" is a misnomer, and it is only achievement that counts. And how could Jonny Wilkinson not have won the 2003 award?

Except that his was not the most awesome sporting achievement of the year. By winning at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley, Pippa Funnell won the grand slam of three-day eventing, an unprecedented and spectacular feat. For this she made the five-strong shortlist for the BBC's award, and laughs when I ask whether she thinks she should have won the most glittering prize.

"No, I do not. I know how I felt after watching them [the England rugby union team winning the World Cup]. I felt the power of sport, the feelgood factor when we win. That's why it will be great if London wins the 2012 Olympic bid." Might Funnell still be competing then? "I wouldn't say not. I've a really nice five-year-old at the moment, who I think an awful lot of. And 14, 15, 16 is a great age for horses in eventing."

But let's look back rather than forward, and reflect on her remarkable grand slam. The term, incidentally, was borrowed from contract bridge by the American journalist OB Keeler, Boswell to the golfer Bobby Jones. He used it to describe Jones' capture of golf's four most prestigious titles in 1930, a feat that has never been repeated - as close as Tiger Woods got - by a male golfer in a single season.

Tennis also has its grand slam, as of course has rugby union. But the three-day eventing slam is the toughest of the lot. Admittedly, there are only three rather than four events that count towards it. Yet each of those events involves three disciplines - show jumping, cross country and dressage - that are gruelling in very different ways.

More significantly, a symbiotic understanding between rider and horse is required at all times. And more significantly still, the threat of serious injury or even death is ever-present. Which, except for the odd crackpot-inspired police presence around Tiger, is hardly true of golf or tennis.

Funnell does not especially look like a woman of indomitable courage and irrepressible will. Unlike Ellen MacArthur, for instance, she has no steely gaze, carries no aura of mighty single-mindedness. She is petite, pretty, with a ready smile and pearl earrings, not unlike several thousand other privately schooled Home Counties women in their mid-30s. But actually, the comparison with MacArthur is a valid one. Funnell, too, takes on men and beats them. And she has the same emotional connection with the 12 horses in her Surrey yard as MacArthur has with boats and water.

"I don't have kids," she says, "but like a parent I try not to have favourites. They are all so different, and you have to sense when they are worried about something or when they are being a bit naughty, because the signs are similar. If they're being naughty when you're riding them then you're stronger with your legs. And you might need to give them a smack, but you have to stay consistent. If I smack a horse my heart-rate has to stay the same. I mustn't do it in anger. One day a month I might think 'Why am I doing this?', and feel a bit impatient with them, but I mustn't jeopardise the relationship.'

When I begin to say that her words remind me of what jockeys such as Tony McCoy and Pat Eddery have told me about the relationship between horse and rider, she politely interrupts.

"It's not the same. Jockeys are climbing on so many more horses. I've had Primmore's Pride [on whom she won at Burghley] since he was two. I've worked on him pretty much every day since, and he's now 10. So there is a much greater bond than between a jockey and a racehorse."

She pauses for a sip of coffee. We are in the media centre at the Olympia Show Jumping Championships, where her husband, William Funnell, is competing, and she is warming to her theme.

"I adore the animals I have, the dogs as well as the horses, but they are not spoilt. It is dangerous to spoil a horse. It must not learn that it can barge all over you."

Having struggled to teach our miniature Shetland pony not to barge all over me, yet being considerably larger than Funnell, I ask how she is equipped physically to assert herself over her horses.

"You can't separate the physical and the mental," she explains. "It's feel. If the horse is starting to lose a little bit of concentration, you have to sense it almost before it happens, then make a tiny adjustment hardly visible to anyone watching. But some riders don't have that feel. Suddenly they've lost the horse and have to make a major adjustment. If I'm on a horse before a dressage someone might talk to me and I don't even notice them. They think I'm a snotty cow but I've already started to find the feel. The horse is incredibly sensitive to that, too."

It was Funnell's preternatural feel which enabled her to win the grand slam, and the grand slam which enabled her to win eventing's biggest ever cash prize of $250,000 (£141,000). Also thrown in was a Rolex watch in pink gold, which she is wearing. She shows it to me. "It's a bit fast," I tell her. She chuckles. "It stops if you don't wear it for a week, and I reset it yesterday by our bedside alarm clock, which must have been wrong."

She started the year wearing a bog-standard Swatch watch. "I mustn't be rude about it because my brother gave it me for Christmas, but I was definitely a plastic watch person. I thought I could have a good year if I rode to the best of my ability. I certainly believed in my horses. But there are so many disappointments in this sport. The horse might roll in the stable, get a knock at just the wrong time. I didn't think in a million years that I would win the grand slam."

She won Kentucky and Badminton on the same horse, her beloved Supreme Rock. "And Kentucky took the pressure off Badminton because I had a big one in the bag already. I was more relaxed than at any previous Badmintons. But there is so much luck involved. When you watch 100-metre sprints, the difference between first and second, even first and fourth, can be fractions of a second. But in our sport, over three days and three different disciplines, the margins are even smaller. At Badminton I won by 0.4 of a second. And at Burghley if Zara Phillips had gone clear we would have finished on the same score."

Funnell did not go into Burghley confident of winning the final leg of the fabled grand slam. "I had a terrible run-up. Two of my top horses had minor injuries, and I'd had a couple of falls and was feeling stiff. Eventing is like any sport. If everything is going well you think 'This is relatively easy'. If not, you wonder just what it's going to take to succeed."

In other respects, though, eventing is not remotely like other sports. For one thing, it has a modest media profile. And yet Funnell informs me that Badminton is one of the sporting world's three biggest single-day spectator events, with 250,000 people descending on it - which means an awful lot of waxed jackets, green wellies and Range Rovers, I think it's fair to say, although Funnell does not consider herself one of that set at all.

"I know it's considered a sport for toffs, but I'm definitely not a toff," she insists.

Perhaps it is the perception of eventing as élitist that has prevented it from getting more media coverage. Whatever, not the least of Funnell's pride in her achievements this year lies in the fact that she has helped to raise the sport's profile, and she hopes that it will rise even more before next year's Olympic Games, which the British team should enter as leading gold-medal contenders.

"Athens," she tells me, "is my main aim for 2004. I'd love to do the grand slam again, but I still think it is quite a freaky thing to have done. And there is something very special about riding for your country. Sydney was just mindblowing. And Yogi Breisner, the team's performance director, is a top, top guy. He's created a special atmosphere. There are some people in this sport who've had everything handed to them on a plate, but my team-mates and I mostly haven't, and we're hungrier as a result."

Has not Zara Phillips, the Queen's grand-daughter, had everything handed to her on a plate?

"Erm, no ... she's a real credit to her parents. She's so unaffected, and I really, really respect her for what she's already achieved. None of us had the pressure on us at her age that she had at Burghley. She just steps into any situation and can mix with anyone. But ... I couldn't be in this sport if it were not for the owners of my horses. I only have a half-share in one horse, a cheap and cheerful racehorse that is far too slow for racing, and probably for eventing."

Though privately educated, she was not, she adds, brought up in particularly privileged circumstances. Her father was something in shipping, she's not quite sure what, and her mother worked full-time organising equestrian events.

"But my dad wasn't horsey at all. He played rugby for London Irish, and sailed in the Fastnet race. That was his thing. My brother wasn't keen on horses either. We had no stables or land at home. But we were friendly with the Brooks-Wards [the BBC commentator Raymond Brooks-Ward was her godfather] and I started on their pony. Then at 16 I went to work for an amazing lady, [the celebrated riding teacher] Ruth McMullen, in Norfolk.

"I had eight years with her, riding maybe nine or 10 horses every day. That was the best possible grounding. And when I left home aged 16, my dad realised that he would never see me if he didn't come to a few competitions, so he got keen and now he commentates at horse trials. He goes to competitions now whether I'm competing or not."

And he is better able now, therefore, to appreciate his daughter's extraordinary affinity with horses. I ask, finally, whether she has ever been unable to connect with a particular beast.

"One or two. A couple of times I have sat on a horse and had bad vibes. I've thought, 'This horse is not for me, and it's not for the sport of eventing'. It might be fine for dressage, but not brave enough or careful enough for cross country.

"And it is our responsibility to eliminate as many risks as possible. The sport did go through a period with several tragic accidents, as you know, although that never put me off. The number of car accidents don't stop you from driving a car, or crossing a road, do they?"

And this time she looks at me almost fiercely. It is only because she is more genteel than Ellen MacArthur that you don't initially feel, as with MacArthur, the force of her personality. Or maybe it's because my feel is not as good as hers.

Pippa Funnell the life and times

Born: Pippa Nolan, 7 October, 1968, in Crowborough, East Sussex. Father played rugby for London Irish. She was school lacrosse captain but always loved horses, managing to convince her parents to let her leave school at 16 and become a working pupil with the legendary riding teacher Ruth McMullen.

1975: Enters her first gymkhana at the age of six.

1980s: Begins serious competition after leaving school.

1987: Becomes Young Rider European Champion in 1987, riding one of her favourite horses, Sir Barnaby.

1990: On Sir Barnaby she comes fifth at Badminton, her best result at this stage of her career.

1991: Becomes British champion at Gatcombe. She marries the top show jumper William Funnell.

1999: Becomes European champion for the first time, riding Supreme Rock.

2000: One of her finest moments, helping Team Great Britain to two silver medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics riding alongside Ian Stark, Jeanette Blackwell and Leslie Law.

2001: Crowned European Champion for the second time in Pau, again riding Supreme Rock.

2002: Achieves her first Badminton victory, as well as helping Great Britain to team gold at the European Championships in Spain.

2003: A marathon year for Pippa, in which she becomes the first rider in history to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. A second successive win at Badminton, as well as victories in Kentucky and Burghley, helped her scoop $250,000 (£141,000) in prize-money and plaudits from throughout the sport and beyond. The Grand Slam was secured after fending off the best in the world, including Zara Phillips, the daughter of the Princess Royal. Her year culminated in being nominated in the top five for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. She is currently ranked as the world No 1.

2004: Will once again be leading Team Great Britain at the Olympic Games.

She says: "It ain't just the money - there's the pride in the horses, who have never let me down."

They say: "This is an amazing accomplishment and Pippa is a most worthy champion" - James R Wolf, a member of the United States' equestrian team.

David Walley