Jackson defies all obstacles

Genevieve Murphy on the long and difficult road to success for a member of Britain's Paralympic equestrian team
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Jo Jackson can remember one moment above all others during her trip to Atlanta for the Paralympic Games. It came as a glorious mixture of joy and relief, as the 24-year-old rider did the final halt in the first dressage test that counted towards the medals.

"I knew it was a good test," Jackson said. "I'd had serious problems in the warm-up class, so that last halt felt very special." There was an hour's delay, during which she paced back and forth, before her score came through and she knew that she had won the Grade IV gold medal. Another Briton, Pat Straughan, took the silver.

Jackson, who has a hook in place of her right arm which was missing at birth, was to win two more gold medals - one for the freestyle test to music and another as a member of the winning team, which also included Liz Stone, Dianne Tubbs and Anne Dunham.

In all, the British Paralympic Equestrian team collected three gold, three silver and two bronze medals. This remarkable haul made them worthy recipients of the Special Award which was presented in London yesterday by the Princess Royal, during the Animal Health Trust's United Kingdom Equestrian Awards Luncheon.

There would have been no medals for Jackson but for the wonderfully positive attitude taken years ago by Ruth Jackson, her mother, who was determined that Jo would not be held back by her handicap. So (among other things) she rode, swam and learnt to play a variety of musical instruments during her childhood in Devon. She did not like riding initially, but it was the thing that stuck.

At 16 Jackson was persuaded to join the Riding for the Disabled Association and she promptly became the Junior RDA National Dressage champion. She won the senior title in 1991 and 1993. In 1994 she became world champion.

It has not, however, been an easy ride. This year Jackson has had flu, a recurring chest infection, tendon trouble in her good arm (on which she had an operation last week) and a sharp pain in her right forearm where the artificial limb fitted. The latter was due to weight loss in training which left insufficient fat to cushion the bone, so she cut up a foam foot pad to use instead.

Despite the problems, Jackson was well prepared for the climate in Atlanta. "The heat and humidity wasn't nearly as bad as jumping around in the steam room for 25 minutes," she said. Having trained at a fitness centre for five days a week, she had expected to be riding a horse during the team's acclimatisation in Florida. But the horses that were provided were lame, so she ran round a lake in her riding gear instead.

The first horse assigned to Jackson in Atlanta was also lame and the second was unmanageable. "He went ballistic in the warm-up class, he was bucking and pulling and I only just managed to stay on," Jackson said.

The second horse was also found to be lame so, in the end, she shared Irish Classic - the mount of her good friend and team-mate, Liz Stone, who was born with spina bifida. Jackson first sat on the horse (who was no armchair ride either) just 30 minutes before the test that provided her with her first gold medal - and her exquisite moment of relief.

ANIMAL HEALTH TRUST AWARDS: Duvaxyn Sporting Award: W Swinburn. Horse and Hound Equestrian Personality of the Year: G Billington. Duphar Top Horse Award: It's Otto. Voluntary Service Award: R Barlow. Outstanding Scientific Achievement: Professor B Edwards. AHT Special Award: British Paralympic Equestrian team.