Pippa Funnell: Memories of tragedies and absent friends put the glory games in their rightful place

A leading medal hope tells Nick Townsend that she knows all too well how narrow is the line between triumph and disaster

We have all done it as we pass a bunch of flowers, invariably withered and rather pathetic-looking, by the roadside. That swift glance we shoot towards the memorial to another accident victim and the contemplation, if only momentary, of our own mortality, if not necessarily our vehicle's velocity.

Every day that Pippa Funnell adjusts her tack and swings into the saddle, she is confronted by the equestrian equivalent. Every show-jumping fence, every cross-country hazard, can resemble a monument to the fallen. They include friends like Polly Phillips, a vet and member of the British eventing team who died when her horse, Coral Cove, fell on her during a cross-country in Scotland.

Here, this week, at the Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre, south of Athens, Funnell will strive for that near-faultless series of performances which could contribute towards either a team or individual gold. Quite possibly both, when the medals are presented on Wednesday. Yet she does so in the knowledge that just one moment of indecision by her mount, Primmore's Pride, one false stride, could be fatal for one or both members of the combination. For all the idyllic, genteel environment in which equestrian events are invariably staged, together with that wonderful affinity between man and beast, which combine to create an intoxicating spectacle, the statistics reveal that this is a sport which is more dangerous than boxing or Formula One. For Funnell it is a "passion", yet one in which she acknowledges that the margins between triumph and tragedy can be discomfortingly narrow.

"I've lost friends, yes," murmurs Britain's top-ranked woman rider, her normally assertive tones lowered in respect. "It is tough. Of course it is; desperately tough for their families. But the one thing that I can say is that, as tragic as those accidents were, it was their choice, just as it's my choice, to do this sport. Of course, I was cut up about them. But I'm not going to change my whole way of life and start sitting in an office behind a desk."

She adds: "All of us are aware that it's a risk sport, but I have to tell you that I'd far rather die that way than in a car crash. You can't let it affect you. If it did, that would be the day I would stop. It's not a sport to take part in if you're feeling apprehensive."

Funnell's whole demeanour, let alone her stature in eventing, suggests she is anything but gripped with trepidation about potential hazards. Neither does she appear daunted by the opposition. Why should she? Last year, the 35-year-old from Surrey became the first rider to win her sport's most prestigious three events - at Burghley, Kentucky and Badminton - back-to-back. It was a feat which also secured her the Rolex "Grand Slam" bonus of $250,000 during a year in which she was almost inevitably world top-ranked.

Yet, this was the woman who, having progressed from pony club level to Badminton, and in doing so, won the European Young Rider title in 1987, had considered abandoning the sport as a competitor because of failure and criticism, and concentrating on training young horses instead. As she recalls: "I couldn't work out how to think positively".

Aided by sports psychologist, Nikki Heath, she is no longer burdened by great expectation and nerves that accompany it, but is galvanised by the prospect as she awaits the start of the three-stage - dressage, cross-country and showing jumping - examination which will decide both team and individual titles.

Her four British colleagues, determined to improve upon the Olympic team silver at Sydney, when Funnell rode Supreme Rock, are this year's Badminton victor and current world No 1, William Fox-Pitt, Leslie Law, Jeanette Brakewell, and Mary King. The latter, a veteran at 42, is a late substitute for Sarah Cutteridge, whose mount The Wexford Lady was withdrawn after injuring herself in training on Monday.

Nevertheless, optimism continues to pervade the British camp, within which team manager Yogi Breisner - appointed on the same day as his compatriot Sven Goran Eriksson, but with rather less ceremony, and whose subsequent greater success has included that Sydney silver and European team golds at Pau and Punchestown - is a considerable influence. Certainly, morale has risen immeasurably since the 1998 world championships in Rome, when the aforementioned Polly Phillips' Coral Cove failed a drug test (the horse had been administered with a forbidden anti-inflammatory drug) resulting in the loss of two bronze medals.

Cutteridge's disappointment illustrates the vagaries of a sport in which the well-being of an equine partner is paramount. If two legs are problematic, six are nightmarish. Funnell has not only to concern herself with every twinge in her own 59kg frame, but ensure every bit of the 550kg, 17.1 hands (5ft 9in at the shoulder) of Primmore's Pride is healthy and sound, too.

Like their human counterparts, the horses have to be acclimatised to the conditions here. Out of the welcoming icy tentacles of air conditioning, the heat is oppressive, suffocating. "The horses have been here for 10 days, and research shows that should be enough," says Funnell. "We have also done a lot of work at home with special fleece rugs that they wear and which go right up to their ears. Hopefully, that will have helped them enormously.

However, she adds: "I know it's the Olympics, and it's special, but we've still got to ride with our heads. If I feel my horse is tiring because of the heat I will slacken off. Our horses have to come first."

In the next five days, horse and rider will be asked to undergo the artistic, disciplined demands of dressage and the more scientific requirements of the jumping course and the cross-country. To prosper under such varied conditions, the relationship ideally should have been developed as early as possible in the horse's life.

Primmore's Pride was bought by owners Roger and Denise Lincoln as a foal, but has been under Funnell's tutelage since the age of two. He is now 11. "He's a horse that I really thought right from the word go had serious ability," she says. "He's a real athlete, jumps superbly and he's got a wonderful brain in him. He can be quite arrogant. By that, I mean he can be quite rude if I'm chatting in the stable yard and he thinks I'm ignoring him. He'll bash the stable door until I give him the attention he wants."

Somewhat akin to dealing with a difficult husband perhaps, you suggest. Hers, incidentally, is the show jumper William Funnell. She raises her eyebrows extravagantly, as if that was an outrageous comparison, but laughs. "Understanding their body language is so important," she explains. "It's getting inside their heads. Once you've achieved that, you know the difference between them being naughty and being worried - although the way they behave is often very similar."

Funnell adds: "If they're a bit worried and spooking at something, it's about reassuring them, riding them in a manner which tells them 'it's all right, mate. I'm with you'. The moment you feel them relax, then youcan, too."

Funnell has been a welcome presence in a sport whose public perception is still dominated by the image of Thelwell ponies, recollections of the "plummy" vowelled commentators Raymond Brooks-Ward and Dorian Williams, and the perenially gleeful response to the spectacle of Princess Royal receiving a spectacular ducking on the cross-country course.

"There's no getting away from the fact that it had a very élite image," admits Funnell. "I'm very lucky. I'm middle class, I've got a fantastic family and I haven't had to struggle. But I never had it on a plate. We never had a stable at home, not even a field, and the first ponies I had were lent to me by this amazing lady out in Norfolk, Rita McMullen. She is a friend of my mother's and my absolute mentor."

Funnell, whose one regret is that William won't be here, his application for accreditation having been rejected, adds: "Nowadays, the sport is not dominated by very wealthy people, but by people like all of us who do this for a living. It is our business. For us, being here is great - if it comes off. But actually we've lost two weeks' earnings from our businesses. It is important that we keep succeeding in order to make enough money and continue to attract the owners, in order to get the rides."

Funnell's initial interest was developed principally through her mother, Jenny. Her father George attempted to discourage her, believing she should concentrate on her A-levels. To placate him, she started a secretarial course, but she was always going to excel on a horse. Not in the typists' pool.

Now Funnell has arrived, harbouring a profound belief that all her aspirations can come to fruition, with all her demons finally quelled and her mind as clear as the rounds Britain's riders will endeavour to ride this week.

Biography

Pippa Funnell

Born: 7 October 1968 in Crowborough

Marital status: married to showjumper William Funnell

Major results include: Team gold and individual bronze (European Championships, 2003). Team bronze (World Equestrian Games, 2002). Individual and Team gold (European Championships, 2001). Team silver (Olympic Games, 2000). Individual and Team gold (European Championships, 1999). Individual and Team silver (Young Rider European Championships, 1989). Eighth and Team gold Young Rider (European Championships, 1988). Individual gold Young Rider (European Championships,1987). Team bronze (Junior European Championships, 1986).

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