The mother of all eventers; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

Ian Stafford talks to Britain's eventing queen who has just won four consecutive titles
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The Independent Online
Her bungalow, near Exeter, is crammed with congratulatory cards. In fact she has so many that there is literally not enough space left for one more. They have arrived in sackloads for two reasons: one, that Mary King is enjoying a remarkable streak that has seen her win the last four eventing titles; secondly, in doing so she has struck a crucial blow for motherhood in sport.

For King's year has been dominated by three events this year - failure at the Olympics, subsequent success since, and, most important of all, the birth of her first child, Emily, last January. All of these are inextricably linked.

She is the type of woman who refuses to let her potential pitfalls get in her way of sporting success, which is why, over the years, she has collected team gold medals at the 1994 World and 1992 European Championships, two British Open titles and a victory at Badminton in 1992.

So, when faced with the dilemma of wanting to start a family but also knowing that the Olympic Games were looming, she came, typically, to an instant solution. She decided that, at 35 years of age, she was not going to hang around any longer. All it needed was some meticulous planning.

"It was simply a case of getting the calendar and calculator out," she explained while placing Emily down on the carpet with one hand and serving up a mug of tea with the other. "I worked out that I needed to have the baby in February. If we could do this, it would mean that I would be able to compete while pregnant in the European Championships and then still be able to recover in the spring in time for Atlanta."

It all went exactly to plan. King was so determined to continue riding that she "accidentally" forgot to mention her pregnancy to the British team selectors after she was picked to ride for her country in the European Championships last September. She went on to help Britain win a team gold, and helped herself to an individual bronze medal.

"Nobody knew, except my immediate family and the team doctor, who was a gynaecologist. I owned up to the rest of the team after it was all over, and they all admitted they would have been very worried for me if they had known."

Emily was born prematurely, which gave King even more time to recover for the season ahead. Within a couple of weeks, she was, albeit gingerly, back in the saddle and looking ahead to selection for Atlanta.

For the fairy-tale to have continued, King would have needed to return home with a gold medal hanging around her neck. She arrived in Atlanta confident that on her old faithful horse, King William, she stood a fair chance of medal success, but it was not to be. Instead, she recorded three personal records in the three disciplines of her event.

"I recorded the highest scoring dressage round in the history of the event, and led the individual competition by a mile," she begins. "Then it all started to go hideously wrong.

"King William's never refused a fence in his life in the cross-country stage, but he chose Atlanta to record a first. As he came to a halt at the end of a four-fence combination, I could see the gold medal being wrenched away from me."

Worse was to follow. "I'd worked out that if I'd had a clear round in the cross-country I could have got away with knocking four fences down in the show-jumping, King William's worst event, and still won the gold medal. But it would have all been immaterial because he knocked down eight." She repeats the figure for effect. "Eight! That, too, was his worst ever score. The Olympics turned out to be a disaster."

It also seemed to confirm what the doubters had been saying all along. "Oh, I'd read one newspaper asking whether I was being brave or stupid," she admits. "But on returning to England I started to hear things through the grapevine, along the lines of: `Maybe she's lost it since becoming a mother. Her competitive edge has gone, and her emotions have been redirected.'"

King categorically denies this. "I had plenty enough time to return to full fitness and to get my horses in shape. Actually, as I entered the Olympic competition I felt that neither myself nor King William could be better geared up for the event. It just wasn't to be and, although I was desperately frustrated and disappointed, experience in this game has taught me all about the ups and downs of eventing."

All of which, after a tearful reunion with baby Emily, has made her post- Olympic achievements even more remarkable, starting at the Scottish Open Championships near Edinburgh at the end of August. King not only won on Star Appeal, her biggest title triumph since Emily's birth, but she also took the separate Ladies Advance Section on King Solomon. "It was a very satisfying trip," she admits. "Not only had I answered my critics, but I had also won on Star Appeal who, during the spring, was proving so strong to handle that it resulted in a couple of falls."

But she had no idea what was to follow. A week later she won the British Open Championships at Gatcombe Park on King William, the horse who let her down so badly in Atlanta. Just for good measure, she came second on King Solomon as well.

At the beginning of this month King then claimed Burghley, the one major domestic title that had eluded her throughout her career, this time back on Star Appeal. "I couldn't believe it when I won there as well, especially as I'd been trying to win Burghley since 1988 and twice finished second in the past.

"I was seriously wondering what was happening to me. Much more of this, I thought, and the other riders are going to start ignoring me. It was all coming right for me." So much so, in fact, that King then made it four out of four last weekend at Blenheim, this time on King Solomon, her youngest but, she says, most talented horse of the lot.

"I thought to myself before the competition begun, `Surely you're not going to win again?' There was no reason why I couldn't, of course, except that it's pretty unlikely to win four consecutive eventing competitions, especially when they are as prestigious as they have been."

So what's the secret then? Extra sugar lumps for the horses, perhaps, or maybe just a steely determination from someone who felt she had a point to prove for herself and for motherhood.

"Well, I probably would have swapped the lot for an Olympic gold medal, especially as it was the only part of my plans , having conceived and then given birth to Emily, that didn't go right. I guess I've been pretty determined since the Olympics."

It seems to have shut the mother-bashers up as well, though hasn't it? "Well, I never thought motherhood would be a problem for me in the first place as a sportswoman, and neither did I agree with all this `Superwoman' nonsense that successful sporting mothers get labelled with," King said.

"But I do hope that what I have achieved in the past couple of months will encourage other mothers, or those planning to become a parent, to compete in sport. It is clearly possible to do, and not beyond anyone's dreams."

You wouldn't believe it to be possible but Mary King, quite clearly Britain's best current eventer, is now struggling to find a sponsor for next year. It costs something to the tune of pounds 50,000 to compete at her level annually, and without such a benefactor she may well have to sell one of her horses.

After what she has done, the likes of Mothercare should be battering down her Devon door, let alone recognised sports firms. Although it is a niggling concern, King, in her rolled-up sleeves style, will still toast the end of her season next week with a party at home for everyone who has helped her through a year she is unlikely to forget. Then it will be back to business.

"I still love what I do, I've found a great new horse in King Solomon, and I'm already thinking to myself that, by the Sydney Olympics, he should be at the peak of his form. I'll make sure I will be too."

There is just one final matter that will be sorted out prior to the millennium. King and her husband, David, plan to have a second child. Surely the calculator and calendar won't be needed this time?

"Oh yes they will," she counters. "You see, even though it won't be an Olympic year, there is still Badminton and Burghley, and the European Championships next year, and not forgetting the World Championships in 1998..."

We've got the picture.