Mary King: Eventing is a high-risk sport. That's what makes it so exciting

The Brian Viner Interview: Despite its genteel image, equestrianism is a tough business and few riders have shown the steel of the 47-year-old about to compete at her fifth Olympics

Friday 08 August 2008 00:00 BST
(Robert Hallam)

Mary King. It is a pleasingly simple name that, outside the world of three-day eventing, does not elicit much recognition. Unlike Zara Phillips, or to a lesser extent Pippa Funnell and, in bygone times, Lucinda Prior-Palmer, King's fame has not transcended her sport. Yet here she is on the brink of her fifth Olympic Games, about to pull level with Sir Steve Redgrave in terms of Olympian longevity.

She is, moreover, a woman of such luminous goodness that it would be easier for me to ride a clear round at Badminton than to find anyone in equestrian circles with a negative word to say about her. "Lovely", "delightful", "sweet" and "serene" are some of the adjectives tossed at me when I tell my horsey friends who it is that I am going to interview.

But luminosity and loveliness do not win Olympic medals, any more than sweetness and serenity overcome a broken neck to regain a place at the summit of a sport. King has done both. Yet she has also provoked furious debate. In 1995, when overcoming a challenging cross-country course in Italy to win European team gold, there was not only fire in her belly but also her daughter Emily. Secretly, King was five months pregnant, and when word got out, there was predictable disapproval. Whatever, at 47 she is not only one of British sport's more determined achievers, but also one of its great survivors.

We meet at the Cheltenham horse trials, not long before her departure for Hong Kong, where the British Olympic equestrian squad is based. In a vast field there are hundreds of huge horse transportation trucks parked, seemingly haphazardly, although it does not take me long to find the right one. A violent green colour, plastered with sponsors' logos, it is a truck that proclaims sporting stardom, which makes the innate modesty of its owner, sitting at a table in its considerable shadow, seem incongruous.

Challenging that modesty outright, I ask her where her five Olympic Games place her in the pantheon of British eventers? "I think Ian Stark did five," she says. "I'm not sure about Richard Meade." A shy smile. "So I'll have to keep going until London to break the record." Does she know whether she is the most experienced Olympian in Team GB as a whole? "Oh, I shouldn't think so. And of course Steve Redgrave went to five and won gold every time, so I'm way behind him."

Despite the withdrawals of Phillips and Lucy Wiegersma, whose horses were injured, she feels confident that the eventing team can win gold this time, topping the silver medals won four years ago in Athens. Yet her most memorable Olympics will always be Barcelona in 1992. "It was my first, an absolute dream come true, and even though the results weren't great, team sixth and individual ninth, the experience was every bit as good as I had imagined. Also, we finished early so I stayed out there, and saw a lot of boxing, diving and athletics, and Sally Gunnell winning gold, which was wonderful."

In Atlanta four years later she experienced some, though not all, of the searing heat she can expect these next few days in Hong Kong, where a minimum temperature of 90F and 90 per cent humidity have been predicted. Typically, her concerns are only for the horses.

"I did think two or three years ago, is it me just being greedy [wanting to go to Hong Kong], and not thinking about the horses' welfare. They are so precious to us, but what has given me confidence is a test event held last year, at the same venue and at the same time of year. All the horses were monitored very carefully by vets and they coped amazingly well. That made me think 'Let's go for it'."

Nonetheless, the heat will require greater-than-usual levels of fitness among both the riders and their mounts, to which end for the past few months she has been getting up every other morning at six to pursue a punishing routine on a cross-trainer, not a standard start to the day for a 47-year-old mother-of-two.

"And for the horses it's been the same. They've been galloping every third day with fleece rugs on, zipped right to the top of the necks, so they sweat profusely. It teaches their bodies to sweat and recover. They don't seem to mind. And we'll be clipping their coats with fine blades shortly before we go to Hong Kong."

Over there the squad is apart from the rest of Team GB in the Olympic Village, gaining in comfort what they lose in camaraderie. "There's no pollution, and the Hong Kong Jockey Club at Sha Tin, where we're based, has absolutely amazing facilities. The horses have air-conditioned stables. It's top spec."

King will be competing on her beloved Call Again Cavalier, but has had the luxury, unlike Phillips and Wiegersma, of a substitute horse in Imperial Cavalier. "It's the first time I've had a choice of two, and for [her team-mate] William Fox-Pitt to have had three is amazing. Often a rider only gets a horse of that calibre once in a lifetime. Luckily, both my horses have the same owners, Sue and Eddie Davies, and Janette Chinn. Poor William's three horses have three different owners, and of course each owner wants their horse to go. Do they book flights or don't they? What a difficult situation."

Fox-Pitt, the only man in the five-strong team, is an eventing veteran, but in terms of experience even he must doff his protective headgear to King. "This sport is very much about experience," she says. "It shows time and time again. At Badminton, for instance, there are 90 horses and riders, and it is there for the younger riders to win, but always at the end of the three-day event it is the same names in the top 10; William Fox-Pitt, Andrew Nicholson, Pippa Funnell [she delicately omits herself, though she has won twice at Badminton]. They are the people with the split-second reactions you need to make sure the horse jumps well."

Age has neither dulled her reactions nor diminished her nerve. "A lot of female riders get married and have children, and lose their urge, but for some reason I'm still really competitive," she says. Perfectly on cue we are joined by a girl in jodhpurs, 12-year-old Emily, who experienced that exhilarating ride in Italy in the womb. Not surprisingly, she has her mother's all-encompassing passion for the sport.

And passion it manifestly is. When King broke her neck in 2001, no atom of her being wanted to give up riding. "It's a high-risk sport but that's what makes it so exciting," she says, her eyes shining. "It gives you such an adrenalin buzz. It's fantastic. Because there are three different disciplines [show-jumping, dressage and cross-country] it's a bit like being a triathlete, but what makes it unique is that men and women compete on equal terms. Brute strength is not a factor. Women are as good as men." An impish grin. "If not better."

She was alone at home in Devon, riding a young horse round a field, when the accident occurred. "A pheasant shot up out of a hedge, the horse shot sideways, and I went a bit crooked in the saddle. The horse was a bit naughty. He took advantage of the situation, bronked, and I fell very badly. I could waggle everything, so I thought 'Good, no paralysis', but I couldn't get up. The horse galloped off and I lay there thinking 'Hmmm'. Eventually I found that by rolling on to my side and by lifting my head with my hands I could stand. I walked back tentatively to the yard, where the horse was standing, but I couldn't lift my arm to get his bridle off. So I phoned a friend up the road, Annie, who came and took me to hospital."

There followed one of the less glorious episodes in NHS history. King was X-rayed and told she had suffered whiplash. But a few days later she climbed back on to a horse, and felt, bizarrely, as if her head was loose. Alarmingly, it was. When Daniel Chan, the consultant at Exeter Nuffield Hospital, saw the original X-rays, he spotted instantly that the C5 vertebrae was in pieces, and explained that to have ridden again had been flirting with death. He operated, advising King not to ride again for eight weeks, and not to fall off again for 10.

She remains remarkably sanguine not only about her own brush with mortality but also about the pitfalls of a sport far more dangerous than Formula One. The opportunity to ride Call Again Cavalier came five years ago when his rider, Caroline Pratt, was killed at Burghley. Did she consider it unlucky to assume the mount of a dead rider? "Oh no, not at all. A lot of riders were dying to get their hands on that horse." I scan her face but there is no sign that she has realised the unfortunate choice of words. The eyes are shining again. "Gosh, when that call came... I was a bit short of top horsepower at the time and I knew he was a special horse. I felt so honoured."

King's attitude towards life-threatening injury is either explained, or made inexplicable, I am not sure which, by the fact that her late father was invalided out of the Royal Navy shortly before she was born, having suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident on his way home from playing squash for the Navy. He was never remotely the same again, and she knew him only as a semi-detached human being, just about able to take a humble job as a verger in a village church. It was far from the privileged world in which many horsewomen are raised, not only because money was scarce, but because it was not a horsey family. "My mother still says that if she hadn't had me at home, she would think the hospital had given her the wrong baby," she says.

From early girlhood she felt a compulsion to ride. She started on the vicar's pony, then begged her parents for her own, which she finally got when she was 13, and left school at 16 to work in an eventing yard. By then she had glimpsed the future, on a pony club trip to Badminton. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Shiny horses, shiny riders, huge fences... when I eventually rode there in 1985 it was a dream come true." In some ways Mary King's whole life has been a series of dreams come true. But there is one big one yet to fulfill. Will it happen in Hong Kong?

Crowning moments: Mary King's career

Name: Mary King

Born: 8 June 1961

Height: 170cm

Weight: 63kg

Events in Beijing: Eventing; Individual Competition and Team Competition.

Horses: Call Again, Cavalier and Imperial Cavalier.

Career Highlights: Four-time Olympian (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004). Won team silver at 2004 Athens Olympics.

1985: Competed in her first Badminton, finishing seventh.

1992: First Badminton victory on King William.

1995: Individual bronze at European Championships.

2006: Team gold at World Championships.

2007: Individual silver at European Championships.

British Champion a record four times (1990, '91, '96, 2007). Four team golds at European Championships (1991, '95, '97, 2007).

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