William Fox-Pitt reflected on the “incredible journey” that Great Britain’s Olympic medal-winning eventers have just completed.
Their work at London 2012 is done, and the five-strong team will disperse tomorrow as proud new owners of silver medals, although they all hope to return for Sunday week’s closing ceremony.
The choice of Greenwich Park as an Olympic eventing venue had many critics over many months, but few who witnessed the competition’s four-day marathon will forget it.
“It’s been an incredible journey, and unlike anything we have ever experienced before,” world number one Fox-Pitt told Press Association Sport. To have ridden in front of that crowd with that atmosphere will never be repeated. It has been a very special occasion, even when it poured with rain.”
A crowd of 50,000 packed into the park to watch Monday’s spectacular cross-country action, and seasoned equestrian followers claimed they had seen nothing like it.
The spine-tingling atmosphere apart, Fox-Pitt admitted it had taken the world’s best riders into unfamiliar territory: “We had to ride pretty crazily on the cross-country, but the crowds were even madder,” he added. “You were just swept along on this kind of wave of enthusiasm.
“I think everyone was forced to ride out of their comfort zone. The terrain of the course meant we weren’t riding at a speed we would normally ride at.
“I think that’s why it became an interesting competition. There was so much pressure on the riders and time faults were expensive. You were hurling yourself around that course.
“It was very slippery in parts, and the cambers were the worst we have ever seen.
“When you came down the steep hill before the fruit and vegetable stall fence, you were coming down in dips and you could see the horse’s legs kind of scattering as they tried to find their balance.
“There wouldn’t be any other event that would be produced like that, but they couldn’t deal with the terrain at Greenwich to make it smoother. They had to go with what was naturally there.”
Fox-Pitt encountered problems with his horse Lionheart, and they fell away from individual medal contention after collecting cross-country time faults: “Lionheart felt very bright in the showjumping and he came out of the competition very well, but he did empty on the cross-country, which was very disappointing,” Fox-Pitt said.
“It was one of those things, one that perhaps we will never get to the bottom of. He has never done it before and hopefully he will never do it again.”
Zara Phillips, the first British Royal family member to win an Olympic medal, added: “The crowds will be my lasting memory. Whenever any British rider was in the main arena or on the cross-country course it was just a different level of noise. It was such a special occasion. It lifted us all the way around the cross-country course.
“My horse High Kingdom was incredible all week. The fence we had down in showjumping yesterday was my fault not his. He did everything I asked of him – he really stepped up to the plate.”
Britain cemented their medal challenge with a brilliant collective effort in the cross-country test that saw Phillips, Nicola Wilson and Tina Cook all go clear inside the time.
It was a remarkable performance, with the tone set by Wilson and Opposition Buzz, the revered British team pathfinder combination that never fails to deliver.
“He gave his all,” Wilson said. “He was super from start to finish.
“I was really pleased with how he coped with the atmosphere. I never imagined it would be as loud as it was, and I was delighted how well he stayed with me.
“He was a pure pleasure to ride cross-country, as he always is. He did his stuff, and it is such a joy to ride him. I feel so privileged to ride such a fabulous horse.”
Mary King, at 51, the oldest female member of Team GB at London 2012, echoed Wilson’s sentiments: “We are all thrilled to bits with our horses and how they coped with the crowds,” she said. “My dressage phase was the one I was nervous about with Imperial Cavalier. It was my main worry. We were quite nervous he would go into that main arena and not cope with the crowd, but he did cope.
“The crowd were great. I went in urging them to be quiet, and they were quiet. It was a relief for him to get that phase out of the way.”
Great Britain’s equestrian baton now passes to the dressage team, who begin their medal quest tomorrow.
The reigning European champions have arrived at Greenwich Park as team gold medal favourites, while individual gold next week is also a distinct possibility.
Britain has never won an Olympic dressage medal, and the quality of Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin, Laura Bechtolsheimer and individual competitor Richard Davison is not lost on the eventers.
“They have a very realistic chance of gold medals,” Fox-Pitt said.
“If you look back just four years, the British dressage team would have been complete outsiders at an Olympic Games.
“What they have achieved in the last four years is extraordinary.”