Olympics: Nicholson heads to seventh games

By David Leggat

Andrew Nicholson rates Nereo as the finest horse he's ridden. Photo / Getty Images.
Andrew Nicholson rates Nereo as the finest horse he's ridden. Photo / Getty Images.

One of New Zealand's most enduring athletes has high hopes for a London medal.

Seven Olympic Games. Who'd have thought it. Certainly not Andrew Nicholson, who will saddle up for No 7, with Mark Todd, in London in July for the three-day event.

Boardsailor Barbara Kendall and canoeing great Ian Ferguson have contested five Olympics, but no one else can match the longevity of the seasoned horsemen.

Todd, double Olympic champion in the 1980s, perhaps the greatest of all eventing riders, and Blyth Tait, Olympic and world individual champion, were two-thirds of the New Zealand trio who pushed the nation to the top of the three-day game over two decades. So what about Nicholson, the two-time winner of the prestigious Burghley event, collector of a pile of European titles, Olympic medallist and rated among the best in the business by his peers?

He hopes to ride Nereo, whom he rates the finest horse he's ridden, to individual success in London, and that would be a terrific completing of the circle from the shattering events 20 years ago in Barcelona.

Let's get that out of the way. The bare facts are Nicholson, riding Spinning Rhombus last for New Zealand, could afford seven rails down and the team gold medal would be theirs.

The horse knocked down nine and gold became silver. Immediately afterwards Nicholson was phlegmatic, these things happen, that's horses for you, and so on. Away from the public eye, however, he was hurting badly.

"I think I've done well to come through that experience," he said from England. "Basically I lost the gold medal for the team. It was a pretty tough time. I realise to people back in New Zealand it wouldn't have looked great. And I don't blame them. But that's life isn't it?"

Life for the 18-year-old from Kihikihi in the Waikato was about heading to England and making his way as an eventer. First impressions? "I left New Zealand at the start of February in a blazing hot summer, arrived at Gatwick airport and it was snowing. I'd never been in snow before, it was freezing cold and I hated it."

But he had a horse to sell to fund the trip, and the ambition was strong.

"At that age you can have a dream and you think anything's possible. It definitely wasn't as easy as I thought it was, but I hung in there and things have turned out pretty good."

Nicholson got work at a racing stables in Chicester, Sussex, where he spent four years. "It wasn't what I was wanting, or expecting it to be, but I was enjoying it, learnt an awful lot, met a lot of people and things snowballed from there."

The ambition was strong, and gradually he came to enjoy the lifestyle. Success followed in time, to the point now where Nicholson has 24 horses at his stables in Marlborough, Wiltshire. It is pretty country, all rolling hills, and life is good for Nicholson. But, at 50, he insists he's still a Kiwi, even if work means he only gets back to New Zealand every couple of years. He likes that when he walks into his local pub and catches up with his old mates and school friends it's as if he's never been away.

Nicholson is yet to win Badminton - and he's contested it a record 31 times - but won Burghley in 1995 on Buckley Province and five years later on Mr Smiffy. Last year, Nicholson was second on 12-year-old Nereo.

Six times in seven years from 1995, a New Zealander won Burghley. Around then Todd won two of his four Badminton crowns; Tait was in his prime.

There were World Games medals. Golden days.

"That was an amazing time," Nicholson said. "It just shows how a bit of success can rub off on the rest of the team. We had Mark winning, then Blyth came along and he was a very competitive rider. He started winning and it made the rest of us want to raise our game ...

Todd and Tait temporarily retired, and there was a lull, at least partly because riders were aiming to fill third or fourth place in the NZ team rather than striving to win. But Nicholson likes what he's seeing heading to the Olympics.

He particularly rates Jonathan Paget "world class, a very naturally talented rider, very switched on".

- NZ Herald

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