Mary King plays down her desire for Olympic gold: ‘I’m quite philosophical if you’ve given yourself the best possible preparation, you can only do your best, and if someone else is better on the day, so be it.’ But this won’t fool anyone who has followed the 20-year horse-trials career of this extraordinarily driven sportswoman. This is a rider who, in 1995, galloped and jumped her way around a mountainous Italian cross-country course to win a European team gold medal when she was secretly five months pregnant.
The revelation made front-page news in The Times and spawned debate about riding during pregnancy and whether women subsequently lose their nerve not an affliction that has ever touched Mary. ‘So many people said I’d lose my edge when I had children, but, much as I love them, the drive’s very much still there.’
Then, in 2001, she broke her neck. ‘The surgeon said: “You can start riding in eight weeks, but don’t fall off for 10”.’ She’s won most major prizes Badminton (twice), Burghley, world-championship team gold and six European medals but Olympic glory is a frustrating omission, and now the 47-year-old farmer’s wife will be easily one of Team GB’s most senior athletes at the Beijing Olympics next week.
Riding the sparky little bay Call Again Cavalier ‘we know each other inside out’ she’s also known as an athlete tipped for gold, and is competing with, even by her determined standards, visibly heightened focus. ‘Yes, it’s that gold medal, which I’d so love to win,’ she admits. ‘When I was young, my ambition centred around Badminton. Then I won that, so it switched to being about Olympic gold. I’ve had chances, but it hasn’t happened, and I have to not let it become too important.’
Candidly, she ticks off the failures: ‘Barcelona was a disaster King William [her horse] got lit up and hit the show jumps; in Atlanta, we were miles in the lead and then made the only cross-country mistake of our career together. Sydney my dressage simply wasn’t good enough, and I just couldn’t catch up.’ Four years ago, in Athens, Mary got a last-minute call-up from the reserve camp and helped the British team to silver. ‘That was weird. I was resigned to being there for the beer, so when I got the call, part of me thought “Oh no, I’ve got to do it now”, and the other “you lucky girl”. You feel so patriotic.
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The Olympics is much bigger than you; it’s other people the millions of Britons watching television, the organisations that have funded you who own your performance. The first time, I was overwhelmed by it eating breakfast beside the world’s best sportsmen. But I’ve learned that you have to treat it like any other competition; it’s important to keep a level head.’ Mary is whipcord fit, effortlessly elegant, both on and off a horse, and has an attractively mobile face.
She is a famously good sport, shrugging off devastating ill luck with an old-fashioned politeness that, again, belies the steel beneath. It’s a pity that detractors in the media of horse trials ‘it’s elitist’ is an old chestnut haven’t met Mary, who started riding on the vicar’s pony.
There was no family money her father, a naval officer, suffered for the rest of his life the awful consequences of a motorcycle accident that happened before Mary was even born. His sporting drive, sublimated due to circumstance, resurfaced in his daughter who has an extraordinary appetite for work. Her modest yard, near the East Devon coast, is as far away as possible from the white railed mansion paddocks of popular myth.
‘The sport might give an elitist impression, but you’re actually totally reliant on sponsors and owners, and on your own earning potential, through teaching, producing horses and winning. I didn’t have horsy parents, but for some reason I had this inner drive to get to the top of the sport.’ If Beijing doesn’t come off, Mary’s younger colleagues are taking no bets against her ousting them in 2012. ‘I don’t have any problems with motivation,’ she says, ‘but it’s hard to give everyone in my life the time they deserve. After this Olympics, I will cut down a little.’