Olympics Equestrian: The Nick Skelton & Peter Charles fairytale

By Sam SheringhamBBC Sport at Greenwich Park
Great Britain capture their first Olympic showjumping gold medal in 60 years

Among all the fairytales that Great Britain's success at London 2012 seems to be throwing up by the day, the triumph of two fifty-somethings who have battled back from career-threatening injuries surely ranks among the most remarkable.

Nick Skelton, 54, and Peter Charles, 52, drew on all their experience in a nerve-jangling jump-off against the Netherlands to help at a euphoric Greenwich Park on Monday. But in many ways it was a miracle that they were there at all.

In the build-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Skelton fell off his horse and broke his neck in two places.

Skelton describes gold as 'unbelievable'

With the upper half of his spine immobilised for five months, he was told by surgeons that another fall could prove fatal and was forced to retire from the sport. But after consultation with a German specialist, the bones eventually healed and he returned to competition in 2002.

Charles, who competed for Ireland in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, suffered a horrendous fall during a show in Hampshire in 2006, rupturing his spinal sheath, shattering three ribs and breaking a vertebra.

After recovering several months later, the Liverpool-born rider with an Irish mother decided to switch nationality and compete for Great Britain, paving the road to London 2012.

As they stood on the top step of the podium proudly alongside their team-mates - 29-year-old Ben Maher and 26-year-old Scott Brash - Skelton and Charles could easily have been mistaken for two fathers with their sons.

But in fact the unlikely quartet are entirely reflective of a sport that, while often branded exclusive, is among the most inclusive with regard to the age and gender of its competitors.

Featuring riders of both sexes aged between 18 to 65, Monday's final round of the team competition began as a slow burner but caught fire at the conclusion in a manner that few who were there will ever forget.

Unable to be separated on points after two days of competition, Great Britain and the Netherlands headed into a jump-off in which all four riders compete over a shortened course.

It was the equestrian equivalent of a penalty shoot-out, with the crowd roaring with approval as Skelton and Maher went clear and letting out a collective gasp of despair when the back legs of Brash's horse Hello Sanctos dislodged the upper rung of the penultimate fence.

When two Dutch riders did the same, it all came down to Charles, who on the seemingly erratic horse Vindicat had failed to go clear in any of his three previous rounds.

As a hushed silence descended over the arena, Charles favoured a steady and deliberate approach, picking off each of the eight fences one by one and punching the air in ecstasy as he cleared the last to spark a celebration every bit as ear-splitting as those that have shuddered the foundations of the Velodrome, the Olympic Stadium and the temporary stands at Eton Dorney in recent days.

"We are all professionals, and I just had to focus on the arena," said Charles. "I was very keen to get the job done and not let the lads down.

"The first time I rode in this arena two days ago the horse freaked out at the noise, his tongue was at the back of his throat and the last thing on my mind was a gold medal.

"We have the best rider in the world in Nick Skelton, and it was up to us to build a team around him, which we have done."

Skelton was competing at his sixth Olympic Games, having tasted heartbreak in Athens in 2004 when he led going into the final round only to slip to 12th place.

"I've been to a lot of Games and made a lot of mistakes but I've finally got there," said Skelton, who had a hip replacement last year and is due to undergo surgery on a troublesome back later this year.

"We lost it, we won it, we lost it and then finally we won it back. Without this crowd we could never have done it.

"People said that riding in an Olympics at home would add pressure, but it was totally the opposite. This has to be my greatest moment."

Monday's triumph was certainly Britain's greatest moment in the recent history of a sport in which they haven't won a medal of any colour since Tim Grubb, Steven Smith and John and Michael Whitaker secured team silver in 1984.

Two years ago, Great Britain were at such a low ebb that they only avoided relegation from the top league of showjumping's Nations Cup in February 2010 on a legal technicality.

That resulted in the sacking of coach Derek Ricketts and his replacement by Dutchman Rob Hoekstra, who has spent two years plotting the path to Monday's incredible triumph.

"This is probably the biggest achievement ever for British showjumping," said Pippa Funnell, who won equestrian eventing medals for Great Britain at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

"Hopefully it will be the making of British showjumping because it is such a fantastic sport and it has been off the radar for many years."

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