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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Skelton rides again
By Scarlett Elworthy
BBC Sport

Nick Skelton  and Arko III at 2003 Rome Grand Prix
Born: 30 December 1957
Based: Warwickshire
Selected major honours: Alternative Olympic Games: team silver (Moscow, 1980); World Championships team silver (1986), team bronze (1982, 1990, 1998), individual bronze (1986); European Championships team gold (1985, 1987, 1989), team silver (1991, 1993,1995), individual bronze (1987); Volvo World Cup (1995); King George V Cup (1884, 1993, 1996, 1999); Hickstead Derby (1987-89);
Career prize money: 4m
The sporting universe is full of human miracles - Bob Champion and Lance Armstrong are just two names on a lengthy list.

Champion was in remission when he partnered Aldaniti to Grand National glory in 1981, while fellow cancer survivor Armstrong's record six Tour de France wins have given inspiration to millions.

Now, appropriately in the land synonymous with heroes and legends - Greece - another sportsman will enter the hall of comeback kings.

Nick Skelton has battled back from near death to compete in the showjumping event in Athens.

The Great Britain international spent three days hovering between this world and the next after breaking his neck in a riding accident in September 2000.

Following life-saving surgery, his head was encased in a halo helmet, titanium scaffolding which was screwed to his skull for five months.

But while the split C1 vertebrae healed, the ligament holding it in place failed to re-attach itself to the bone.

The Warwickshire rider was warned another crunch could be fatal and promptly retired.

But he was restless: in the brilliant bay stallion Arko III, Skelton knew he had a horse capable of winning an Olympic medal - the one feat he has yet to achieve in his chosen sport.

So when another scan 16 months after the fall showed the ligament had mended, he was quick to contemplate getting back in the saddle.

Nick Skelton
Skelton competes as an individual in Athens but feels part of Team GB

A second opinion from German neurosurgeon Dietrich Kreuser, the uncle of his long-time partner Bettina Melliger, confirmed Skelton's full recovery.

By April 2002 he had returned to the ring, eyes firmly fixed on being part of this month's action at the Markopoulo Equestrian Centre.

"Arko's owner John Hales brought the horse to me with the Olympics in mind just before my fall," Skelton explains.

Not surprisingly, the 46-year-old's brush with mortality has left him a changed man.

"It was a devastating experience. I went through a really bleak phase in hospital when I couldn't see a way forward.

"I do look at things differently now. I guess that's what happens when you have nearly copped it.

"I appreciate life, my family and competing more.

"Looking back, the lay-off did me good. I'd travelled non-stop for 28 years on the circuit, riding loads of horses.

"Now I only ride three - for the Hales family - and I am not getting burnt out like before."

Between then and now, Skelton has shed the two stone he piled on during his enforced sabbatical and feels fitter than ever.

How will I feel if I win a medal? Relieved more than anything. I'd think 'at last I've done it'
Nick Skelton

It is his fifth Olympics, if you include the Alternative Games of 1980, and reckons Arko is his best medal chance yet.

Skelton's last run out with the horse did not go according to plan - uncharacteristically the 10-year-old stopped at the tricky fifth fence in the Samsung Grand Prix in Dublin.

"I can't explain that," he said. "But he'll be alright. He has the right mix of maturity and energy and is careful and clever.

"I've sacrificed a lot with him - not doing this competition or that in order to save him for the big one - and now it is here.

"I'm familiar with the Olympic experience and I know what to expect - the courses will be more technical, bigger, longer and wider than any you encounter in a normal season.

"The Germans, the Dutch, the French, they'll all be tough to beat and it will be hot. But it will be the same for everyone and I'm not going there simply to make the numbers up.

"I've got World Championship, European, Nations Cup, World Cup and Hickstead Derby medals.

"But to win an Olympic one at my age, with everything that's happened, would be the icing on the cake. "

For the first time in Olympian history Britain has failed to qualify a showjumping team and Skelton, along with Robert Smith, will compete as individuals.

Skelton, though, still feels part of a bigger picture and is quick to distance himself from a row that broke out over Smith's inclusion and led to Michael Whitaker falling out with selectors.

Nick Skelton
Skelton and Show Time in full flight at the 1996 Games in Atlanta

"I will still be representing Great Britain. It's Robert's first Games and we will travel out together.

"His Olympic call-up has been a long-time coming, but it's all about having the right horse at the right time and he's got that in Mr Springfield.

"For a while it was a close thing between Michael and Robert, but we're talking about the Olympics and someone is always going to be disappointed if they don't make it.

"We're both aware of the boost our success could give to our sport.

"When I started competing in the 1980s we had some brilliant teams. But so often in the UK we get good horses, then the owners sell them abroad.

"We have to ask ourselves why? Does the sport do enough for British owners?"

"How will I feel if I win a medal? Relieved more than anything. I'd think 'at last, I've done it'."

So, let us just dream for one moment and assume the job is done, will he quit while ahead?

"Give us a chance," Skelton laughs, "I've only just come out of retirement."

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