By Charlie Bennett in Tokyo
If he had his time again, Ben Maher probably wouldn’t choose to juggle the stress of the Olympics and a wedding just two weeks apart.
But the 38-year-old ensured he will live happily ever after with a sensational individual showjumping gold aboard the brilliant horse Explosion W.
Five years on from Nick Skelton’s magical moment in this very competition in Rio and nine years on from the team gold he won in London, Maher created another British showjumping highlight that will fill montage packages for decades on a thrilling night in Tokyo.
For Maher, victory is vindication for his confidence. He made big statements about Explosion W on the eve of these Games, calling him the Ferrari of showjumping and insisting they were so in tune with one another, the 12-year-old gelding could probably make him breakfast.
Well, it will be champagne on the menu for the next two weeks as Maher celebrates the summer of his life that will see him marry fiancée Sophie at home in Hertfordshire. Explosion W will be there, 50 yards away in the stables.
After victory was confirmed in an incredible six-rider jump-off that delivered as much drama as it promised, Maher was seen on the phone in floods of tears, making sounds rather words.
Back home, his wife-to-be was also incomprehensible. The emotions too raw, too overwhelming.
“I don’t know what was more pressure, this or getting married in two weeks but there are so many people who have contributed to make this possible and hopefully we will get home and have a big celebration,” said Maher, who is able to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams thanks to National Lottery funding – which has never been more important in getting him to the start line after a turbulent year.
“I couldn’t really hear her. There was a lot of screaming and crying and in the end it was a pointless conversation so hopefully I will get back to her later.
“Sophie my fiancée puts up with a lot from me. I work hard, I’m not at home very often. I’m sure she’ll be happy when I get home and we can enjoy all this together.
“I’ve not had much involvement at all [in wedding plans]. I managed to get an hour out to go and get my suit. I sorted that. And I did half a day with Sophie to try and be a bit involved. She’s from America, so they have a rehearsal dinner the night before.
“I took that on as my bit. I finalised everything yesterday actually. It’s been a nice distraction, there’s been a lot of waiting around in the hotel. It was nice to take my mind off some things.”
Showjumping is a game of inches and seconds. One mistimed jump and a pole will fall, hesitate for a second and the time will run out.
But Maher and Explosion W made it look so easy, they could have been out for a Sunday stroll.
Six riders beat the 88 seconds time allocation and jumped clear rounds, including Maher who was the last rider out.
They moved to the jump-off, a straight shoot-out for gold. Whichever rider clocked the fastest time would win - a format perfectly suited to a Ferrari.
Japan’s Daisuke Fukushima went first and set the standard of 43.76 seconds but quickly those that followed went faster, with Sweden’s Peder Fredricson and his horse All In whizzing round in 38.02.
Maher was out third last and to the eye it looked perfect. Explosion W sprinted round like a pedigree racer and took off over jumps like he was launching from a trampoline.
The time was 37.85s, just 0.17 inside Fredricson, and then came a nervous wait as Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and Netherlands’ Maikel van der Vleuten tried to beat it.
Von Eckermann never threatened and finished fourth, while Van der Vleuten completed the podium in third.
The medal is Team GB’s fifth in equestrian at these Games, equalling their best ever haul from London 2012 and they can beat it in the team jumping final. Maher and Explosion W will be back for that on Saturday.
The individual title also stays in Great Britain, five years on from Skelton’s epic victory. Only Germany, in 1992 and 1996, have claimed this title at back-to-back Games.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Maher added.
“I think it will sink in tonight or tomorrow morning, let’s just say there has been a lot of pressure in the last couple of weeks. I am biased but I believe I am on the best horse, he is an incredible horse.”
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