by Cian O’Connor.
I don’t talk about the bronze much but on this particular morning I take the medal from where it hangs in my office to bring it into my son Ben’s Montessori school along with the DVD from London 2012. First time I’d watched it back in years. Regret creeps into the mind again; so close to gold, a centimetre off silver, but the history books are written and we are in there, finally, for good.
I’m thankful for small mercies. No other Irish person has an Olympic Equestrian medal. I have won two and while we had to give back the gold at least we got our hands on the bronze…
I still get the biggest kick out of riding for my country. It’s something I’d like to do for a couple more years. Tokyo 2020 is on the horizon. That would be my third Olympic Games. You may have heard about what happened in Athens 2004 and London 2012.
Nowadays, there are many other facets to my career besides show jumping – coaching, buying and selling horses, breeding – and with a young family, Ruth and I have two children, Cara and Ben, there’s a lot of balls to juggle.
What makes show jumping so difficult is it combines two athletes. I have to be fit enough to ride the horse (my old Belvedere College pal, rugby-player-turned-physio, Andy Dunne and his colleague Ronan Fallon got me back riding after a serious groin injury last year) but I also need a horse that is good enough to jump the fences. Olympic size fences and dimensions are another challenge again.
Finding that really special horse, while difficult, is perhaps the easiest part of the job as we have to be able to afford him and then we have to afford to keep him.
Having a great horse at Karlswood stables immediately comes with the temptation to sell. This is my life’s passion but Ronnoco Jump Ltd is a business first and foremost.
I have a couple of horses in the pipeline now with an eye to Tokyo 2020, but I must make the best decisions for the company, not only for Cian O’Connor the show jumper. Ideally they go hand in hand.
Show jumping competitively is still a lot of fun – it’s allowed me travel the world for the last twenty years – with the real motivation being to compete at major events such as the Nations Cup in Dublin. But the Olympic Games makes everything else pale in comparison. Nothing will ever change that. Not the aftermath of Athens, not the redemption of London. Not until I am satisfied. A team gold medal at Tokyo 2020 or Paris 2024 might be enough.
Others may privately disagree but The Games are the pinnacle of our sport because it touches the man on the street.
In 2017 Ireland won team gold at the European Championships for the first time in sixteen years. I was fortunate to have won the individual bronze on a very special twelve year old stallion named Good Luck. We have such a wonderful owner in Frank Stronach, so if we campaign Good Luck lightly he will only be fourteen come Tokyo, so that’s a possibility. I also recently acquired a ten year old stallion called Exelero, with the aim of selling him but he could also jump at the Olympics and we would sell him after.
The World Championships in North Carolina is our first chance to qualify the Irish team for Tokyo. That means everyone is working towards the same goal. We’ve a new manager who took over last year, Rodrigo Pessoa – ironically, my Olympic gold medal in 2004 passed to Rodrigo – who has come over from Brazil with a different perspective. Up to now it was always an Irish born team manager, and we tended to put all our eggs in the Dublin Horse Show every year. Rodrigo sees the bigger picture. That was proven last year when we captured team gold in Gothenburg.
So, while there are constant distractions – like any hectic business – the main focus is trained towards Tokyo 2020, and winning another medal.
I’ve had some great horses over the years: Blue Loyd is special because we won bronze together in London. And Good Luck now. But my first horse was Radiman, a chestnut Irish Draught gelding, belonging to my dad, Tadhg. I was fourteen, which is quite late to catch the bug, but by transition year I’d go out to Bettystown to ride Radiman in hunter trials and beach rides at the local riding school under John Floody. That was the spark, others came along like Impressionist, Normandy, Lombardo, Waterford Crystal and a very good grey horse called Casper with whom I won the Puissance at the Dublin Horse Show in 2002, jumping seven-foot-four.
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It all comes back to finding that next great horse. There have always been better riders than me out there, that’s why it must be viewed as a business, you must be able to handle all aspects of the sport. The actual show jumping comes after all the work, more the reward for finding the right horse, for knowing when to keep and when to sell, and for following every tiny detail that gets the horse to perform on the biggest stage.
If you don’t run show jumping like a business you cannot possibly survive for twenty-plus years.
That’s the reality. You make your own luck along the way, but none of us can do without it. I have been lucky in my career, so far, mostly because I have met good people at the right time.
When I was sixteen I came across Gerry Mullins at a horse show in Kill Equestrian Centre. Gerry was in charge of the Army Equitation School, and he had a very strict way of teaching the young soldiers. I walked over and asked him for some advice. He soon became my coach, then mentor, and to this day a valued friend.
When I needed a horse to break in at the highest level I used some contacts in Germany so Gerry travelled with me to Paul Schockemole’s yard to look at Limbani – named after the former king of Germany. I sought out my godfather Tony O’Reilly to buy the horse. He said no. I persisted with a business plan: the horse could be named after one company, with the horse wearing the branding of another. So over from Germany came Waterford Crystal sponsored by The Irish Independent.
Tony was very close to my mother’s side of the family. Karl Mullen was my grandfather. There was ten years between them but they both went to Belvedere, both played rugby for Ireland and toured as British Lions, a sporting generation after each other. They became life long friends and my mum picked Tony to be my godfather!
Until Brian O’Driscoll joined Karl’s one man club in 2009, he was the only Irish Grand Slam captain.
Karl passed away just over a month after Ireland completed the ’09 slam in Cardiff but he was pleased to see the torch was passed along.
To everyone else Karl Mullen is an Irish rugby legend, but to me he was a valued friend. I had to be good at something after some very average rugby performances!
Karl was a gentle soul, very kind and not boastful at all, so it was a job to get information about his past achievements. He used to take me to rugby internationals. That’s when I really noticed he was more than just my granddad. It took us a good while to get through Ballsbridge and up Lansdowne Road.
“Success is reward for effort” was one of his simple phrases that stays with me today.
He was a renowned gynaecologist in Mount Carmel for many years and his great love of art thankfully passed my way, but it’s his humility I have always endeavoured to emulate. There was a calmness to him that I see in my two sisters, Pippa and Susanna.
”I used to be 'Karl Mullen’s grandson' then I became 'Cian O’Connor the Irish show jumper' and now I am 'Pippa O’Connor's brother!'
I stand on my own two feet today as a competitor, coach and businessman – of course I have important partners – but it was my godfather’s help that launched this career. I’m privileged but with that investment and faith came enormous responsibility.
I was only sixteen for that first “horse meeting” in Castlemartin House (which was also a stud farm). Tony, as he would often do, left me waiting downstairs for over half an hour. The sweat was pouring off me, the great masterplan lost in my jumbled teenage mind, but the nerves subsided long enough to inform him about my entry into a show jumping career and how the O’Reilly’s investment was required to purchase horses.
“Look out the window,” he said. “There are horses everywhere – they don’t make money, they eat money.”
Put firmly back in my box and told to refocus on the Leaving Cert, I think he saw this was to be my real education.
Gerry Mullins had been advising in the background on the small steps: Junior European championships, The Young Riders, get on a B team… This was the late 1990s and I’d already set my sights on the 2004 Olympics Games, and in the arrogance of my youth, I didn’t give a damn who knew about it. That didn’t endear me to people who were toiling in the sport a lot longer than me and hadn’t the same opportunity.
Such bullishness proved essential to early success. I also realised that the good horses need to be sold. Others keep them to ride them, but I needed to establish a name for myself as someone in possession of really good horses and, crucially, I was prepared to sell them for the right price. That very quickly dispelled the myth of a blank cheque book being at my disposal.
Not that I’d ever shy away from the support of the O’Reilly family. It fast tracked my career by ensuring access to good coaching and enabling travel to shows around the world. Without Tony and Chryss I wouldn’t be anywhere, but it was never a free hand. Every penny had to be accounted for.
I wasn’t this brilliant young show jumper, I was never a natural. When I started riding I was average at best. Regardless of who was buying the horses I needed to figure out how to pay the bills and my staff.
My mother wanted me to go to college but I rented a yard in Maynooth for a season and did well enough for her to stop pressing the traditional form of education. The yard and shows became my classroom.
At twenty years old I was back out to Castlemartin with another proposal. Sitting in wait for Tony I knew to remember my plan; I had a few horses at this stage but what I really needed was a truck to get them to shows on the continent.
“No,” he said. “Go and borrow the money, organise yourself, we’ll pay our share for our horses on the truck.”
Into Ulster Bank in Naas I went in 1999 and with that €100,000 we had a well branded truck for the years ahead: “Working towards the Summer Olympics 2004.”
That rubbed plenty of people up the wrong way. Seemed like a great idea at the time, without realising my peers would view me as a cocky upstart.
It’s easy to knock people but it’s also convenient to blame the media. There are two sides to it: when you are good at something, be it sport or business or politics, criticism goes with the territory. We are able to make a living from what we love doing, so the flipside is you must conduct yourself in a manner that cannot be easily criticised.
This I learned the hard way.
2004 was an unreal season. Too good to be true as it turned out. I was twenty-four when I won the gold medal. How I got there was a struggle in itself.
The former chef d’équipe Tommy Wade, who passed away recently at the age of eighty, gave me my first chance on the Irish team. Prior to Athens there was a shake up when the other riders signed a declaration to remove Tommy from power and put in Eddie Macken. I refused to sign. When asked if I had a problem with Macken, I replied, ‘No, but I have a loyalty to the man who brought me onto the team.’
I went to Aachen – the biggest show in the world – under the new management and was double clear on Waterford Crystal in the Nations Cup in July, having done something similar in Rome a few weeks previously. The horse had been consistently good all year long so I didn’t see myself as an outsider at the Olympics; the bigger the fence the better he jumped.
Athens and the immediate aftermath was filled with so many special moments. What was on the side of the truck had come to pass. Now we had to perform.
Waterford Crystal was a brilliant horse, extraordinary athlete, thoroughbred by nature, very finely boned horse and sharp of mind but kind and honest; he would never stop or turn away from a fence. Always willing to please.
The next six weeks were wonderful and surreal in equal measure. I remember going to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final and being brought onto the field in front of 82,000 people. Audiences and photo calls with An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Uachtarán na hÉireann Mary McAleese, everyone wanted a piece of the Olympic gold medallist. There were billboards all over Dublin and my face was on double-decker buses.
Pippa was my PA at the time. She was swamped!
Then everything crashed down around me. That was a very tough time as so many people seemed to be behind us, so much was happening, but when it looked like I was going to lose the gold medal I found out very quickly who my friends were.
You want to argue every single comment said about you. Social media wasn’t in full flight back then. Looking back, we made loads of mistakes.
It was just a really unfortunate incident.
Every day for the next six months there was a new fight, a new story in the paper. Certain factions in show jumping would have been against me and other media publications were anti-O’Reilly, Gerry Mullins had his detractors as well, so multiple shots were being fired from all angles.
An awful amount of mud-slinging.
The hearing at the court of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) in March 2005 lasted twelve hours. The FEI ruled that we were not involved in a deliberate attempt to influence the horse but a three month suspension from international shows and €3,200 fine, for being in breach of medical regulations, was handed down.
At the time I said: “I wish to re-emphasise again that neither I nor my vet have done anything wrong.”
That view has never changed.
When the hearing was over all the external noise stopped. The silence brought a new low. I had nothing to challenge me every morning. It was the best outcome we could have hoped for but vindication is never as loud as the accusation.
”There is no point saying otherwise, I'll always be known for being the fella who won and lost the gold medal in Athens. My career and business thereafter could have gone down the drain, but thankfully it continued to grow. That was down to great people around me and belief in myself and support from those closest to me. In a funny way I am more famous than I could ever have been.
During my three month absence from international duty, I competed and won the national league at home, six Grands Prix and a national title. Two weeks after my suspension ended I was picked for the national team to compete in Dublin. This caused some problems. Some people said they didn’t want to ride with me. I don’t think that was about me, I think they used my issue as a decoy to leave the Irish team and compete in other individual competitions with greater prize money.
You remember those things. You remember who kicked you while you were down.
This career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Others came and went, but passing the test of time has perhaps been my greatest achievement.
I have made the Nations Cup team the focal point of my career. Gerry’s influence saw to that. Jumping for Ireland was always the priority, the dream.
Jumping for the team, rather than as an individual, comes with more pressure. The Aga Khan on Friday at 3pm in the RDS is when you must deliver. It’s about being a big day player; that’s what makes a successful Olympic rider. Rodrigo has brought a genuine team ethos with him from Brazil. It is an individual sport, so that dynamic is difficult to accept, but with time I have grasped the value of supporting your teammates so we are collectively successful.
Others view the prize money as a priority but I have always felt that show jumping is my shop window for coaching and buying and selling horses, which is where my main revenue stream comes from.
The bigger Grands Prix, while they provide serious competition, and are thrilling to win, are not as important to me as success for Ireland, because with that comes worldwide renown which can have positive knock-on effects.
The London Olympics came a week before we won the Aga Khan.
The Irish team didn’t qualify but we had two individuals so I had a chance of being there. The chef d’équipe at the time, Robert Splaine, chose Denis Lynch and Billy Twomey. They both had a higher ranking by virtue of the number of horses they were competing. But I had Blue Loyd. In July Denis Lynch had problems in Aachen with his horse Lantinus and he was stood down.
That caused consternation with people wondering why one guy was taken off and another, who was in trouble before, gets to replace him. Social media was alive and well by this stage. The phone calls began again.
That was six weeks out from London. People’s backs were up. I didn’t deserve to be there was the general theme of comments but you steel yourself for the ultimate competition.
Blue Loyd jumped well the first two days in Greenwich Park but in the third round I made a costly error on one line, leaving us in 36th place with 35 to qualify for the final.
Everyone must re-present the horse for veterinary inspection the morning of the final. I woke at 6am and instinctively prepared as if competing. Ruth saw me folding my whites, “You’re crazy. You are out! You know you are out?”
“But, sure, you never know.”
Myself and Gerry worked Blue Loyd as if we would be riding. The last horse trotting up failed the vet inspection, so we got two and a half hours notice to get ready for another Olympic final, but I had been waiting eight years for this opportunity.
I walked the course thinking about a change of tactics. Blue Loyd was quite a small horse. I felt the mistakes I had made in the earlier competition came from not keeping him collected enough throughout the course. We turned this on its head. We took an extra stride on every line. I jumped a clear round and there were only six clears. In the second round I was .02 seconds over the time allowed for a gold medal jump-off. Instead, we were in a jump-off for silver or bronze against Gerco Schroder from Holland.
I had only bought Blue Loyd for a syndicate headed up by Charlie O’Reilly-Hyland seven months before London. We had little to no experience of going fast together, and we needed to go fast to win silver. I overdid it and the last fence went down.
I’m after blowing this, I thought. Devastation was the emotion for those initial few seconds…then I realised we had a medal. For the second time in my life I was the only Irish show jumper to climb the Olympic podium.
Joy flooded into my mind: this cannot be taken away from me. That was for Gerry, for my family and the O’Reillys too, for all the support that got me going on this great adventure.
I have suffered enough loss, heartbreak and misery but I never wanted an easy existence. Ever since riding Radiman on Bettystown beach this was all I wanted to do.
I was a different man in 2012 than 2004. More of a mature outlook. Same hunger. You get opportunities in life and there have been some great highs in my show jumping career diluted by awful lows. But London 2012 is set in stone. It so easily could have passed me by. Being an underdog suits me – I relish adversity.
In the aftermath of London I felt a mix of pride and vindication.
I sold Blue Loyd at the end of that year, but borrowed him back for 2013 when we won the Grand Prix in Dublin for the first and only time. Business dictated that decision.
London 2012 and that bronze medal led to the coaching side of the business really taking off. Winters are now spent in America. I have two students over there whom I coach – there is real potential in Lillie Keenan and Nicole Walker – and we staff their Equestrian operations all year round. In addition, I manage some really talented young riders in Ireland.
This is the future. Buying and selling horses is a constant, to clients and others, that brings the revenue to run the business, to survive.
Competing still gives me the same buzz. I see guys do it into their sixties. Not sure about that. I’ve had a troublesome groin and struggle with weight but the Olympic Games is still what I want, it’s what I’ve always wanted.
It’s all about the medals.
Tokyo 2020 then Paris 2024 would be the perfect end to my show jumping career, especially being part of an Irish team gold medal success. Then I’ll happily go away and coach and keep running the business side of this sport. That mixture is what I have always loved to do. Nobody has been able to take that away from me.
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