It’s not supposed to be a competition but, if it were, Mike Tindall concedes defeat to his wife Zara Phillips in the medal collection assembled in their former home on the Gatcombe Estate, now that she has returned with an Olympic silver medal.
Tindall, who became chief cheer-leader, mentor, shoulder to cry on, motivator and, judging by his avid updates on twitter, reporter during the three day eventing at Greenwich Park which ended with Team GB finishing second, is so enamoured by his Olympic experience that he argues Zara’s silver is as good, if not better, than the rugby world cup winners’ medal from 2003 that he hangs proudly in the same kitchen.
“I’ve got that world cup winners’ medal, and a Grand Slam medal and a couple of Grand Slams, but she’s got a world and European individual winners’ medal and now that Olympic silver, and that, by my reckoning gives her the edge, unless you believe my European Shield winners’ medal gets me back in the race,” he explains, as he sits in the Kingsholm stands at Gloucester and watches his younger teammates train.
“That Olympic silver, in my book, is right up there with my world cup medal, if not above it because it was won at the London Games, with so much expectation and pressure. When England won the world cup we were favourites to do so. Team GB’s eventing silver wasn’t expected so to produce that collective performance was outstanding. Sure, there were tiny margins between gold and silver, just as Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal proved to be the tiny margin that won the world cup, but for me the Olympics is the number one sporting occasion in the world and Zara and the team smashed it.”
Then there was his wife’s personal journey back from apparent oblivion when the horse that helped win her world and European titles (and the 2007 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award), Toytown, was unfit for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and Phillips had to start all over again in the quest to train another horse, High Kingdom, qualify for London and then do her bit to win silver.
“Zara always backed herself when others didn’t,” her husband explains. “The reason why she made it to London and then performed as she did was down to sheer hard work, determination and belief that she would come good again. I’ve been there myself as a sportsman. There are dark days, of course, but it’s all worth it when you get through them and return to the top.”
Living every jump was Tindall, who stayed in the families’ hotel next to the Olympic village where his wife lived with Team GB teammates, although there was also a house for the equestrian team in Greenwich to be used during the days of competition and training.
“The whole experience was absolutely brilliant, from meeting the volunteers who seemed as if they’d swallowed happy pills, to seeing the whole team go clear in the cross-country, which was so impressive. I knew they were on for a medal from the moment the dressage went well.”
In the circumstances he did well to even remember the fact that cross-country day was also his first wedding anniversary after their sumptuous royal wedding in Edinburgh the year before. “I managed to get a card from the supermarket the day before because I couldn’t find a proper card shop, but I did get some flowers from the market,” he recalls. “The best present for both of us was seeing Zara go clear that day in the park.”
In the immediate aftermath, however, there was a tinge of disappointment because Phillips accumulated seven faults in her first round in the show jumping. Although going clear in the second she felt some responsibility for the team failing to overhaul winners Germany.
“Zara was a little down at first and thought she was responsible although it’s very obvious that medals are won and lost over three days and that there were all kinds of other reason too, like Willy Fox-Pitt’s time faults in the cross-country, why we didn’t end up with gold.
“After a day the disappointment of not winning gold turned into delight that she won silver, and since that day I’ve hardly seen her without it.”
Tindall was unable to see any of the other equestrian events live due to rugby commitments at Gloucester, where he has been player/backs coach for the season ahead under new head coach Nigel Davies, but he watched as much of the dressage, where Team GB won team gold plus individual gold and bronze, and the show jumping, where another team gold was claimed, as he could.
“Carl Hester teaches Zara dressage so I was delighted for him to win team gold and for his pupils, Charlotte (Dujardin) and Laura (Bechtolsheimer) to win individual medals. And as for the show jumping the stand out story for me was Nick Skelton. One broken neck and a hip replacement and he wins gold. It proves they make them tough in the north.”
The only other live action he and Zara caught together was the greatest night of British athletics history when Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all took gold inside an hour. “Probably the best sporting event I’ve ever seen,” is how Tindall puts it.
He should also have witnessed two more golds that morning at the rowing. “En route I discovered I’d left my pass behind so I ended up taxiing Zara and her brother Peter and then I went to Michael Parkinson’s pub near Maidenhead and watched it on TV by myself.”
So what now? Phillips is 31 but, according to Tindall, will go to Rio if selected, and very possibly beyond, especially as she has two more horses that are showing tremendous potential.
“I know Rio is in her plans, and there’s no reason why High Kingdom can’t make it as he’s only 11, but she’s also got two more horses, Lord Lauries and, especially, Black Tuxedo, and she has high hopes for them. She says she can’t see herself going on for too long but I have my doubts. It’s in her blood too much and she absolutely loves competing still.”
As does Tindall, which is why the man with 75 England caps to his name is embarking on a new career as player coach at Gloucester, although he still insists he is player first, coach second.
“I have to obtain my level two and three coaching badges and in time I’d like to forge a career as a rugby coach and I’ll have ambitions, like everyone else, to go as far as I can. For now, though, I’m a player first, coach second, and although we have a backs line at Gloucester which, to a man, has the ability to play for England, I want to make it hard for them to keep me out of the team. If I can improve them as players then I’m doing my job as a coach.”
Tindall’s new role was all very last minute. He was facing the end of his rugby-playing days, or at least a highly inconvenient move to France, last May until some sterling displays for the Barbarians helped convince new coach Davies, just appointed for this season from the Scarlets, to extend the midfielder’s time at Kingsholm.
“I was more than a bit worried but managed, at the 11th hour, to get things sorted,” he recalls. “Going forward I shouldn’t play for the first team but it’s also about results now – and as we finished an unacceptable 9th last season in the Premiership we need to start well – and also injuries, so I’m expecting and wanting a busy season on and of the field.
“It’s also a Lions tour at the end of the season. Do I think I can finally become a Lion? It’s not likely, is it, but I’ve learnt in sport you can never rule anything out. It’s the one thing missing from my resume but I’ll happily take what I’ve achieved.”
He has one more plan to hatch as well, and that returns to an Olympic theme. “I’d be more than happy to be cheering on Zara from the sidelines at the next five Olympics,” Tindall admits. “But I’d love to go to Rio as I’ve never been and I note rugby sevens will be included. I’ll be 37. I wonder if England would take me as a prop forward?”