London 2012: How Zara Phillips reached the Olympics - again

In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday  series on leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Ollie Williams profiles eventer Zara Phillips.

"It's not even a conversation that will take place. Zara's on the team, the team are staying in the village, end of story."

Zara Phillips is in line for her Olympic debut at long last, representing Great Britain from a room in the Olympic village - not representing the Royal Family from exclusive lodgings.

"Zara is absolutely a team player," continues Will Connell, performance director for British equestrian sport.

"She doesn't seek the limelight - it's never Zara stirring up the media frenzy, she lets her results do the talking. There's no denying who her mother and grandmother are but she is, first and foremost, an elite equestrian athlete."

Zara Phillips' eventing career

Zara Phillips
  • 1981: Born in London on 15 May
  • 2002: Competed at Young Rider European Championships, beginning of partnership with Toytown
  • 2004: In contention for Athens Olympics but injury to Toytown led to her withdrawal
  • 2005: Won team and individual gold at European Championships
  • 2006: Won individual world title with Toytown, voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year
  • 2007: Added a second European team gold
  • 2008: More Olympic agony as another injury to Toytown forced her to drop out of Team GB. Broke her collarbone in fall later that year
  • 2011: Toytown is retired but High Kingdom performs well to finish 10th at Burghley
  • 2012: Third at Bramham horse trials, enough to earn nomination to Team GB

Phillips, now 31, has spent a decade proving her talent. A former world champion, she has twice been in contention for the Olympic Games and twice missed out through injury to her horse, Toytown.

This week, she earned nomination to the British Olympic Association as one of five riders in the eventing team for London 2012.

Her third Olympic nomination in succession caps a resurgent 12 months. For a time, it had looked as though carrying the Olympic torch at Cheltenham racecourse was as close to the Games as she might get.

Phillips spent her twenties enjoying remarkable success with Toytown, winning eventing's world title in 2006 and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award later that year.

But after missing Beijing 2008, Toytown's age began to show. A horse can only go on at the top level for so long and Phillips, tears in her eyes, gave Toytown a public retirement at Gatcombe last year.

"In our sport you're very lucky to find a horse of a lifetime and I found mine relatively early," she told the Daily Telegraph in 2010. "[Toytown] has done everything for me and I owe him the world. Even talking about that horse makes me well up."

With Toytown out of the picture, Phillips had to prove she was no one-horse wonder by finding another challenger and getting them to the top level in time for Olympic selection.

She managed it, in the nick of time, with a horse named High Kingdom - taking him from the most basic of introductory events in Wiltshire five years ago to third place at last week's Bramham horse trials, her last chance to prove the pair had what it takes for the Olympic Games.

"She's been with High Kingdom a long time," says Connell. "She's always been diligent in working hard when it isn't necessarily going right with a horse - she perseveres. She plugged away with him and has done a fantastic job to bring him all the way up through the grades.

GB's 2012 eventing team

The British Equestrian Federation has nominated the following five riders to the British Olympic Association for selection to Team GB:

  • Tina Cook
  • William Fox-Pitt
  • Piggy French
  • Mary King
  • Zara Phillips

"Together, they finished 10th at Burghley last autumn and perhaps that's when he really burst onto the scene. Burghley was probably the result that, to the wider audience, said Zara has a horse that could go to London.

"This is an up-and-coming horse, a horse whose star is in the ascendancy, and [in terms of Olympic selection] that's probably what tipped it over the edge."

After Bramham, Phillips told BBC Sport: "Last year was a big year. He improved massively and came up with the goods [at Burghley]. He's still improving this year and he's a great, fun horse."

Phillips still faces the formality of having the British Olympic Association rubber-stamp her selection to Team GB but, once that happens, she can expect unique challenges as an Olympic team member.

Alongside all the usual pressures athletes place on themselves, the phenomenon of a British Royal competing at a London Olympic Games will inevitably draw intense scrutiny from the media at home and abroad.

"Zara attracts a massive amount of media attention and the challenge will come around that," says Connell.

"The media could impact on Zara's medal-winning chances. It really wouldn't be fair if every time Zara trained, there were a hundred cameramen, and when [German eventing star] Michael Jung's training, there aren't. But that's something Zara's had to cope with throughout her career.

What is eventing?

  • Formerly known as three-day eventing, the sport now takes place over four days at most major events
  • Likened to the triathlon of the equestrian world , eventing sees horse and rider participate in dressage, cross-country and show jumping tests
  • The first two days of each event are devoted to dressage , where penalty points are scored for errors - lower scores are better
  • Next is the cross-country event, which must be completed inside a certain time or penalties are incurred. Riders who fall are eliminated
  • A show jumping competition concludes each event to provide an overall winner

"Part of what makes her successful is her ability to ignore all that. When she won the individual world title, she had to go into an arena with over 50,000 spectators and jump after the Germans had clinched team gold. The pressure and noise were incredible, but she's very cool under pressure. She has a proven championship record."

Asked if her Royal status was a help or hindrance, Phillips once told ITV: "It's a hindrance. People think it was all given to me on a plate and it definitely wasn't.

"But everyone in the sport is good to me. Everyone gets on with it."

Phillips' parents, both Olympic eventers themselves, must know how their daughter feels. The Princess Royal competed at Montreal 1976 and Captain Mark Phillips won team gold at Munich 1972 before returning to win team silver 16 years later in Seoul.

"They very much support me," said Phillips in the same interview. "They've never pushed me but when I started they very much backed me up.

"They're both very knowledgeable, unfortunately. They give me lots of advice - and criticism. But our sport is very different now to when they were competing, which I keep telling them."

There is now an anxious wait to see if Phillips can finally follow in the family footsteps. Will injury strike a third time?

"This is a great challenge we face in equestrian sport," explains Connell. "If a human athlete wakes up one morning and say they're feeling tight in a tendon or whatever, you can tweak the training programme.

"The horse doesn't know the most important competition of its life is coming up, and that introduces a different dynamic. It can't tell you the same things.

"But if they are to win medals in London, the horses have to be very fit and competition-aware. They can't just be put away in a stable now and pulled out at the Games. They will all compete again and that brings the inevitable risk of a slight injury."

As Phillips said ahead of Beijing 2008, before Toytown's second injury nightmare: "To go with all the other sports would be a great dream, but you still have to get there. One step at a time."