I was among the crowds gathered along Sidmouth seafront to welcome home Olympic rider Mary King. People waved flags, blew horns, cheered and lifted their babies to get a good look at Devon’s very own member of Team GB as she danced down the High Street on her medal-winning horse Imperial Cavalier.
Mary King was radiant as she waved and smiled through her hero’s welcome. Imperial Cavalier, smooth as butterscotch, was understandably bouncy but not rattled by the noisy attention. His coat was so immaculate it appeared steam-ironed. He was unreal, a creature from a dream. I found myself longing to simply sit on him.
‘Mary, Mary,’ the kids were shouting as they ran to catch up with her. Their excitement at seeing her was contagious. People were reminiscing, sharing anecdotes from the Olympics and enjoying seeing in the flesh a part of Team GB’s success. The relaxed ease and sense of fun and festivity lasted even after Mary and her horse had completed their lap of honour and been granted the freedom of the town.
Mary is not a hero because she has represented her country at the Olympics and carried home well-deserved medals. What makes her a hero in my eyes is the fact that she is a woman over fifty who is in her prime. She has worked hard to achieve her dream of competing at the highest level. At fifty with her track record of wins it would be easy to look back over past successes and think: I’ve done enough, I can rest on my laurels, but her decision to push on, to give more is what elevates her and makes her performance extraordinary.
About a year before she began training for the Olympics, Mary King was working her horse at home when she fell and broke her neck. Many people might have viewed that as a sign that the London Olympics was out of reach but not Mary. The flame of a home Olympics was a beacon that spurred her on. That act of courage and determination alone makes her a hero.
During the Olympics there were mutters about riding being an elitist sport. Only the privileged surely could afford to reach those heights? But Mary doesn’t own her horse in the same way that a Formula One driver doesn’t own his car. She is sponsored and supported as are many other athletes. Training at her level means she has had to be resourceful. By her account, it has not always been an easy ride. In interviews, she has talked about her series of ‘unglamorous,’ low-paid jobs, including working as a cleaner.
Now many ordinary people are proud of her. She was gracious as she thanked her support team all of whom were beaming as they sailed in her wake. She seems like an ordinary mortal. I almost can’t believe this, but when I mentioned to one of my friends that I’d seen her in Sidmouth, he casually announced that he remembered her at school. We went to the Kings School in Ottery St. Mary. She was in the year above us and known then as Mary Thomson. He’d played her at badminton.
‘Very good she was, too.’