After her untimely fall on her jumps debut at Fakenham racecourse aboard odds-on favourite Pacha du Polder, Victoria Pendleton’s dreams of riding at the Cheltenham Festival are hanging in the balance. The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter spoke to her after the race about the reasons behind her desire to become a jump jockey
Victoria Pendleton readily admits she achieved more on a bike than she dreamed she would. Her illustrious cycling career, spanning more than twenty years, embraced nine world titles and three Olympic medals – including two golds. She also picked up a Commonwealth title in 2006 and two European golds in 2011.
She was a poster girl for Great Britain during those two glorious weeks in the summer of 2012 when the Olympic Games came to London. And after winning a gold in the keirin and a silver in the sprint, to add to her sprint gold in Beijing in 2008, Pendleton retired.
A tumultuous, emotional and world-beating career on the track had come to an end. But what next? Suddenly she felt lost. She missed the sense of purpose and focus that had for so long dominated her every waking thought. And Pendleton wasn’t ready to ‘grow up’. So when the opportunity arose to become a jump jockey, courtesy of Betfair, and under the watchful eye of champion trainer Paul Nicholls, she seized it with both hands.
“I see myself as Peter Pan,” she laughed. “I see myself as a child in so many ways. People say, she’s too old, she’s already done it, she should be happy with what she’s got. But I say, ‘Why not?’ I feel fit and healthy and capable enough to do it and it’s pretty awesome to have the opportunity, so why the hell not? People might have something to say, but ultimately I just want to make the most of every chance I have.
“I achieved more than I imagined in cycling, so you have to ask why. But I don’t think it’s a need to compete. For me it’s very much the fact I used to have something very solid to get out of bed for. When I retired I underestimated how much I missed having something to go and do. I thought I would enjoy the freedom, but I didn’t know what to do or where to go.”
One thing is crystal clear when you talk to Pendleton about horse racing, and that’s her unbridled and insatiable passion for what she is doing. Indeed, it brought her to tears just talking about it. Comments about her lack of experience which followed her fall at Fakenham, will not sway her from the relentless pursuit of her dream of riding in the Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
For Pendleton, it is not about winning. On the cycling track, every waking moment was dedicated to the pursuit of Olympic medals. Now she is enjoying a new way of life.
Brushing away tears, she said: “I’ve never been happier.
“I know in my heart how much I have loved it and it’s a second chance to do something. I feel blessed. It makes me so happy, it really does – going to the yard and being around the horses. It’s completely different, that’s one of the greatest things about it. I’ve gone from a sport where everything is so measured and controlled to a sport where a horse dictates what happens to you over some large obstacles.
“Horses are such beautiful, majestic creatures. I feel honoured to sit on them and am just having an incredible time. This is about seeing what happens and going with nature. There’s no expectation. I only started a year ago, what would you really expect? I’m already further ahead than I thought I would be.
“I’ve found a new passion. To have an opportunity once to do something to the level I have is awesome, but to have a second chance to do something completely different, it is very rare and I feel very lucky and blessed to be given a chance.
“It’s never been about winning. Of course I wanted to win the Olympics because I was in good condition and I felt like I had a great opportunity. But now for me it’s been about pushing yourself and progressing and being better than you were yesterday. I am my own harshest critic in every way and always have been. But working towards a goal and pushing yourself mentally and physically to see what you’re capable of is what makes me tick.”
But what about her loved ones who have suffered years of watching from the sidelines with shaking hands and baited breath? Before speaking to The Mixed Zone after the Fakenham fall, Pendleton said to her mother: “Sorry, Mum, for putting you through all this again.”
She laughs about it, but equally understands how selfish her pursuit of a new challenge can be. “I know full well I’ve put them through hell over the years watching me,” she said. “When so much rides on what you’re doing, and they know how much you put in and what it means to you, they want you to succeed too, so it’s very hard for them. I feel bad. They will be very happy when I stop!
“When I retired after the Olympics my mum said, ‘I’m really glad I don’t have to go through that again’. And then I did Strictly Come Dancing and that was hard to watch. Now I’m putting myself through the wringer again to do this.
“Selfishly I do this because it’s a thrill for me. I have to get on a stage and do it. But that’s not the first time I’ve had to put my head on the chopping block or my neck on the line – I don’t mind for my own selfish gain. I love it, I love riding horses. But my mum also knows it makes me happy. I enjoy a challenge and it would be crazy to stop – I’m not done yet. I’m not ready to sit back.”
Read the report of Pendleton’s Fakenham race meeting here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.