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A golden moment in our sporting history

Golden moment: Tumbridge and her mare Bermuda's Gold celebrate their victory in the eventing at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in 1999

By Stephen Wright in Toronto

The last time Canada hosted the Pan Am Games two forgotten heroines of Bermudian sport rode into the history books after striking gold.

Behind the medal-winning feat, the Island’s first at the Games, were MJ Tumbridge and her fittingly-named mare Bermuda’s Gold in the demanding three-day event.

Although the pair have largely disappeared from the Bermudian public’s sporting consciousness, Tumbridge and Bermuda’s Gold proved to be an irresistible combination in Winnipeg in 1999.

Bermuda’s squad travelled to the capital of Manitoba with several medal hopefuls, including Brian Wellman in the triple jump, Elliot Hubbard in the cycling road race, as well as sailors Malcolm Smith and Sarah Lane Wright.

Although Smith and Wright both medalled, claiming silver in the Sunfish and Laser Radial classes respectively, it was Tumbridge and Bermuda’s Gold who grabbed the headlines with a trio of flawless performances in the dressage, cross-country and show jumping.

“It was absolutely the highlight of my career; a great Games and a great result,” said Tumbridge, who has lived in the South of England for the past 20 years.

“I was lucky enough to find Bermuda’s Gold and from the very first time I sat on her I knew she was a horse capable of very big things.

“The horse’s name was geared towards the whole thing. It’s one of those stories that nobody would believe if you told them.

“She was called Bermuda’s Gold for two reasons: after Gosling’s Gold Bermuda Rum and because we really believed she was going to win the medal.”

Tumbridge travelled to Winnipeg hoping to go one better than she did at her previous Games in 1991 in Cuba (although the eventing was staged in Atlanta), where she won silver riding Bermuda’s Option, as well as finishing second in the team event.

She had identified dressage — a test of horse obedience — as a potential chink in Bermuda’s Gold’s armour, taking steps to smooth out any weaknesses by enlisting the help of Vicki Thompson-Winfield, an esteemed rider and trainer from England. The ploy worked a treat with Tumbridge and Bermuda’s Gold securing two second places and one sixth in their events leading up to the Games, reinforcing the growing belief that the pair were destined for something special in Winnipeg.

“Dressage was Bermuda’s Gold’s problem because she used to get very tense,” Tumbridge said.

“I decided to do some extra training and put a lot more focus on dressage. Our belief was if she could settle and do well in the dressage then she had every chance of bringing home a medal. It was a great feeling going into the event knowing we had a real chance. She did her best dressage ever and really showed off and stayed relaxed. From that point on I knew we could do it.”

From the highs of her golden moment in Winnipeg, Tumbridge experienced a devastating low just a year later when she lost her “best friend” at the Sydney Olympics.

Tragedy struck at just the second fence of the cross-country phase of the three-day event when Bermuda’s Gold landed awkwardly, shattering her left hind leg, and leaving Olympic veterinarians with no option but to put down the mare. Just five days earlier Tumbridge had enjoyed the “proudest moment in her life”, hoisting the flag and leading the Island’s contingent into the opening ceremony of the Millennium Games.

“It was tough to deal with and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still live in my mind,” said Tumbridge, Bermuda’s most successful equestrienne.

“The Olympics is one of the biggest events in the world so for something like that to happen was horrible. It’s an awful way to lose your best friend.”

Tumbridge admits that the tiny 14-year-old mare, who had been her constant companion for more than ten years, had been like a “horse on speed” during the build-up to the Games and probably arrived in Australia too soon.

“The problem was Bermuda’s Gold was a very spirited animal and she was in Australia way too long,” said the 50-year-old.

“She was on site every day and whenever I took her around she thought she was competing. She was like a horse on speed most of the time.

“She just couldn’t settle and when I did the phase before the cross-country [the dressage] she was electric. I couldn’t really calm her down.

“Unfortunately I only got to fence two in the cross-country. It was just a horrible and unfortunate thing to happen. She was just an amazing horse and we had a great partnership.”

Tumbridge attempted to lay the ghost of Bermuda’s Gold to rest by competing on other horses including Ginger May Killinghurst, who qualified for the 2003 Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Both rider and horse had to pull out, however, after Ginger May Killinghurst picked up an injury at the Badminton Horse Trials in Gloucestershire.

Tumbridge, who remains involved in the sport, earning a reputation for working wonders with “difficult” horses, is surprised Bermuda has not won another gold at a major competition since 1999.

The Island’s only other gold-medal triumph at one of the “big three” competitions — the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Pan Am Games — came at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland when Clarence “Nicky” Saunders won the high jump.

”I’m a bit surprised Bermuda hasn’t won another medal and it just shows you it isn’t an easy task,” said Tumbridge, who also rode at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 on Bermuda’s Option.

“Everything has to be right on the day: your health and your mind. In the horse world it’s even harder as both the horse and rider have to be in tune. You’re dealing with a partnership.

“I know Patrick [Nisbett] and Jill [Terceira] have been campaigning quite hard for a number of years [in show jumping]. Both should be in a strong position to do well in Toronto.

“It would be great for Bermuda to win another medal, hopefully another gold. People will then say that Canada is Bermuda’s place.”

Like so many of Bermuda’s most decorated sportsmen and women, Tumbridge feels her achievements go largely unnoticed in her own country and are more appreciated overseas.

She is doubtful whether the majority of the Island’s promising young riders would even know her name let alone recognise her.

“For some reason in Bermuda the equestrian athletes are more recognised and accepted outside of Bermuda than inside their own country, which is a real shame,” said Tumbridge, who no longer competes.

“I’ve trained people in the UK and riders will ask me to help them train a difficult horse. I have a reputation of dealing with tricky horses and getting them to believe in themselves.

“But when I come home people don’t seem too interested. Maybe the older ones recognise what I’ve done, but when I go to watch the up-and-coming riders at shows nine out of ten don’t know who I am.

“I blame the Bermuda Equestrian Federation for that. They should never forget the riders who have worn the flag and made Bermuda proud.”

Although more than 6,000 athletes from 41 nations will participate in 36 sports in Toronto — the most expensive Pan Am Games in history — a lack of international attention for previous Games has led some to question their legitimacy.

They certainly do not have the spectator grandeur of the Olympics or the fever of the football World Cup — with lots of tickets still available — but for Tumbridge, at least, the Games will always hold a special place in her heart.

“The Pan Am Games have always been good to me,” she said. “I only competed twice and both times I was right up there.

“Some people don’t always count them [as a major competition], but my medals certainly mean something to me. I still have them sitting in my cabinet.

“I will never forget winning the gold medal, but I feel a lot of Bermudian people do.”

Tumbridge will forever be proud to have been the “golden girl” of Bermuda’s most successful Pan Am Games squad and would love for one of the athletes competing in Toronto to end the 16-year wait for a podium finish.

A medal of any colour would surely provide Bermuda with another sporting moment well worth remembering.