These Olympic Games have been filled with surprises, but this wasn’t one of them: Aboard the sensational Explosion W, Ben Maher (GBR) was named the individual Olympic jumping champion Wednesday evening in Tokyo.

The legend of Explosion has grown exponentially since the high-flying chestnut won three CSI5* Global Champions Tour Grand Prix events in 2018. In 2019, the pair took the coveted $1.4 million LGCT Super Grand Prix in Prague (CZE) and were individual silver medalists behind Martin Fuchs (SUI) and Clooney in the European Championships (NED). After an abbreviated 2020 season, they emerged in 2021 as heavy favorites for Olympic glory, particularly after winning the CSI5* Rolex Grand Prix on home soil at Royal Windsor (GBR) in their final outing before departing for Tokyo.

So when Maher and Explosion sailed through qualifying, it seemed but a forgone conclusion that there was little standing in this combination’s way of individual gold, particularly with just one one additional round and jump-off remaining in individual competition following the highly publicized changes to the Olympic format.

Wednesday looked like just another grand prix victory for this pair, but this one will surely stand out from the rest.

Course designer Santiago Varela set a stern test for this individual final. This track was big, technical and relentless, with little room to regroup and great adjustability required. One particularly grueling test led off with a careful combination in which riders jumped in over a wall and out over a plank. Riders then headed directly to a 1.70m wide oxer, seven sweeping strides to the triple combination, followed by the open water. The double at Fence 11 led in with a triple bar, while Fence 14 was a careful vertical set on a deceivingly difficult angle, just past the ingate (and yes, the sumo wrestler was back).

Just six of the 30 finalists—all returning with blank slates—managed a clear performance, advancing to a final jump-off. Every pair jumped clear yet again, each upping the ante for his or her successor. Malin Baryard-Johnsson (SWE) impressed by shaving three seconds off leading pair Daisuke Fukushima (JPN) and Chanyon, until Peder Fredricson (SWE) and All In managed to shave off another second, laying down a foot-perfect round that looked tough to beat.

Maher and Explosion took a flyer at the first oxer, and while they were carried out on a slightly wider track than the leaders, Explosion’s footspeed quickly closed the gap. The pair took another second off the leading time, and while Henrick von Eckermann (SWE) and King Edward, followed by Maikel van der Vleuten (NED) and Beauville Z gave great chase, they could not catch the explosive duo. Fredricson took the silver, with Van der Vleuten bronze.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Maher said. “I think it will sink in tonight or tomorrow when I wake up. It’s been a lot of pressure the last couple of weeks. I may be biased, but I believe I am on the best horse. He’s incredible, and I’m very fortunate to be able to ride him.”

If there was a winner outside of Maher, it was Sweden, whose riders made up 50 percent of the jump-off and look to be firing on all cylinders heading into team qualifying, with one more set of medals still to be decided. Notably, both All In and King Edward jumped completely barefoot; they’ve been shown without shoes since the spring.

For Fredricson and All In, it’s their second consecutive individual Olympic silver medal. Five years ago in Rio, they were the only combination to jump all six rounds cleanly, but they ultimately finished just behind Nick Skelton (GBR) and Big Star.

“All the top riders want to take the gold medal, but today it was Ben’s day,” Fredricson said. “He did a great round, and that’s the way it goes. It’s really small margins.” 

Great Britain has claimed five equestrian medals so far at these Games, with one more competition to come. After a day off, team qualifying begins Friday, August 6 at 7:00 pm JST (6:00 am EDT).

Follow along at HN for comprehensive Olympic equestrian coverage!

Feature Image: Photo by FEI/Christophe Taniére