From behind the goal
If I were to ask you to think of a famous Olympian from Clonmel, and the answer is not Clonmel’s most famous and favourite Cork man Dr Pat O’Callaghan would the name John Watson come to mind? John went to the Olympics in Montréal in 1976 and Seoul in 1988.
John’s son Sam born in Clonmel in 1985 and a past pupil of the Presentation and St Mary’s parochial Schools in Clonmel, is part of the Irish team that will compete in the Three-day eventing competition that begins today Friday in Tokyo.
I had the pleasure of talking to John for the Premier Newspaper this week. A prouder Clonmel and Tipp man you are unlikely to meet. John began by talking about the decision to sell Ballingranne House in Clonmel following the death of his Father the historical biographer Colonel Sidney Watson. He said that a combination of things combined that forced John and his lovely wife Julia to sell the fine equestrian and agriculture centre back in 2002. The estate had been in his family since 1797.
The house which was designed by Sir Richard Morrison, who lived in Clonmel at the time, was subsequently responsible for the Regency mansion on Fota Island and Ballyheigue Castle near Tralee. The house was built by Solomon Watson, a long- distance cousin of John’s near Ballydarton. It’s with some level of irony and happiness that John explains that his home since 2002, Ballybolger Stud Farm in Ballyloo Carlow is only 6km away from the birthplace of Solomon Watson. He also informed me that the manager for many years of Ballingranne House was Tommy Campbell whose son Alan plays for Moyle Rovers and Tipperary footballers.
Johns’ first experience of the Olympic games was in Montréal back in 1976. He travelled with his horse Cambridge Blue and felt confident that they would acquit themselves with distinction until two days before the competition was due to start, disaster struck when Cambridge Blue was injured and John’s Olympics was over before it had even begun. He has never wondered about the “what if ’s” especially when two years later at the 1978 World Championship in Kentucky, John and Cambridge Blue won the silver medal. “Ireland couldn’t raise a team for those World Championships in Kentucky, but the Irish Horse Board funded my trip as an individual. Dressage was a bit of a mystery back then but in Kentucky I came out of the arena feeling that for once I had done all the right things at the right time. When I discovered I was still 36th out of 47th on 75 penalties I went back to the stables and cried.”
John said it is vital to succeed in three- day eventing, you must take advantage of the mistakes and misfortune of others. This happened on the second day in Kentucky. The extreme humidity resulted in less than half the field completing. Modestly he added, “It was extraordinary that we rose to second place despite a glance off a mound and we hit the notorious Serpentine fence. I was gobsmacked to win silver. I was honoured to
be second behind Bruce Davidson and Might Tango.”
When asked if he was ever mistaken for Northern Ireland’s formula one racing driver of the same name, he replied that when in 1976 the headline appeared “Watson finishes third in French Grand Prix”, he received a few calls from friends congratulating him on his success!! Cambridge Blue and John were part of the Irish team that won Gold at the European Championships in Luhmhlen in Germany in 1979. John came fifth in the individual event after leading. Then sadly Blue as he called him affectionately, began to suffer liver damage from cysts and in 1982 he had to be put down. It was an awful day because he was a very special horse.
The obvious question was what happened between Montréal Olympics and Seoul in 1988.
Confidence would have been high that he could have performed well at the Moscow games in 1980 on Blue. “I didn’t go on a matter of principal. I decided to support the USA boycott of the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.” Jessica Harrington went in his place; it is a decision that he has since come to regret. Sport should always be above politics. He said his decision was based on a young principled mind, one that has mellowed like us all with age, if he had his time all over again, he may have done things differently. He also believes that decision cost him his place at the LA Olympics four years later, blaming internal politics. As a wiser man than me once remarked to me, “there is politics in everything, including the Legion of Mary” John dreams of actually competing in an Olympics finally came true in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics.
His wife Julia was not too keen on the idea but nothing was going to come in the way and she came round to the idea. “You must never be modest about your ability, always set the bar as high as you honestly can. I was on a horse named Tulenisky.” Both horse and horseman were out of luck. Both misread a fence, which led to John being dismounted, suffering an injury that brought an end to
his games. He looks back on the moment he entered the arena and saluted the judges as the proudest day of his career.
“I was a boy from Clonmel, following in the footsteps of my hero Dr Paddy (O’Callaghan) competing in the Olympic games. It is a moment that will live with me for the rest of my days. Once an Olympian – always an Olympian’ is the mantra of those privileged to have represented their countries in the Olympics regardless of medal success.”
The conversation eventually got around to his son Sam. John like most dads would swap all of his success to see Sam medal in Tokyo. Sam has competed in three editions of the World Equestrian Games. His first time was ironically in Kentucky but his greatest moment came forty years after his dads success. In 2018 the championships were held in Tryon, North Carolina. Sam and his Irish team mates won a silver medal and Sam finished a credible 14th in the individual
event. His mount in Tryon Tullabeg Flamenco (Danny to his friends) will accompany him to Tokyo.
Sam and the Irish team are ranked 5th so hopes of a medal are well merited however John gives a word of warning. Unlike the other Equestrian events, with three-day eventing you are at the mercy of the judges. It is like figure skating or gymnastics. John hopes that the judges aren’t too subjective in their application of the rules and that old word “politics” doesn’t play a part. One aspect of the eventing he is quite upset with, is the rule change that now allows a horse to be substituted in the middle of a competition. It was a rule change that was brought in for reasons unbeknown to John and many others in the eventing world.
“Three- day eventing was always about ethics, elegance, endurance and preparation of both rider and horse. To substitute a horse in the middle of an event, is akin to allowing Rachel Blackmore jump all the fences in the Grand National, get off after the last and jump on the Derby winner for the last furlong. It is not a good change for the sport.”
Sam has trained very hard and is the best physical shape of his life. Sam’s road to Tokyo began in the senior championships in 2009 on a horse that was bred by his mum and Dad John and Julia, Bushman. On Bushman Sam competed in four Badmintons, three European championships and two World Championships. Sam is as you can imagine very focused on the job in hand. He believes that you either “Win or Learn”. He believes that champions are made at home not at the championships.
It was on Flamenco at the 2019 European Championships that Sam broke his PB. Sam is determined to show the world how good these horses can be. He wants the horse to be champions and if he concentrates on how to train them to be champions and how to perform to and they’re the stars not me.
He finds that the perfect mindset and it is a performance tool that takes the pressure off a little bit but makes him focus on what matters which is always the horses. I asked John was Sam a professional or an amateur? Both was the quick response. According to John the difference between an amateur and a professional is this “An amateur will practice till he gets it right whilst a professional will practice until he can’t get it wrong.”
Like every equine sport, it comes with a serious health and danger warning. The risks of serious and fatal injuries are high. This is where John got very emotional as he spoke about the recent tragic death of young Carlow girl Tiggy Hancock. Tiggy was an experienced and talented pony event rider who won a team medal for her country at the European Championships in 2019. John was one of her coaches and Sam’s dream was to inspire Tiggy to be a future Olympian
but now Tiggy inspires him. John, Julia and their six grandchildren will be glued to the tv shouting on support for Sam, their faith is strong enough that they believe that Tiggy will keep a safe eye over Sam. As will John’s close friend and fellow Seoul Olympian Captain David Foster who was fatally injured in an event in County Meath back in 1997. John believes that both Tiggy and David will be Sam’s guiding and guardian angels at these games and that all the family find comfort in that belief.
That led me back to Clonmel and the Old St Mary’s Protestant Church in Clonmel. His late father Col Watson wrote a wonderful history of the church entitled “Dinner of Herbs”. For any young historian out there, it is a wonderful read about the church. His dad not only believed that the church should be open to everyone for the annual Harvest thanksgiving but that the old walls of the
town should be too. He was very much the man behind the restoration of the old walls, something John is quite rightly proud of.
I finished by asking John what are the basic Qualities of an event Horse. They have to be athletic, sound and tough, trainable, calm forward and straight and go where pointed, when pointed. He also said you must embrace change that is for the good and makes you and your horse better. Never fight this year’s war with last year’s weapons. I couldn’t end the interview without talking about his undoubted love for Clonmel. We spoke about mutual friends and people we both knew. Mr and Mrs Morgan in lower Irishtown who had a beautiful furniture shop, Tommy Campbell and Donal Ryan, vets Liam and his son Muiris Dromey who was a great friend of mine. I asked John about Cecil Fleming who lived where the Mary Street medical centre is now in Clonmel. We were both in agreement
that Cecil was one of life’s true gentlemen, taken too early from this life.
John misses Clonmel and is proud of his ancestors and he hopes he has made life better for his descendants. When asked how would John Watson the sportsman liked to be remembered “Simply as someone who did his very best with the opportunities he was given” A Father and Son both Olympians is quite an unique achievement.
He is a cattle and horse breeder in County Carlow now, he loves spending time with his three grandsons and three granddaughters. They are a source of great joy in his and Julia’s life. The other joy he pointed out was that the where he built his family home in Carlow, “On a clear day I can still see Slievenamon”
Best of luck to Sam Watson and all the Irish Olympic athletes in Tokyo.
See you soon behind the goal!