Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

Late-blooming Ian Millar just hitting his stride?

The 61-year-old dean of Canadian equestrian finally won an Olympic medal on his ninth try. But don't expect him to ride off into the sunset.

Ian Millar didn't need an Olympic medal to affirm his status as one of the greatest equestrian athletes of all time.

Heading into the Beijing Games, the venerable Perth, Ont., native owned more Pan American Games medals than any rider in history, and had represented Canada at every show jumping world championships since 1972.  He was also the all-time leader in winnings at Calgary's Spruce Meadows, the world-class complex where Millar has captured more than $2.2 million in prize money.

Just by qualifying for Beijing, Millar, 61, secured his ninth Olympic appearance, matching the record for individual athletes. Dating back to the Munich Games in 1972, he has actually qualified for 10 Summer Games, but missed out in 1980 when Canada boycotted Moscow.

"It goes back to my good Maritime genes," is how Millar, who was born in Halifax, explained his remarkable longevity to CBC Sports. "You've got to have a good, healthy, strong body to be able to do this, and you've got to be able to take the falls and bangs you get."

Millar endured his share of falls and bangs at all those Olympics, but he also turned in many fine performances. Aboard famed mount Big Ben, he was part of Canadian teams that placed fourth on two occasions —1984 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul.

But still, there was something missing. Apart from an unofficial gold in 1980, when alternate equestrian events were held in Rotterdam, Millar owned no Olympic hardware.

'I had an angel riding with me'

That finally changed Monday in Hong Kong, where Millar anchored Canada to the silver medal in the team show jumping competition, becoming the oldest Canadian ever to win an Olympic medal.

Riding In Style (and, it can be said, in style) Millar came through in the clutch with a perfect run to lead the Canadian team into a jump-off for gold with the United States.

Millar and teammates Jill Henselwood of Oxford Mills, Ont., Eric Lamaze of Schomberg, Ont., and Mac Cone of King City, Ont., couldn't keep up with the Americans in the tiebreaker — it didn't help that Cone had to sit out due to an injury to his horse, denying his team of the luxury of dropping its lowest score — but the moment couldn't have been much better for the man they call Captain Canada.

"[I've ridden on] many fine teams," said Millar, who will be among the frontrunners to carry the Maple Leaf at the closing ceremony in Beijing. "Real fine, this one."

In some ways, though, it was a bittersweet moment for Millar, who in March lost his wife, Lynn, to cancer.

"I had an angel riding with me, that's all I can say," said a teary Millar after accepting his long-awaited medal.

The spiritual bond remains strong between Ian and Lynn, who is seldom far from the rider's mind.

"I still come out of the ring and reach for my phone to tell her how the horse went," Millar said before the Olympics.

London calling?

After collecting his silver, Millar recalled a conversation he had with Lynn early in his Olympic career.

"I remember back in the early '70s when I had a disastrous Grand Prix, my wife, Lynn, said to me, 'Don't worry, you're going to be a late bloomer.' That's what she said to me and I've always held that thought," said Millar. "And so the Olympics don't go well and I'd say, 'Lynn said I'm a late bloomer. I'll go to the next one.'

"And sure enough, guess what happened? I bloomed."

Though his journey to Olympic glory has been long, Millar has no plans to ride off into the sunset.

In fact, he's got ample inspiration to make a run at the 2012 Olympics in London, where he'd be 65. Millar hopes to be joined on the Canadian team by son Jonathan, 33, and daughter Amy, 31, both accomplished riders with aspirations of competing in the Summer Games.

"It's not impossible, that's for sure," Amy told CBC Sports. "If my father was there, it wouldn't surprise me. He doesn't cease to amaze me. He has a passion for it. It's not just what he does, it's who he is."

Amazingly, Millar doesn't see his career ending in 2012. He may yet make a run at Sweden's Oscar Swahn, who at 72 won a silver in 1920 in Antwerp in something called the Running Deer double shot team event, and is still the oldest athlete to capture an Olympic medal.

"If it's meant to be, we'll all ride together in London," Millar said. "And I hope there's another and another and another.

"Eventually it comes to an end, but I don't think there's any hurry for that to happen."

With files from the Canadian Press