Tokyo Olympics: Laura Collett suffered a terrible riding accident but is now a gold medallist

Laura Collett did not imagine she would be here on this humid night under floodlights with a gold medal hanging round her neck.

She wasn’t sure she would be alive at all, let alone part of the British eventing team who had just waltzed to a wonderful triumph at the Tokyo Equestrian Park, the country’s first title of this sort since 1972.

Collett stood on the podium between her victorious team-mates, Oliver Townend and Tom McEwen, who also took the individual silver afterwards.

Tom McEwen, Laura Collett (centre) and Oliver Townend show off their eventing gold medals

Tom McEwen, Laura Collett (centre) and Oliver Townend show off their eventing gold medals 

Collett went blind in her right eye following a horrific cross-country accident eight years ago

Collett went blind in her right eye following a horrific cross-country accident eight years ago

She smiled throughout the celebration. You could detect that from her sparkling eyes above the dark mask she wore.

What you could not tell is that she saw nothing through her right eye. She is blind on that side, a hindrance that makes her story one of the more remarkable of many remarkable comebacks being acted out at these strange but uplifting Olympics.

So much has been packed into Collett’s 31 years of hardship and survival and success. 

The biggest of the blows came eight years ago when she fell during a cross-country in Hampshire and her horse landed directly on top of her. It left her with a lacerated liver, a punctured lung, a fractured shoulder, two broken ribs and that loss of sight.

‘When I closed my left eye I couldn’t see anything out of my right, but originally they weren’t concerned about my sight coming back,’ recalled Collett, of Salperton, Gloucestershire. 

‘Then they realised a fragment of my shoulder had penetrated the optic nerve and the sight was never going to return. That was the hardest thing to deal with.

‘But I adapted relatively quickly – in this game you have to learn to deal with what you get dealt.

‘So just to be here was more than a dream come true, and to be stood here, with a gold medal, I look back where I was and think I was lucky to be alive, let alone do the job I love.

‘I am fortunate enough to have a horse like London 52 to bring me to a place like Tokyo. To top it off with a gold medal, well. 

The stellar Team GB trio had held a considerable lead heading into the final day of competition

The stellar Team GB trio had held a considerable lead heading into the final day of competition

‘And I’m just super grateful to be on a team with these two guys as well. It’s been an unbelievable week. Roll on the celebrations.’

Grit runs deep in Collett. Her father left when she was young, so she and her brother were brought up by a single working mother. 

Money was tight and her mum, Tracey, rented houses with stables so her daughter could be near horses, so smitten was she with them. This gold was a reward for them all.

Showjumping is a hold-your-breath watching experience as you wait for a stray hoof feathering a fence and listen for the rattle that spells doom. 

But here the Brits carried such an advantage – 17.9 penalties – from Sunday’s cross-country into the final day that they could have taken off tail-end first and still come out with Britain’s fourth team eventing gold.

In fading light, McEwen went clear on Toledo De Kerser before Collett registered four faults. 

McEwen's impressive composure increased Britain's lead before Townend saw the team home

McEwen’s impressive composure increased Britain’s lead before Townend saw the team home

The upshot was that Townend, last man out, could have clattered four fences on his run and Britain would still be champions.

He hit one and Britain won by 13.9 penalties. Smiles all round and kisses blown. Australia finished second and France third.

Townend’s origins are just as noteworthy in their own way as Collett’s, for his family’s love affair with horses began when his grandmother used them to pull a milk float through the outskirts of his native Huddersfield. 

His mother rides and his father, Alan, also a milkman, competed as an amateur at Burghley and so the equine tradition continued. 

Townend began work with just £1,400 in savings, buying and selling horses, and now he has converted that slender beginning into his Gadlas Farm, a red-bricked, slate-roofed establishment approximately where Shropshire meets the Welsh Marches.

Townend, 38, said in his deep Yorkshire drawl: ‘Let’s hope we can inspire the next generation of kids. We are all from pretty normal backgrounds. 

Townend's (pictured) love of horses began when his grandmother used them to pull a milk float

Townend’s (pictured) love of horses began when his grandmother used them to pull a milk float

‘It shows that hard work and dedication pays off. I didn’t know how much we had in hand, so I put myself under a bit of pressure, but these guys made it very easy for me.

‘It has not sunk in. We know we are fortunate that all three of us have found horses of a lifetime at the same time. We can go on to Paris 2024 with great hope.

‘There will be a big celebration and I don’t think it will be with a cup of tea and a biscuit. This team have never struggled to find somewhere to celebrate.’

As for McEwen, 30, he has been steeped in the horsey world all his life, from pony club days. His mother Ali competed and his father Bobby was clinical director at the Valley Equine Hospital in Lambourn.

He is based at the Princess Royal’s Gatcombe estate in Gloucestershire and asked Zara Tindall for pre-event advice. 

‘They (the royals) have more pressure than I ever do and I try to match that calmness,’ he said.

McEwen consulted royal and former Olympian Zara Tindall for advice ahead of the Games

McEwen consulted royal and former Olympian Zara Tindall for advice ahead of the Games

All three were Olympic debutants but it did not show in the quality of their performances. The night was not done, however. 

Our heroes were gunning for the individual title. It was not to be, alas, with the brilliant German Julia Krajewski holding her nerve exquisitely on Amande De B’Neville for a clear round to pip McEwen to gold, with Townend fifth and Collett ninth.

For Krajewski, the honour of becoming the first woman to win that singular title. But for Britain, a gold and a silver was reward enough.