Laura Collett didn’t think she’d be here on this damp night under spotlights with a gold medal around her neck.
She wasn’t sure if she would be alive, let alone be part of the British eventing team that had just won a stunning victory at the Tokyo Equestrian Park, the first title of its kind in the country since 1972.
Collett stood on the podium between her victorious teammates, Oliver Townend and Tom McEwen, who also went on to take individual silver.
Tom McEwen, Laura Collett (center) and Oliver Townend show off their gold eventing medals
Collett went blind in her right eye after a horrific cross-country accident eight years ago
She smiled during the party. You could tell by her twinkling eyes above the dark mask she was wearing.
What you couldn’t see is that she saw nothing through her right eye. On that side, she’s blind, a hindrance that makes her story one of the most remarkable of the many notable comebacks being played at these strange but uplifting Olympics.
So much has been packed into Collett’s 31 years of hardship, survival and success.
The biggest blow came eight years ago when she fell during a cross-country in Hampshire and her horse landed right on her. It left her with a ruptured liver, a punctured lung, a broken shoulder, two broken ribs and that loss of vision.
“When I closed my left eye, I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye, but initially they weren’t concerned that my vision would return,” recalls Collett of Salperton, Gloucestershire.
“Then they realized that a fragment of my shoulder had entered the optic nerve and vision would never 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 is presented to you.
“So to be here was more than a dream come true, and to stand here, with a gold medal, I look back where I was and think I was lucky enough to be alive, let alone do the work what I love.
“I’m lucky enough to have a horse like London 52 to take me to a place like Tokyo. To top it off with a gold medal, good.
The amazing Team GB trio had a significant lead heading into the final day of competition
“And I’m just super grateful to be on a team with these two guys too. It’s been an incredible week. Keep on partying.’
Grit is deep inside Collett. Her father left when she was young, so she and her brother were raised by a single working mother.
Money was tight and her mother, Tracey, rented houses with stables so her daughter could be around horses, she was so in love with them. This gold was a reward for all of them.
Jumping is a breathtaking viewing experience as you wait for a stray hoof to feather a fence and listen for the chatter that portends doom.
But here the Brits had such an advantage – 17.9 penalty points – from Sunday’s cross-country to the last day when they could have gone first and still take Britain’s fourth team eventing gold.
In decreasing light, McEwen went clear on Toledo De Kerser before Collett registered four errors.
McEwen’s impressive composure lifted Great Britain’s lead before Townend saw the team home
As a result, Townend, the last man out, could have rattled four gates during his run and Great Britain would still be champions.
He hit one and Great Britain won by 13.9 penalties. Smiles all around and kisses blown. Australia finished second and France third.
Townend’s origins are just as remarkable in their own way as Collett’s, as his family’s love affair with horses began when his grandmother used them to pull a milk truck through the suburbs of his native Huddersfield.
His mother rides and his father, Alan, also a milkman, took part in Burghley as an amateur and so the equestrian tradition continued.
Townend started out with just £1,400 in savings, buying and selling horses, and now he’s converted those slim beginnings into his Gadlas Farm, a red-brick, slate-roofed establishment roughly where Shropshire meets the Welsh Marches.
Townend, 38, said in his deep Yorkshire accent: ‘Let’s hope we can inspire the next generation of children. We all have pretty normal backgrounds.
Townend’s (pictured) love of horses began when his grandmother used them to pull a milk truck
“It shows that hard work and dedication pays off. I didn’t know how much we had in hand so I put a bit of pressure on myself but these guys made it really easy for me.
‘It hasn’t penetrated. We know that we are lucky that all three of us have found the horses of our lives at the same time. We can move on to Paris 2024 full of hope.
“There will be a big party and I don’t think it will be with a cup of tea and a biscuit. This team has never struggled to find a place to celebrate.”
As for McEwen, 30, he has been steeped in the horse world all his life, from pony club days. His mother Ali participated and his father Bobby was clinical director of Valley Equine Hospital in Lambourn.
Based on Princess Royal’s Gatcombe estate in Gloucestershire, he asked Zara Tindall for advice ahead of the event.
“They (the royals) have more pressure than I ever have and I try to match that calm,” he said.
McEwen consulted royal and former Olympian Zara Tindall for advice ahead of the Games
All three were Olympic debutants, but that was not reflected in the quality of their performances. However, the night was not over.
Our heroes were chasing the individual title. It was sadly not to be with the brilliant German Julia Krajewski who kept her nerves superbly on Amande De B’Neville for a clear round to pilot McEwen to gold, with Townend fifth and Collett ninth.
Krajewski has the honor of becoming the first woman to win that unique title. But for Britain a gold and a silver reward was enough.