From the Queen’s son-in-law to the son of a milkman – how Team GB’s Olympic eventing team broke the elitist mould

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Tom McEwen, Laura Collett and Oliver Townend pose with their gold medal - PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Tom McEwen, Laura Collett and Oliver Townend pose with their gold medal - PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH

When Britain last won eventing team gold at the Munich Olympics, the Queen’s son-in-law was among the upper-crust competitors leading the charge.

Almost 50 years later, those medals are around the necks of a son of a milkman and the daughter of a single mother who juggled multiple jobs to support her.

Oliver Townend, Laura Collett and their teammate Tom McEwen all break the mould of equestrian's often Establishment image. The trio were all making Games debuts, but delivered high-class displays to secure Britain’s third ever team crown in eventing.

Townend perhaps demonstrates best the contrast between the Tokyo 2020 team and their gold-medal winning predecessors.

His family's love of horses stems from his grandmother using them to pull her milk float through the outskirts of Huddersfield. His father, Alan, inherited the milk round and a love of horses, which led him to compete at Burghley, three-day eventing's flagship event.

Mark Phillips made up the team with Mary Gordon-Watson Richards Meade and Bridget Parker back in 1968 - Shutterstock
Mark Phillips made up the team with Mary Gordon-Watson Richards Meade and Bridget Parker back in 1968 - Shutterstock

He previously told an interviewer how his family "might have looked a bit hillbilly to some", but he has spoken of his pride as having to "fight very hard to get where I am now".

Towend had left school at 16, and eventually had to sell his car to set himself up as horse trader. At the age of 21, he set up alone with the £1, 400, having already seen the potential to make money from his talents as a teen. His father spent £825 on a pony, which Townend would eventually make a Horse of the Year Show winner. The family eventually sold the animal for £18,000.

“Let’s hope we can inspire the next generation of kids," Townend said yesterday. "We are all from pretty normal backgrounds. It shows that hard work and dedication pays off.”

Laura Collett during the team event at Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES ASIAPAC
Laura Collett during the team event at Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES ASIAPAC

Collett's mother, meanwhile, had worked multiple jobs including night shifts to pay for her two children to stay in sport. Her gold medal also comes eight years after she was left in a coma for a week after falling on cross-country during an event in Hampshire.

"It's been a long road with a lot of ups and down along the way, but the moment like this makes every bad day worth it," said Collett, 31. Following the heavy fall in 2013, Collett had been left with a punctured lung, lacerated liver, a fractured shoulder and two broken ribs, while she also lost the sight in one eye. “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 eight years ago – I knew I was lucky to be alive, yet alone do the job I love,” the rider, from Salperton, Gloucestershire, added.

Yesterday, after comfortably securing top spot following outstanding cross-country rounds on Sunday, thoughts turned immediately to celebrations being planned when they leave their Covid bubble in Tokyo. "As a team we’ve never struggled to find cause for a celebration," added Townend. "It will involve a lot more than a cup of tea and a biscuit.

The third teammate, McEwen, is the son of a vet who left school at 16 to pursue a career in eventing. He is the only vague link with royalty as his base is on the Princess Royal’s Gatcombe estate, a stone’s throw from the yard of the Queen’s granddaughter and fellow eventer, Zara Tindall. When asked what advice he gets from them, he said: "They are under a lot more pressure than I am. I just learn from them how to deal with it and stay cool and calm and relaxed."

By comparison, Captain Mark Phillips, who would marry Princess Anne the following year, was the star attraction in that team, joined by the likes of Mary Gordon-Watson, cousin to the Duchess of Beaufort and public-school educated Richard Meade.

After a 49-year wait, gold was never in doubt yesterday. Final British rider Townend had the luxury of knowing he could knock four fences down and still win gold, such was the team’s dominance. Britain finished on a score of 86.30, and it is a third equestrian medal in Tokyo for Team GB following Charlotte Dujardin, Carl Hester and Charlotte Fry winning dressage team bronze, and Dujardin also collecting an individual bronze.