Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Golden moments
Winning the first team gold in 49 years with the best eventing team score in history, plus individual silver for Tom McEwen, Team GB did us proud. We talked to some of those who helped make it happen
TOM McEWEN: Team GB rider who won team gold and individual silver medals
TILLY HUGHES: Groom to Laura Collett and London 52
LIZ BROWN: Eventing Team GB vet
RICHARD AND PAULA FRASER: BE officials who travelled out to help deliver the competition
Preparing for the Olympic dream
The Olympics is the ultimate sporting dream and Tokyo, having been delayed for a year, meant more than ever before. In our sport, selection was always going to be tough with so many world-class combinations in the running but in the end Oliver Townend with Ballaghmor Class, Laura Collett with London 52 and Tom McEwen with Toledo de Kerser were selected to represent Team GB, with Ros Canter and Allstar B as travelling reserve.
TOM: To me, the Olympics means everything. Badminton, Burghley and the Olympics are the three main targets that I have always wanted to achieve. It was a huge achievement just getting on the team this year because there were so many combinations that were on flying form.
TILLY: Selection this year was really tough so it was very stressful at the start of the year. We had to stay focused on what we were doing and get London 52 (Dan) right for every competition. When we were told the news, it was just amazing!
We went into quarantine on 10 July for 10 days at the British Showjumping base in Leicestershire and when we were all there together, that’s when it felt like something amazing was about to happen.
It was very emotional sending the horses off – there were definitely a few tears. Liz, the team vet, travelled on the plane with them. It was Dan’s first flight, but the other horses had all flown before, so they held his hand a little bit.
Arriving in Tokyo
With the British Equestrian team already out in Tokyo preparing the facilities, the horses began their journey on 18 July. The grooms flew out to be there to greet them when they arrived. The riders flew out on 21 July, quarantining in hotels until they could join the support team.
TILLY: When we were driven from the airport to the Equestrian Park, we got the first glimpse of the arena and everything and it was amazing. We were there the day before the horses arrived, so it was nice to have a look round to see the facilities and the stables. It was unbelievable the amount of time and effort the teams over in Japan had put in to make the stables perfect.
We’d been warned it was going to be hot and humid, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. The Equestrian Park was shut between 11 and 3, which meant we were active in the mornings and evenings, which made it feel a lot cooler.
LIZ: As there was a typhoon coming, the climate wasn’t as challenging as it could have been. The test events were a lot hotter and more humid than the Games themselves, so much of our hot-weather preparation wasn’t needed thankfully.
The Games experience
The Tokyo Olympics had one noticeable difference from previous Games – no domestic or foreign spectators, which added a new dimension to the event. The majority of the equestrian events took place at the Equestrian Park, while cross country was held at Sea Forest around 30km away.
TILLY: A big moment for me was the first arena familiarisation – being stood in that arena with the seating all around you and the atmosphere. Even without crowds it was like, ‘we’re in Tokyo at the Olympics!’. It was just the dream.
TOM: For me, it still had an electric atmosphere. The facility was incredible and the main arena was simply stunning. The same goes for cross country; it was the most incredible venue. You still felt the pressure, knowing the cameras are on you and everyone’s watching at home. It really did feel very special.
We were lucky as eventing was the middle discipline. We got to enjoy watching the dressage team, who were just the nicest bunch of people, and then the jumpers came and we got to mix with them as well, which was great. There was a real Team GB spirit, even though we couldn’t go to watch other sports. Within our equestrian bubble, we got to meet our other heroes.
Admittedly, it added a bit more pressure. Normally, there’s lots of people watching, but when you know it’s just a select few of the best riders in the world from other disciplines, watching you ride a dressage test or showjump a course, it does make it more nerve-wracking in a way.
LIZ: It was a funny Games because there were no spectators, but it was nice because we all stabled as a nation. When we arrived, the dressage riders were there and they were doing well which gave us a real buzz. We were all very much part of a gang in the stable. Then the jumpers came and we were all three disciplines together as one British team for a few days, which was lovely.
We have really good support teams across all of the disciplines and everyone worked really well together. It was lovely for us to be in the stables with Gio (Pumpkin) and En Vogue (Vogue) and to be holding Explosion W while his groom mucked his stable out, you get a bit star-struck by the famous horses in the other disciplines.
RICHARD AND PAULA: The hardest thing was being in a room of strangers and getting to grips with the task in hand. We had two days to sort through the list of volunteers, get equipment and paperwork organised and any last-minute things that needed to be done so that we were ready for the first rehearsal.
When we met the volunteers, their enthusiasm and passion was probably greater than at any Games we had been to because they were so determined to make it work.
The first horse inspection took place on Thursday 29 July, with the dressage getting underway the following day. The cross country was held in the early morning to avoid the worst of the heat – leading to many a pyjama party for British fans.
TILLY: I like to think I hold it together until they’re in the ring and then I have a little freak out on my own. I do get quite nervous. First and foremost, you just want it to go well and you want the horse to come back safe and happy. When you’re with them every day you know just how much time and effort is put in and you know how amazing they can be, so you just want them to go out and show everyone that.
Me and Francesca, Tom’s groom, were sat in the stables when Oliver was about to go in the cross country. The first rider fell off so that was nerve-wracking but we watched Oliver’s round and it was perfect. That was the only round I saw before Laura’s – I knew it was doable and I knew that he had got the time so, for my nerves I decided I didn’t need to see any more. I needed to focus on getting Dan ready and in the warm-up.
We did have a scary moment when the rider before Laura had a fall. There was some confusion and we thought it was Laura, but then she galloped past so we knew she was fine. After her round, I was at the stables focusing on Dan but we watched Tom’s round on the live stream – another flawless round. There was a lot of celebrating in the stables!
LIZ: Having them all finish the cross country within the time and pulling up soundly, you know you’ve got a chance. You still know you can come out the next morning and something could have changed, but you get that confidence from seeing the horses trot up. You’re focused on the job that needs to be done and not the results, until the results actually happen.
RICHARD AND PAULA: My official title was Time Keeping Team Leader and anyone who watched the TV coverage would have seen me in a familiar place – standing next to the start box, counting down each horse. I also had to make sure that the stopping points on the course were suitably manned and that all the clocks and stop watches around the course were synchronised.
Paula’s role was Fence Judge Team Leader, allocating all the volunteer judges onto the fences on the cross country. There was only a global audience of 60 million – if you got it wrong, they would all see, but if you got it right, no one would notice a thing. We got it right!
Celebrating team gold
TILLY: I don’t think [winning gold] sunk in until Oliver show jumped. Me and Francesca were in the stables. We watched Oliver’s round and looked at each other in disbelief. We gave each other a hug and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve won a gold medal!’.
TOM: Having the competing team of three this year put pressure on everyone because anything could have happened. Horses and horse sport throw up the strangest of things.
It was tenterhooks until Oliver finished really. When he came down that last line and you knew he had a couple in hand, it was just the time waiting for him to finish through the flags.
The gold medal means everything. For everyone who has helped me all the way through from the beginning until now, it couldn’t be done without them. It’s such a huge team effort, not just the team at home but all the support from owners, supporters and sponsors and the BEF team out at the Games, UK Sport and the National Lottery. To have everyone around you backing you, to say thank you by doing well, it means a lot.
LIZ: It’s so exciting to have won the first gold medal for the sport since 1972 – it feels quite momentous. There’s so much luck and bad luck involved in Olympics and eventing, anything could have gone wrong or right, so we were very lucky it did all work out. But luck comes with being thoroughly prepared and for Tokyo, we knew it was going to be tough and the preparation we did for a long time beforehand helped the performance.
We knew we had the horses to deliver that gold medal and we had the right riders to win a gold medal, so you go there knowing that’s in your grasp if things go well and you kind of focus on that. If you come home with a silver, you have in the back of your mind if a horse had gone a bit faster or if we’d done something a bit better, we could have won gold, so winning the gold means you don’t get that. There’s a real sense of relief that it has all worked out and they have delivered like everyone hoped they would.
Tom’s individual silver
TOM: The feeling Toledo gave me is probably the one thing that will never leave me. He made it feel so easy and I was so excited to be going back in for another show jumping round for the individual. For me, he’s the most special horse in the world, I know everyone says that about their own horse, but he’s incredible. I felt that he was going for his own medal individually and I really wanted to help him get that, rather than it being the other way round. I wanted to show everyone he was special by putting a medal round him. All I had to do was get him in the right place and he jumped magnificently.
Then it was just sitting and waiting, we knew we had a medal but it was what colour. Julia’s horse was absolutely incredible and she jumped the most beautiful round and deserved it. I’ll have to get myself set for three years’ time on Toledo and try to go one better.
TOM: We all think it’s an amazing sport and I hope everyone else can see that now. The Olympics is a great way for people to get into it. Our sport isn’t one people watch week in, week out like rugby or football – it has two hearts and is the only sport that has male and female competitors competing against each other. It’s really special.
RICHARD AND PAULA: We both feel very proud to have played a part in helping the Japanese deliver a fantastic competition that will go down in history as being one of the most unusual Games held in the midst of the global pandemic.
Article first published in British Eventing Life magazine, Autumn 2021.