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Wendy has no hesitation in saying that the highlight of her career so far is winning a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. There are, however, two tales within this amazing story. The first is the fairy tale of the young woman who rides her pony club horse at the Olympics and wins a gold medal. The second is the tale of Wendy breaking her leg nine weeks out from the Olympic Games. Thanks to grit, determination, and a metal plate and several screws keeping her leg together she still rode at the Olympic Games and won the gold medal. Put the two tales together and you have a story worthy of an Oscar.
One thing that struck me after I came to Australia was how much pride the country takes in its deserving athletes. Partly this made an impression on me, because growing up I was not aware of much of a sports culture in my country. Yes everyone I knew was mad about soccer, but these were English clubs they were supporting. Also the money simply was not available for proper sporting facilities for hopeful Olympians. Saying that though, I did grow up in the same town as Michelle Smith, Rathcool. I even caught the same bus to school as equestrian Cian O’Connor.
So often it appears as if the spectacle of sporting events, seemingly always occuring in some stadium in a foreign land, causes us to forget that these are ordinary people, from ordinary places, which was why I enjoyed the personal perspectives offered by An Eventful Life: Life Stories of Eventing Champions.
In her opening foreward publisher Debbie Higgs asserts that [this] is not just a book for fans of equestrian sports – it is a book for anyone interested in how people with extraordinary talent and perseverance can become Olympic champions. This for me is the real heart of the book. Too often the careers of sportsmen are forced into a global historical narrative. This book instead concentrates on the personal.
Alison Duthie presents a series of journalistic profiles of several Australian Olympians. A welcome addition to the selection of sportspeople is young up-and-comer Emma Scott. The book’s appendix lists an impressive selection of appearances by Scott on the equestrian circuit since 2007. The other professional horse-riders who partake of eventing have already experienced a whole series of highs and lows across the world. Emma Scott’s story has not yet truly begun.
The book’s subjects are Megan Jones, Sonja Johnson, Shane Rose, Wendy Schaeffer and Stuart Tinney. Collectively they can hold claim to an incredible assortment of medals and prizes. We learn how each of them first came to the sport, often with the generous help of family members and friends, as well as the experiences they shared with the horses that carried them to victory. One of the book’s strengths is that the relationship between horse and rider is emphasised through the testimonies of these athletes. They speak of them as animal friends, or even colleagues of a kind, but never dismissively as ‘beasts’.
The level of dedication and determination required by the sport can also bring a dangerous cost with it. The quote I chose to open this piece gives an example of the extraordinary lengths Wendy Schaeffer was willing to go to in order to attend the Olympics despite serious injury. Shane Rose had to undergo major reconstructive surgery after he was struck in the face by a horse. While escaping injury himself, Stuart Tinney’s horse Jeepster leaped into the crowd of onlookers at Badminton in 1999. That all of these athletes would continue on despite the harships and occasional mishaps of a life in professional sports shows just how dedicated they are to equestrianism. Many have even become trainers of the next generation themselves.
Writer Alison Duthie herself trained in the sport and her familiarity helps convey the personal stories told here with an added degree of insight. There is even a wonderful collection of photographs included at the end of each chapter, illustrating the careers of these men and women. The tone of the book is both warm and enthusiastic, enough to encourage the interest of anyone, regardless of their interest in the field.
Well told, insightful and fascinating. A genuine treat.
With thanks to Palmer Higgs Publishing.