1996 Atlanta Olympic Games Australian Eventing Team

Backward Glance

Australia’s Eventing team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics have recently been inducted into the Equestrian Australia Hall of Fame. The gold medal winning team was notable not only for its riding ability but also for its exemplary standards of raw courage and perseverance.

Wendy Schaeffer, the youngest equestrian gold medalist in history (she was only 21 when she competed at these Games), rode with a broken leg which she suffered in training two months before the Olympics.

Initially, she was driven around the cross-country course in a golf buggy by Chef d’Equipe Jim Dunn. But the American team protested that if she wasn’t fit enough to walk then she wasn’t fit enough to ride, so poor Wendy had to complete the seven kilometre course walk on foot! Despite being in excruciating pain for most of the competition, Wendy still finished on top of the overall table with her beloved horse Sunburst, which at previous Games would have entitled her to a second gold medal. As it were, she became the youngest woman ever to win Olympic equestrian gold.

Wendy Schaeffer at the 1996 Badminton Horse Trials - photo by Beechwood Photography via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Wendy Schaeffer at the 1996 Badminton Horse Trials, shortly before breaking her leg in the lead-up to the Atlanta Olympics. Beechwood Photography on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Also during the cross-country phase, Gillian Rolton‘s stunning grey gelding Peppermint Grove slipped and fell on the flat at the five minute mark, causing Gill to break her collarbone and ribs. Back then, riders were not disqualified for falling off, so she got back in the saddle – only to fall at the next fence, a tough water element. Still, Gill heroically mounted once more and made it across the finish line. ‘She’s not Australian for nothing!’, remarked the commentator.

Next up was Andrew Hoy (now an eight-time olympian!), who had carried the flag for Australia at the opening ceremony. Andrew and his grey gelding Darien Powers had a near-perfect cross country round and a faultless showjumping performance, finishing fourth overall, giving Australia a huge 57 point lead ahead of the second-positioned US team!

Australia was in such a commanding position that Phillip Dutton could have knocked down every show jump in his round and the team still would have won! But Phillip and his horse True Blue Girdwood dotted the Ts and crossed the Is, finishing second to Wendy on the points table.

What an incredible display of strength and courage by the two female members of the team, and what fantastic riding by Andrew and Phillip to bring home the gold! The word ‘heroic’ definitely comes to my mind when I think of Wendy and Gillian finishing their cross-country and show jumping rounds with broken bones. What do you think, globetrotters?

References: Equestrian Australia, Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

Image credits: Photo of Wendy Schaeffer by Beechwood Photography on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) (cropped, brightened; colours & contrast enhanced). Preview image via Equestrian Australia.

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