Laura Collett had been knocking at the door of a huge win ever since her much-garlanded pony years, despite suffering a “horrific” fall that left her sight permanently damaged. Polly Bryan finds the 31-year-old still on “cloud nine” after her first five-star success as she talks about why Tokyo hopefully happening a year later than was originally planned could be a blessing in disguise for her.
Laura Collett has so many accolades to her name that it’s easy to forget that until a month ago, a win at five-star level had eluded her. But finally, on her 12th five-star start – at Pau, France – she and the 11-year-old Landos gelding London 52 clinched that long-awaited top-level victory, having led the event from start to finish.
“I’ve been trying to stay on cloud nine for as long as I can,” laughs Laura a couple of weeks afterwards. “The first feeling I had after realising we had won was just utter disbelief, even as I came out of the ring and everyone crowded around me. I wouldn’t go to sleep for two days after because I didn’t want to wake up and find it was all a dream. Even now I keep watching it back to see if it really happened.”
Her emotional reaction to such a win is hardly surprising. For all its countless highlights, Laura’s record is flecked with near-misses – including elimination at two of her three senior championship runs, most recently in 2019 following third after dressage with London, and an agonising second-place finish at Luhmühlen in 2018 with Mr Bass.
“It’s always been my dream to win a five-star, but I had started to feel like maybe it wasn’t going to happen. I was second in Luhmühlen and I thought that might turn out to be my best five-star result,” Laura says candidly.
“I knew the horse was good enough, and it is so nice to prove that. There was a reason behind everything that went wrong last year, but he feels so different now, like he has finally grown up and started to believe in himself. The only thing he has lacked along the way is self-belief, and I thought if we could get that he could win a big one, so I was putting pressure on myself to show that to everyone.”
Laura, 31, knows a thing or two about pressure, and in particular the sort a rider so often heaps upon themselves. She had a phenomenally successful under-21 career, bagging seven gold medals in youth ranks and winning 10 three-day events by the time she was 21. So it’s hardly surprising that she felt the pressure to continue this stardom into her senior career, and not to be known simply as an under-21 sensation.
“I don’t want to be someone who used to win medals. In the back of my head I’ve always wanted the full array of medals – ponies, juniors, young riders and seniors – and it is a big personal thing to me to win an individual medal at a senior championship. My next aim is to put right what has gone wrong at championships in the past, and I genuinely believe that, given the opportunity and if things went my way, London could win medals.
“But at the same time, I don’t want that to become the be-all or end-all,” she adds. “To a certain extent, championships are out of my control – you’ve got to be selected, and that is based largely on someone’s opinion.”
It’s an impressively pragmatic attitude for someone with drive and ambition like Laura’s, but I can hear the hunger in her voice when she talks about championships, like next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“At the start of this year I didn’t think I was in line for the Olympics. I always felt Tokyo 2020 was just a year too soon, but Tokyo 2021 is actually a realistic aim for me now.”
It’s not just the rescheduled Olympics that the strange and scary events of this year have gifted Laura. The other great success of her 2020 has been the comeback of her beloved Mr Bass, the 12-year-old Carrico son who picked up an injury at Badminton 2019 and was off games for over a year.
“2020 will go down in history as a lot of things, but while the first lockdown seemed like the end of the world at the time as it prolonged my bringing Mr Bass back out, it was actually the best thing that could have happened for him. It gave him six weeks extra rehab, so while it was very frustrating, I knew it was a bonus for him and it made that first run [at Bicton in July] even more special.”
She describes her two top horses as total opposite characters who “keep me on my toes”.
“London is naturally more talented but doesn’t have the confidence. Mr Bass almost has too much belief in himself and he’s very in your face. The more you throw at him and dare him, the more he seems to grab the chance to prove people wrong.”
You could say something similar about Laura. Her love for the sport almost cost her her career – and her life – back in 2013, when a rotational fall in an intermediate at Tweseldown left her in an induced coma, with a fractured shoulder, punctured lung, lacerated liver and broken ribs. She also lost the sight in her right eye – but, incredibly, was back on a horse just seven weeks later.
It helps that she has no memory of the accident, so has avoided any mental scarring that could so easily have crippled her future in the sport. But she has seen it on video.
“I watch it quite a lot actually – I find it weirdly fascinating!” she reveals. “The first time I watched it on my own – I needed to know what happened and whether it was my fault or not, and it wasn’t. Lots of people told me not to in case it triggered my memory of it, but it never has. Watching it is like watching someone else.
“Actually, I was a bit disappointed when I first watched it. Everyone had told me how horrific it was and I had really built it up in my head. People are shocked at that, as it was very dramatic. Mostly it just makes me realise how lucky I am still to be here doing what I love.”
She is left with the lasting effects though – the sight in her right eye has never returned, and she has had to overcome the difficulties in distance and depth perception that caused. She also admits that she found the news that the damage to her optic nerve was permanent very tough to take at the time.
“When I was in hospital and realised I couldn’t see out of one eye I was told the sight would come back. Two weeks later I returned for a scan and they realised it wouldn’t. It really hit me – if they had told me that straight away I might have dealt with it better, but as it was I really struggled, and wasn’t very pleasant to be around.
“In the end I had to give myself a bit of a talking-to, and I realised that it didn’t have to stop me doing what I wanted to do.”
I get the impression that, actually, what might have been worse for Laura would have been if she had made a mistake that caused the accident. As it happened, there was nothing she could have done to prevent it.
“I would have struggled if it had been my fault, not with getting back on again, but because it would have made me doubt myself. I already doubt myself quite a lot – not back when I was young and naive and thought I was invincible, but when things started to go wrong I began over-analysing everything.”
Laura is frank and open about her vulnerabilities and some of her mental challenges, from over-analysing her performances to worrying what others are thinking. Both are common among athletes, and especially those as driven as Laura.
She tells me sport psychology has helped her over the past couple of years, since early 2018 when she felt she “was having a bit of a breakdown about everything”. The most invaluable aspect of it was being able to chat with someone from outside her world, who didn’t know her.
“It’s been a massive help in giving me some coping mechanisms and helping me process things differently, and remembering I can only control the controllables.
“I’ve also learned to deal with social media a lot better,” she says. “I still worry about what people think of me, and it’s something I have really had to work on, not to take things to heart and let people’s opinions of me change me as a person.
“Social media can work both ways and I’ve been on the receiving end of both sides. It can be amazing – the messages I had after Pau blew me away. But it used to be that if there was one negative message among 20 good ones, I’d only think about the bad one. I’ve learned not to focus on that so much, but I haven’t nailed it yet.”
One of the biggest storms Laura has had to weather was the social media furore surrounding Kauto Star, the double Cheltenham Gold Cup winner who was sent to Laura for hacking and schooling after retiring from the racetrack in 2012. Laura received plenty of negative publicity, much of it from racing fans, and the fallout after the horse was put down following a field accident in 2015 was particularly tough for her. But the experience didn’t diminish her love for racehorses, and over the past few years she has taken on various steeplechasers for jump schooling.
“I’ve always been passionate about jump racing and I find working with racehorses so rewarding, either teaching them to jump from scratch or helping them if they’re having any problems,” she says, telling me that it also makes for an effective distraction from her eventing bubble.
“I actually find it therapeutic to get on a racehorse, when not everything is on my shoulders like it is in eventing. That said, some trainers really value my opinion now – it scares me a little that they might go off what I say!”
At this year’s Cheltenham Festival in March, Harry Whittington’s Simply The Betts and Saint Calvados benefited from a morning’s work with Laura before going on to win and finish second in their respective races.
“I felt the pressure then – the travelling lad said to me that morning, ‘Don’t mess this up!’” recalls Laura with a laugh. “A lot of what-ifs went through my mind. But it was so amazing to be there and to be so appreciated by the horses’ connections. It was a day I’ll never forget.”
For all the days that Laura may be happy to erase from her memory, there remain many, many more that she will treasure forever. And with her milestone victory at Pau, she has now proved to others, and more importantly to herself, that she and her horses have what it takes to get to the very top.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020
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