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Coates pays tribute to Olympic great Gillian Rolton

27 November 2017

AOC: Two-time Olympic gold medallist Gillian Rolton OAM passed away aged 61 after a two-year battle with endometrial cancer last week.

Today she was honoured at a State Memorial Service in Adelaide where President of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, paid tribute to the sporting legend on behalf of the Olympic Movement; speaking alongside Bruce McAvaney and former South Australian Governor Marjorie Jackson. 

John Coates' tribute to Gillian Rolton

Gillian Rolton was an Olympic great – winning two Olympic Gold medals as a member of our 3-day equestrian event team in Barcelona 1992 with Matt Ryan, Andrew Hoy and David Green and again in Atlanta in 1996 with Andrew, Philip Dutton and Wendy Schaeffer, with her much loved Peppermint Grove.

But it was not just the fact of winning two Gold medals that elevates Gillian to recognition as one of our true greats, but the determination and courage she displayed in winning.

It was determination that saw Gillian selected as the last member of our eventing team for Barcelona, beating all male members in the final selection trial in England. So late had she made her run that her name was not included in the Team Handbook.

None of the team enjoyed a particularly strong dressage phase, but they were sixth going into the cross-country.

After the cross-country, they had worked their way into second, but David Green’s horse was vetted-out for the final show-jumping rounds.

In the show-jumping, with the Australian horses acknowledged as the freshest of the lot, the three Australians left all rode confidently knocking down only one rail each over the four rounds. As a result, Matt Ryan finished the eventual individual winner and the team took the Gold.

In Atlanta in 1996, Australian Olympic historian, Harry Gordon described the female half of our eventing team – Wendy Schaeffer and Gillian, as: “like a couple of nattily attired crocks, as they took their place alongside Andrew Hoy and Philip Dutton on the dais.”

Wendy was hobbling on a broken leg sustained a couple of days before the event and Gillian treading gingerly, with her broken collarbone in a sling and broken ribs strapped and padded.

Quoting Harry again: “Gillian’s problems began on a bend during the cross-country phase of the endurance section. Her beloved mount Peppermint Grove (aka Freddy) came down after treading on a tree root, then skidded along the gravel, taking Gillian with him. She didn’t know it then, but she had broken her left collarbone and two ribs. A spectator grabbed the horse and she re-mounted. As she began galloping again she became aware that it was difficult to breathe, and her left arm wasn’t working. At the next obstacle, a water jump, horse and rider came down again after the useless arm prevented her from guiding Freddy through a clean jump. She somersaulted into the water, then waded out and boarded the waiting horse again. She galloped one-handed for another three kilometres, clearing 15 more fences, to finish the course.”

I was on the course that day, just as I had the privilege to be there for the final show-jumping rounds in Barcelona.Equestrian 3-day eventing Gold Atlanta 96

“An ambulance took Gillian to hospital, where she refused pain killing drugs because she felt she might be needed for the final show-jumping round the next day. She wasn’t – but Gillian’s gallantry and perseverance served as an inspiration to her fellow riders, and the entire Australian team.”

I had the opportunity to recognise Gillian’s status as one of our greats when selecting her as one of the eight flagbearers to carry the Olympic flag into and around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. All of the other flagbearers, including your former South Australian Governor, Marjorie Jackson, had also won two Gold medals with the exception of fellow three-day event hero Bill Roycroft, who by 2000 was our oldest living Gold medallist, having won one Gold in Rome 1960 and two Bronze from his four other Olympics.

Gillian continued to give back to the sport she loved well after her retirement through many administrative roles, including on the Equestrian Australia board at the time of her passing. She initiated, co-ordinated and coached the national Young Riders Squad and was a jury member at the London 2012 Olympics and President of the Ground Jury at the World Equestrian Games in 2004.

Gillian established the Adelaide International Horse Trials in 1997. By 2007 it had become the only four-star event in the southern hemisphere and been renamed The Australian International Three-day Event.

A great supporter of the Olympic Movement, Gillian was always giving of her time for fundraising efforts for the Australian Olympic Team, the last occasion being at the South Australian Premier’s Dinner last August.

And all of this continuing contribution while battling cancer over the last two years with her characteristic bravery and courage.

I extend my deepest condolences to Gillian’s husband Greg, her family and friends. We have lost a truly great Olympian.

John Coates - AOC President

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