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Gillian Rolton, 61, Australian who won gold despite broken bones

By Richard Sandomir New York Times 

NEW YORK — Gillian Rolton, an equestrian from Australia who broke multiple bones in falls from her horse during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta but remounted each time to finish the competition and help her team win a gold medal, died on Nov. 18 at a hospice in North Adelaide. She was 61.

The Australian Olympic Committee said the cause was endometrial cancer.

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Ms. Rolton had won an Olympic gold medal four years earlier at the Summer Games in Barcelona aboard Peppermint Grove (better known as Fred or Freddy) — the first Australian horsewoman to do so. And she returned with the horse to Atlanta for team eventing, a three-day competition featuring dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.

In cross-country, an endurance test for rider and horse, Ms. Rolton was confident of her early progress. But at the five-minute mark, Freddy’s hind legs slipped as he made a turn, and he rolled over her.

“That’s where I broke my collarbone and ribs,” Ms. Rolton told The Horse magazine in 2010.

A spectator grabbed Freddy, and someone helped Ms. Rolton back onto him. They galloped up a hill, but as they came to a water jump, Ms. Rolton realized that her left arm lacked the strength to control Freddy, and she fell into the water.

Again, she remounted him, and they completed the 3 kilometers that were left, making the final 15 jumps.

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Melanie Smith Taylor, the longtime equestrian analyst for NBC Sports, watched Ms. Rolton that day and was not surprised by her actions.

“Team eventing takes the most courage of all Olympic equestrian disciplines, and she was the epitome of courage,” she said in a phone interview.

Ms. Rolton said instinct had compelled her to continue despite her falls and injuries. But there was also a practical reason to keep going: As the third of four cross-country riders for Australia, she needed to post a score in case something kept the rider who followed her from completing his ride.

After being treated for her injuries, she refused painkillers, which would have dulled her senses if she had to compete in the next day’s jumping competition. But she was not needed for that event; her fellow riders and horses secured the gold medal. The United States took the silver.

Ms. Rolton’s athletic fearlessness became a signature moment in Australian sports history.

She was one of eight Australian Olympic champions to carry their country’s flag in the Olympic opening ceremony, and she was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

Gillian England was born in Adelaide, in South Australia, on May 3, 1956. Her father, Lloyd, was a builder, and her mother, the former Esme Fraser, was a bookkeeper.

As a girl, Gillian excelled at swimming but wanted a horse. “Mum and Dad didn’t have any background with horses, apart from what they bet on at the horse track,” she wrote in “Free Rein,” her autobiography.

But by age 10 she had her first horse, Randy the Rig, an ex-pacer, and her career as a show and dressage rider began.

She started eventing and show jumping at 21, and met with increasing success. She nearly made the Australian eventing team for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But her horse, Saville Row, injured a tendon in the final selection trial.

Then, in training to qualify for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she fell off her horse, Benton’s Way, and dislocated an elbow.

She achieved her Olympic dream on Freddy, her most talented equine partner.

After retiring from competitive riding, she remained active in equestrian events and continued to coach and support young equestrians, as she had done for many years. She was also a juror at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

She leaves her husband, Greg, and her half brother, John.