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Mark Todd: getting back in the saddle

The sports star opens up about divorce and his Olympic bid.

It would be a serious understatement to describe equestrian legend Mark Todd as a “comeback kid”. He’s spent most of his life travelling between New Zealand and the UK, while pursuing a career as the world’s foremost three-day eventer. He’s come back from a sex and drugs scandal that would have destroyed most sportsmen. Now he’s back from retirement to become a top contender for gold at this year’s London Olympic Games, almost 30 years after he first stood on the podium.

Although his top ride NZB Land Vision is out of contention with an injury, Mark has his pick of backup horses. “I like setting challenges for myself, it’s one of the reasons I came back into eventing,” he says dryly. “I like exciting things. That slight element of danger is part of it. “I always think I’d like a peaceful life, but then I keep doing things that mean I never have one. I think I’d be lost if I really did have a quiet life.”

At 56, his life is anything but quiet. Mark’s now documented his ups and downs in his updated autobiography, Second Chance. His talent, competitiveness and pursuit of excellence have already netted him two Olympic gold medals, a CBE and the title of the 20th century’s greatest event rider. But, he confesses, this contributed to the breakdown of his marriage.

The trigger was reigniting his international eventing career in 2008, having retired in 2000. It meant relocating to the UK after eight years of training racehorses in New Zealand where his wife, Carolyn, was based with their children, Lauren (23) and James (18). “Returning to a full-on eventing lifestyle was chiefly my project and my idea; Carolyn hadn’t really expected it all to take off again and she was realising that she didn’t want to go back to that kind of life. I knew she wasn’t happy and I knew that I probably hadn’t done enough to rectify that,” he writes.

“On one level, I was terribly shocked. We had been looking at properties to buy in England and, in many respects, were getting on well. We had been married for 23 years and, although we’d been through a lot we were, at base, very close friends and it felt incredibly sad. “Carolyn had a tough time going backwards and forwards a lot and she was very torn between supporting me and being with the children back at home.”

The marriage had already survived Mark’s reported liaison with a 24-year-old man, with an alleged side dish of cocaine – an incident the Kiwi champ describes as “a result of naivety and impetuousness” and “a mistake which brought me to the lowest point in my life”. The allegation could also have prevented him from riding at the Sydney Olympics, but the New Zealand authorities decided as he hadn’t failed a drugs test, he should compete. He won a bronze medal to add to his collection.

His big regret, though, is that his return to top-level sport has meant living on the other side of the world from his family. “Sport has dominated my life and it puts a strain on relationships,” he says over coffee in his Berkshire kitchen. “It’s been hard the last few years not having the kids around, but modern technology means it’s dead easy to keep in touch. I’m a demon with Skype.

“My son is now here with me. He’s just finished school and is having a gap year. My daughter’s got one more year at university in New Zealand and then I think she’ll probably come here. It’s just great having them around.”

Surprisingly, neither of Mark’s children is a competitive rider. “Neither of them is really into horses. Maybe there was just too much of it about,” Mark shrugs. Family isn’t all that he’s given up in his pursuit of medals. “I miss the Kiwi way of life and I miss the beaches,” he admits.

“Last year, I was only home for three-and-a-half weeks over Christmas, because this is an Olympic year and I needed to be back here. This year, I’m hoping for a longer break. I’ve got a boat, a little run-around, and I love that. But at the moment it’s all too far away.”

With 14 horses in his yard, Mark doesn’t have much time to feel homesick. “Home is where I am,” he says pragmatically. “I’ll always be a Kiwi but I’ve lived a big part of my life in the UK. When I’m in New Zealand, I’m home. When I’m in England, I’m home. “The days can be quite long. Normally, I’m up at six thirty or seven, then there’s usually a few things to do with New Zealand, and I like to get to the yard at about eight.”

He still manages to fit in some socialising – not least a trip to Scotland to attend fellow eventer Zara Phillips’ wedding to rugby player Mike Tindall. “Despite all the security and the tight arrangements – we had to be at the church a long time in advance – it felt like a lovely, normal family wedding, even if it was one where the Queen was sitting a couple of pews away.”

Then there’s the challenge of being fit enough to take on riders half his age. “I never stopped riding, so there was a basic level of fi tness, but I do have to do a bit more these days. I swim and I’ve been talking about running again.” Here Mark makes a wry reference to previous jogs which culminated in a torn Achilles tendon – though he ignored the pain to complete a marathon.

“Quickly touching wood, I’ve been lucky with injuries. I’ve broken both ankles, had cracked ribs and a broken jaw and I’ve had horses fl ip and roll on me but I’ve always walked away. “I’m just very fortunate that I can do what I love and that riding is a sport where the experience that comes with age is a bonus – and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think I could be competitive at top level.”

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