Groomed for gold: Zara Phillips has finally made it to the Games… and it's all down to inheriting her mother Princess Anne’s iron will
22:03 GMT, 27 July 2012
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh used to joke that any offspring of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips would be born with fetlocks, a tail and four legs.
So they weren’t surprised when Anne and Mark’s daughter Zara took to the saddle in nappies, and became a fully competent rider at the age of four.
Now, after her bitter disappointment at not being able to take part in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, Zara Phillips will be an eventing competitor at London 2012.
After her bitter disappointment at not being able to take part in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, Zara Phillips will be an eventing competitor at London 2012
She has tough acts to follow – her parents met at the Munich Olympics in 1972, where Mark took Gold for Great Britain’s three-day eventing.
Anne competed in Montreal in 1976 and Mark won team Silver in the 1988 Seoul Games. ‘I’ve realised how much Mum and Dad’s achievements mean,’ she told me on one of the occasions I interviewed her. ‘People say to me, “Oh, your parents did so well, so will you.” There are good and bad sides to it – it’s not good to have too many comparisons because of the pressure it creates. My parents realise that too and don’t expect me to do well just because they did.’
For a long time, though, the Games looked like being just a dream. Zara, now 31, failed to make the shortlist for the Athens Olympics in 2004, and was forced to withdraw from the Beijing Games because her horse, Toytown, was injured.
Indeed, only two months ago, when she carried the Olympic torch at Cheltenham racecourse, she might have wondered if this was as close to the Games as she would get. ‘Lots of people have Olympic hopes, but it’s a long haul,’ she told me.
But finally, after coming third in the Equi-Trek Bramham International Horse Trials in June, she qualified for Team GB on her horse High Kingdom. It was cause for celebration in the family – she says the Queen is ‘very proud’ – but no one was more chuffed than Zara herself. She’s unapologetic about being fiercely focused.
The Queen is said to be 'very proud' of Zara Phillips and High Kingdom
‘I do have this competitive streak, like my mother – you have to – and I do think I’m self-disciplined. You have to be if you are going to succeed in any sport. I never became passionate about riding, it was just something I’ve always done since I was very small and something I’ve carried on doing.’
It says a great deal about Zara’s dedication that even her high-spirited rebelliousness when she was growing up – aged 16 she was punished for chatting in the out-of-bounds boys’ dorms at Gordonstoun School and the next year she turned up at the Queen Mother’s 98th birthday party with her tongue pierced – didn’t hamper her riding.
‘I often call her and tell her what my
horses have been up to. She knows all the horses and likes to find out
what’s going on. Although she’s the Queen, she’s my grandmother – we
don’t have a different relationship because of who she is'
‘There is a time and a place for hard work, but life would be very dull without fun,’ she likes to say.
Indeed, her determination to follow her own path has at times unnerved the establishment. After she daringly posed in a low-cut red gown for Weekend’s cover in 2004, the Palace was shocked enough to ask photographer Patrick Lichfield to withdraw the pictures so they wouldn’t be used again.
But Zara was unfazed – she loves to dress up in glamorous clothes. As for that tongue stud, she said it didn’t bother her parents or grandparents. ‘People said it was a mark of being a rebel, but I had it because it was fashionable and I liked it. There was a bit of a fuss, although not from the family, so I told people I’d had it taken out. I didn’t though – I kept it longer than anyone realised.’
In her sporting life, however, she is happy to conform. At London 2012 she will be just another competitor, sharing accommodation and transport with teammates William Fox-Pitt, Georgina French, Kristina Cook and Mary King.
Similarly, her mother flew economy class to Canada in 1976, stayed in the Olympic village and queued with a tray for her meals. ‘Zara is absolutely a team player,’ explained Will Connell, performance director for British equestrian sport. ‘She doesn’t seek the limelight. There’s no denying who her mother and grandmother are, but she is, first and foremost, an elite equestrian athlete.’
Zara has the support of her husband, England rugby player Mike Tindall, with whom she lives in a regency house in Cheltenham
This can be attributed to her no-nonsense upbringing. Captain Phillips and the Princess Royal, who were married from 1973 to 1992, raised their children on the Gatcombe Park estate as untitled commoners, even sending them to the local primary school.
On weekends, Zara learned to ride her Shetland pony Smoky in the paddock at home. ‘My mother and father didn’t keep us away from normal life and their philosophy was to let me lead my own life. I think giving up a title was good because it has given me more freedom,’ explained Zara who, far from speaking with a cut-glass accent, has a trace of Gloucestershire burr.
‘I had to make my own bed, I looked after my own pets and, yes, I did my own mucking out with the ponies.’
Aged 24, Zara followed in her mother’s footsteps by winning the European three-day event at Burghley, and the next year was named Sports Personality of the Year, 35 years after her mother was handed the same trophy. Zara spent the rest of her 20s enjoying remarkable success with Toytown, winning eventing’s world title in 2006.
But Toytown’s age began to show and last year, with tears in her eyes, Zara announced his retirement. It was a tough moment for her and for the Queen, who helped buy him. ‘My grandmother follows my progress and we do chat regularly,’ she told me. ‘I often call her and tell her what my horses have been up to. She knows all the horses and likes to find out what’s going on. Although she’s the Queen, she’s my grandmother – we don’t have a different relationship because of who she is.’
Zara has previously been names Sport's Personality of the Year
She also has the support of her husband, England rugby player Mike Tindall, with whom she lives in a regency house in Cheltenham. These days Zara still mucks out the stables, joking that it’s ‘good exercise’, but her career needs more than just elbow grease to run – she keeps seven horses at an estimated cost of 500,000 a year. Lucrative sponsorship deals help, and she has a 1.7 million share of a trust the Queen Mother left for her great-grandchildren.
The Queen’s granddaughter will be going for Gold wearing her good luck charm, a pair of socks emblazoned with flying pigs
And she can also draw on the free advice of her parents. ‘I’m strong-willed like my mother and we’re similar in many ways. We’re pretty close and I have a lot of respect for her. She and my father give me lots of advice and instructions. I listen, but anybody would with the experience they have with horses.’
Princess Anne will be there at the Games to watch Zara in her capacity as a member of the International Olympic Committee, as well as a proud mother. But Mark is coaching the rival American eventing team. ‘We don’t talk about horses at the moment, he’s working for the competition,’ says Zara.
That doesn’t worry her too much, however, as she has a secret weapon to give her an edge at London 2012 – the Queen’s granddaughter will be going for Gold wearing her good luck charm, a pair of socks emblazoned with flying pigs.