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Unbreakable

The Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World's Most Dangerous Horse Race

by Richard Askwith

Unbreakable by Richard Askwith X
Unbreakable by Richard Askwith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2021, 440 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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Excerpt
Unbreakable

For a small nation, the Czechs have an extraordinary gift for producing sporting champions of luminous greatness. Still more remarkable is their rulers' gift—especially in the twentieth century—for disowning them. Emil Zátopek, the runner; Věra Čáslavská, the gymnast; Olga Fikotová-Connolly, the discus thrower; Martina Navratilová, the tennis player; the near-invincible national men's ice-hockey team of 1947–9 ... All dazzled and conquered their chosen worlds, only to be denounced as traitors or enemies of the people. Some were punished; all were shunned. But none fell so far or for so long as Lata Brandisová, the steeplechase jockey, who displeased not one totalitarian regime but two—having already struggled through years of prejudice on account of her gender.

In her prime, between the world wars, Jan's great-aunt was fêted by statesmen and socialites, acclaimed by chanting crowds. Her achievements in the saddle made headlines not just in Czechoslovakia (as it then was) but across Europe: they were astonishing in sporting terms but more astonishing still in the courage and resilience that made them possible. In an age of prejudice she refused to be constrained by convention. At a time of despair she embodied hope and patriotism. Her aristocratic glamour added to her celebrity, but she was also a figure of deep and serious significance for her nation, her sport and her gender.

She faced her ultimate challenge in middle age, confronting the warrior-athletes of the Third Reich in a sporting contest so extreme in its dangers that some would question its right to be called sport. That day alone should have been enough to earn her immortality. Instead, she was stuffed into history's dustbin.

She remained there, in that little cottage in the woods, for thirty years, forgotten and unmentionable. Her sisters would leave at dawn, walking to catch a train, to work all day in a factory on the edge of Prague. Lata, still unsteady on her feet from sporting battles gone by, would stay at home, cleaning, washing, chopping wood, fetching water, with only a dog for company.

Later, as age and hunger gnawed at their bones, the sisters became increasingly reclusive. But once a week they would walk to church, always sitting in the same pews, always returning in single file, always alone with their thoughts—"like the three kings," says a villager who used to watch. Then, nearly forty years ago, even that procession stopped.

Lata's death, in 1981, was barely reported. She is buried abroad. As far as most of her compatriots are concerned, her story might as well have been buried there with her. a few pilgrims say a mass for her each year at the family shrine in the woods above her old home—hundreds of miles from her actual resting place. apart from that, you'll struggle to find a Czech or Slovak who has heard of her, outside the hardcore racing community. In the West, she is almost entirely forgotten. Yet the life of Lata Brandisová was too remarkable to deserve such oblivion. Her character, courage and achievements made a mark that mattered in European history, and made a permanent difference to the opportunities available to the women who came after her. If ever an athlete deserved to have a permanent record set down of who she was and what she did, she does.

* * *

A few miles from Old Women's Gorge, her old family house still stands, on the edge of a quiet, low-lying village at whose heart is an ancient fish pond. It is a small, low stately home, overlooking a tree-shaded courtyard, where Lata's privileged parents taught her to ride and raised her (in vain) to be a well-bred bride. Water was pouring through the ceiling when I first visited. The coat of arms above the front door had peeled away long ago, and patches of stucco were missing from the outside walls. On the sagging stables—on one side of the courtyard—"Danger: keep out" signs stated the obvious.

Excerpted from the first chapter of Unbreakable by Richard Askwith, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.

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