Sir Lee's Story

Not many people can claim they have been carried up the stairs of No 10 Downing Street by the infamous “Iron Lady” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Neither can they claim to have achieved 34 career Gold medals, 10 of those being Paralympic Gold medals.

Few can also claim to have been bestowed with such titles as an MBE, OBE, CBE and have met Her Majesty The Queen on several occasions. An accomplished sportsman, Paralympic World Champion, Lee Pearson is an inspiration both to able bodied and disabled people the world over. His determination for success, courage and self-belief along with his unique “happy go lucky” charisma make him a national treasure.

When Lee Pearson was born, his limbs were so badly deformed that nurses put him into a broom cupboard. It was three days before they allowed his mother to see him. Such a diffi- cult start to life, however, served only to fuel Lee’s determination to succeed.

By the age of six, he’d been named one of the UK’s Children of Courage, and was carried up the staircase of 10 Downing Street by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With his love of animals and horses he was soon hankering for riding and what was to become the start of a beautiful friendship with man’s second best friend.

He has since won 10 Paralympic Gold Medals, and numerous national, European and in- ternational, titles, six World Championships and three European titles. In 2015 he collected three further Gold medals at the WEG World Equestrian Games in Normandy, a pre qualifier for RIO 2016. He has been awarded an MBE, OBE and CBE for his services to equestrian- ism and disabled sport.

One of the world’s best-known Paralympic athletes Pearson is also a gay icon, having come out to his parents shortly before his 21st birthday.

Pearson was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, a rare genetic and muscular de- formity that left Lee with twisted bones and joints, a condition which stopped his legs and arms from growing correctly. When he was born, nurses were so shocked by the extent of his disability that they separated him from his mother and placed him in a broom cupboard for three days. The youngest of three sons, he underwent 14 major operations by doctors who sought to straighten his limbs.

His determination in the face of such overwhelming odds led him to receive a 1980 Children of Courage Award from the then Prime Minister of the time Margaret Thatcher. Soon after, he took his first steps. Lee remembers: “I wasn’t aware of the significance of taking my first steps. Before that, I’d just wriggled around, like a caterpillar. It was very difficult learning to walk.”

Lee’s parents fought for him to enter mainstream school in Staffordshire, where he pros- pered. He became a popular member of his class but unfortunately was excluded from par- ticipating in physical education. Lee asked if riding lessons could be an option rather than him sat watching his friends, to be told that he wouldn’t be able to ride because of insurance risks. He was forbidden from taking horse riding lessons with other pupils, because of his disability. However, his parents let him ride a donkey, called Sally, from the age of seven, before booking him lessons at the Endon Riding School, where he rode a horse called Mooney.

“People often ask me whether the heavens opened and the birds sang when I first started riding,” he says. “The truth is, I was very scared. I had no horsemanship and I wasn’t very good: in fact, I was rubbish. But every time I fell off, I just got straight back on. I never, ever gave up.”

Lee got his first horse as a gift on a dream Christmas. His parents bought him a horse called Duke when he was nine. “Duke was a beautiful jet black pony. It was love at first sight. He was difficult to ride and tried to buck me off every time I got on. But that was a dream and I just loved him.”

Lee found an administrative job in The Co-Op after leaving school and signing on to a then YTS scheme. He also revealed to his parents that he was gay. He had been in relationships for approximately two years. He found the process of coming out extremely difficult. “I hated the feeling. Through adolescence, I became increasingly aware that I was attracted to men. I didn’t want to be gay and I hated myself. It took me a long time to accept. I try to educate people by telling them that you control the way you think, but not the way you feel. Now, of course, I’m entirely comfortable and try to help other people who went through some of the difficulties that I experienced.” He has since become a leading supporter of gay rights and an iconic figure in the UK.

Lee continued to ride horses regularly and decided to turn professional after being inspired by the Atlanta Olympics. He attended a Riding for the Disabled Association training day and impressed assessors. He turned professional in 1998 and by 1999 had become World Champion. “I did everything through feel. Instructors would ask if I could make a horse go sideways, or trot on the spot, and I did. I love horses and I love the challenge of overcoming my own weaknesses. If there’s something that I feel I can’t do, I’ll just keep trying and trying until I get it right. ”

He was selected to represent his country at the Sydney Paralympics, in 2000, and swept all before him, winning three gold medals for dressage, team dressage and freestyle dressage. His achievements earned him an MBE. Four years later, he repeated the feat, winning three further medals at the Athens Olympics. Soon after, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Staffordshire University and he also received an OBE.

In 2008, Lee won three further gold medals and was awarded the CBE after sweeping the board at the Beijing Paralympics. A year before the London 2012 Paralympic Games he had broken his back in four places. But he made a remarkable recovery and managed to com- pete at the event, winning his tenth gold medal and an additional silver and bronze. The medal haul made him the fifth most successful British Paralympic Athlete of all time.

One of his routines was performed to a selection of James Bond film tunes. In August of 2014 Lee competed with horse Zion at the WEG Games in Normandy, a pre qualifier for RI- O2016 and swept the board with three gold medals in the individual and team qualifiers, proving that the “bloke from stoke” is still on top of his game.

“When I went to Sydney it was very surreal. Just to be selected for the Paralympics was an achievement in itself. So to win three gold medals – and then go on to win a further seven – was beyond my wildest dreams.”

He continues; “I’ve been extremely privileged to have received the MBE, OBE and CBE. I am very, very grateful. I remember receiving the letter for my MBE and opening it: I felt as though I was floating, I was so happy. It was a life-changing experience and at the same time an acknowledgement of the hard work that I had put into my career. Most importantly I could not have done it or achieved success without the incredible support of my family and friends who have been my rock throughout. “

Lee has many plans for the future and is preparing for the Paralympic Games at Rio, in Brazil, in 2016. He trains other riders, passing on his knowledge and wisdom, and has plans to create his own riding centre of excellence both for able bodied and disabled riders.

“I’m passionate about training other people and giving them the benefit of my experience. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have been supported by other people – and now I am doing all that I can to help other people too. I want to make the opportunity avail- able to all, whether they are rich or poor, able-bodied or disabled.”

In between teaching, training and riding Lee somehow finds time to support a number of charities. Lee is an ambassador for the Midlands Air Ambulance charity who airlifted Lee from a field near his home following a serious fall. He is also an ambassador for Caudwell’s Children, Mane Chance and the Unicorn Trust, he is also Patron of the Elizabeth Svens- den Trust and a huge supporter of the RDA. “I get a great sense of pride helping to support charities and others, it’s so important to put something back into society and help others.”

Despite the accolades and the recognition, Lee is not one to “rest on his laurels” its business as usual for the lad from Stoke On Trent, who has become an icon and a national treasure. “My career as a Paralympic rider is on-going and I am determined to add to my gold medal tally by getting on the plane to Rio in 2016.”