February 4, 1974– Lee Pearson has had 14 major operations. He lives with plastic splints around his legs from his hip to his heel. Pearson was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita. He is also one of the most successful and flamboyant athletes in history, but he states:
“My greatest achievement is ever getting on a horse in the first place.”
Pearson was born in Staffordshire, England. His mother was a psychiatric nurse. His father drove trucks. When he was born, he was placed in a hospital broom closet for three days, not expected to live. His mother had been sedated, but on the third day she wanted to know if she had a baby that was alive or not. Pearson:
“They pushed her in a wheelchair down to a broom cupboard with mattresses, and buckets, and mops. There was a cot at the back with a blanket over it. So mum took a deep breath, because she thought if she reacted badly, the professionals would take me away.”
He wasn’t able to stand on his feet until he was 6-years-old. But today, Pearson is one of Britain’s most decorated people in sports, with 11 Paralympic Olympic Gold Medals in the equestrian sport of Dressage, plus a dozen European and World titles.
Pearson came out of a second closet when he told his parents that he was gay at 20-years-old, making him one of the planet’s most visible openly gay athletes.
In 2014, ahead of a planned trip to protest the anti-gay policies in Russia before the Sochi Winter Olympics, Pearson dared our president’s boyfriend, Vladimir Putin, to throw him in jail. Pearson:
“Then the Prime Minister and my country would have to get involved and that would add to the embarrassment for Russia.”
No angel, Pearson tells tales of his hard-partying ways:
“I fell asleep last night at my own party as I was so drunk. My boyfriend made the drinks and he makes them far too strong. Someone brought round five different strengths of curry which I ate and then was so bloated I lay down and was gone. Curry, Malibu and Coke, that’s my preparation.”
In 1980, when Pearson was just 6-years-old, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher carried Pearson up the staircase at 10 Downing Street to present him with the Children Of Courage Award.
The same condition that left Pearson unable to climb the stairs made his talent for equestrian sports particularly tough. His first horse was no horse at all, but a donkey named Annie, given to him when he was a kid because his older brothers had bikes that they rode around their farm.
“I couldn’t pedal a bicycle so she was my hairy BMX bike. There are no muscles in my arms to actually bend my arms. I can pull with the shoulders and I got into riding because I couldn’t pedal a bicycle.”
It took his parents two years to save enough money to buy him a pony and begin riding lessons.
When he was 22-years-old, Pearson took a desk job, but when he watched a broadcast of the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics Games on television he decided to try riding as a sport, even though he was allergic to horses. He still must take antihistamines daily.
He admits that he was initially reticent about competing in a disability sport:
“I was actually quite phobic. I kind-of panicked if anybody in a wheelchair was rolling towards me. I was like a straight man in a gay club. I was up against a wall thinking, ‘Oh my god, these disabled people are everywhere!’ But the great thing is, if I’m discussing disability now, I know what it’s like to look at someone a bit different. I know about being ignorant about it, and I also know the next level of being frightened about disability.”
“The Paralympic Games actually turned my whole mentality around about disability. When you’re in the Paralympic athletes’ village and there are 4,000 disabled people, you stop seeing disability. Totally.”
At his Paralympic debut, the Sydney 2000 Games, he won all three gold medals in his sport. He did the same in Athens in 2004, having won a bunch of able-bodied events in between. Pearson took home three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games equestrian events.
But, a year before the London Olympic Games in 2012, Pearson broke his back in a training accident. He recovered enough to compete at that year’s Paralympics and help win a team gold medal, but he missed out on individual titles and the able-bodied events
A year later, he was dropped from the British team for the European Championships. Pearson and the British team say that is testament to the exceptional talent in equestrian sports in Britain, and the increasingly tough competition internationally.
But Pearson soon returned, and at the World Equestrian Games, he once again won all three gold medals. As an undisputed star of British equestrianism and a gold medalist, Pearson is not the sort of guy to get real excited about a silver medal. At last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, he lost out on gold in the individual Dressage final, just as he had in London, to his Austrian rival Pepo Puch. But, he stood on the podium and watched as his temperamental 12-year-old horse Zion be presented with a prize rosette.
“I love Zion. He did his best and I couldn’t have asked for any more. I am so, so proud of my horse. This is for him and for me.”
The silver medal in Rio was number 13 in Pearson’s Paralympic career. He said that he has been successful for so long because:
“Balance, education, stupidity, bravery? It’s all of those things. You are dealing with three-quarters of a ton of very particular animal. Horses can walk down the middle of the motorway and be perfectly content, or a leaf can fall from a tree and they can bolt from it. The act of making it look easy can be strenuous. People have accused our sport of being one where the horses do all the hard work. I say to them, ‘OK, you go for a ride, and you’ll be walking like me afterwards.’ It’s exhausting.”
“I’m a nutter for speed but horses give you the freedom, movement and energy that pushing a wheelchair certainly can’t.”
Pearson has been open in his criticism of the British honors system: though he has collected an MBE, OBE and CBE, he has stated that all those gold medals would have brought a knighthood for any able-bodied Olympian. But, he insists that honors and medals are not his motivation. Pearson:
“My motivation is paying the mortgage. No joke. Just riding horses every day keeps me going. And that threat of losing my house.”
“I may daydream occasionally that I’ve got a gorgeous, muscled body, but I don’t have a choice about my disability just as I don’t have a choice about being gay. I love who I am and certainly don’t have a problem about being gay.”