Lee Pearson: 'I prepare with curry, Malibu and Coke'
He has nine gold medals from three Paralympics, and there's more on offer next month. But this hellraising hero is not your average role model. Emily Dugan meets Lee Pearson
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 19 August 2012
Nine-times gold medal winner Lee Pearson is sitting outside his stables – with a hangover. It is not how most elite athletes prepare for the biggest competition of their lives, but Pearson has never had much truck with the bland, abstemious lifestyle of professional sport.
When his dressage competitions start in 10 days, the 38-year-old will be aiming to continue his 100 per cent success rate – he has taken home three golds in all three equestrian events at every Paralympic Games since Sydney, and is this year on track to surpass Tanni Grey-Thompson's haul of 11 golds. In the meantime, he sees no reason not to have fun.
Instead of an early night, he was up drinking rum and Coke until the small hours with his new boyfriend, an 18-year-old groom called Ben. "I fell asleep last night at my own party as I was so drunk," he says conspiratorially. "My partner 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."
Pearson likes to joke that he is the only person to come out of the closet twice. In a scene more reminiscent of a century ago than a handful of decades, nurses hid him away in a broom cupboard when they saw he had been born with the severely twisted limbs of arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. After his mum, Lynda, finally awoke from 36 hours of sedation and was taken to the cupboard to see her son, her first words were reportedly, "Oh shit." Twenty years later, he came out of another closet to tell his parents he was gay.
I meet Pearson at the stables next to his home, set on the same land as his parents' in an idyllic corner of Staffordshire near Stoke-on-Trent. He arrives haltingly on wooden crutches, but within seconds of sitting down the force of his personality has rendered his disability invisible. He is an excellent raconteur, peppering his anecdotes with outrageous gags. "All these forms that you have to fill out, my mum said I'd only have to be black and from Liverpool and I'd tick every single box," he says.
His gregarious nature was evident from an early age. He describes himself as "Mr Popular" at school and his winning smile even managed to charm the Iron Lady, who insisted on carrying him up the steps of No 10 herself after he won a Children of Courage medal.
Despite the hellraising, he is one of Britain's most accomplished dressage riders. In 2003, he beat some 2,000 able-bodied competitors to win the British Dressage National Championships. He is still the only disabled athlete ever to have done so.
Though his legs are not able to grip a horse as tightly as an able-bodied athlete, he showed in 2003 that it made him no less capable. "It was about the talent that I was born with. I was able to show that to able-bodied people, and it did make them sit up and go, 'Oh my God, he's not just a disabled rider'. "
Before taking the title, his competitors assumed he was just a novelty. "The first time I went out competing, it was, 'Aww, that's nice, he's got his jodhpurs on'. I don't think they even thought I'd got a horse in the trailer. Then Blue Circle Boy [his first competitive horse] came out and was golden and snorting, and 17-and-a-half hands high. You could see the turnaround from 'Aww, that's nice' to 'These disabled riders are proper horsemen and women'."
In the stable behind him is his very temperamental looking horse, Gentleman: an enormous beast that has me tiptoeing around the edge. His first steed, Annie the donkey, was a little less noble. He was given her when a child while his older brothers were riding bikes around the farm. "I couldn't pedal a bicycle so she was my hairy BMX bike," he says.
Since then, he has shown himself to be a natural with horses and even his nights of excess do not seem to impinge on his ability. "I'm meant to do all that dietary stuff, but I always say if you're fit to do the job, that's enough. I'm sure there's room for improvement, but you still have to have a life."
And nobody can say Pearson has not put efforts into living a full life. Before his civil partnership with Lincolnshire fireman Mark Latham two years ago, he had a reputation for being a party animal. He broke up with Latham in February and is now in the process of a messy divorce. He says: "I have to be careful because I could slag him off to hell the way I'm feeling at the moment."
His friends and family were nervous when he started a relationship with Ben a few months later, but Pearson says they need not worry. "It's ridiculous and wrong in so many ways; it's unbelievable, but he loves the countryside and the farm and everything, and he's like a granddad in an 18-year-old's body. He's more mature than I am; he's the boring one. I've left him with a chainsaw and a paintbrush. He'll probably have lost a limb when I get back."
Unlike his plummy-voiced Olympian colleagues – who include Princess Anne's daughter Zara Phillips – Pearson defies the elitist image of equestrian sports. He has a broad Staffordshire accent and is kept grounded by his parents. Dave, his father, who is working on the farm when I arrive, is a lorry driver. His mum, Lynda, is a psychiatric nurse.
His sprawling farm and well-equipped stables suggests he has done well from his sport. He arrives in a brand new white Range Rover – the kind more often found in Chelsea than on farms – and says that unlike some Paralympians, he has no trouble finding sponsors. He is critical of how dreary and anodyne many professional sportspeople can be in interviews – and believes that is why many of his colleagues miss out on sponsorship money. "They've got to have something they can offer the sponsor back again," he says
Despite the flash lifestyle, Lee still believes he is very ordinary. "I always say I'm one of the most normal abnormal people you'll ever meet. I get embarrassed about how many medals I've won, and I get angry when people presume that because you're gay you've got to wear pink and stilettos and camp it up, or that if you're disabled you should act like a victim and not have a life."
His refusal to live life as people expect has some amusing consequences. "When I pull my white Range Rover into disabled parking bays, the abuse that I get until I actually get out on my crutches is phenomenal, because people presume that you couldn't possibly be disabled and reverse a white Range Rover into that parking space," he says. "They want you to have one of those turquoise ones with three wheels where the wheelchair goes up the back and goes in. A Robin Reliant or something. The best of it is I change people's thoughts and perceptions just by getting on with life, not by campaigning."
His claims not to be campaigning or political soon prove to be hollow, though. He says Royal Mail's initial decision not to make the same gold medal stamps for Paralympians as they did for Olympians is "typical" and "disgusting"; and he still wants to know why he hasn't yet received a knighthood. "Kelly Holmes goes to one Olympics, gets two gold medals and becomes a Dame. I go to three Olympics, get nine gold medals and slowly work my way up the honours. People say now if I do well I'll get a knighthood. Well maybe, maybe not, but it should have come years ago."
He would also like to see the Paralympics come out of the Olympics' shadow. "The Olympics has always had more attention and probably always will. I think they should rotate it and put Paralympics first for the next Games and Olympics first after that, instead of it always being perceived that the Paralympics comes after the Olympics and that the Olympics is more important."
So, is he worried about living up to the pressure of expectation? Apparently not. "I don't think about medals, but I'll party like a possessed animal afterwards if I'm successful. If not, I'll still be drinking my sorrows away. Either way, I'll be drunk."
1974 Born in Leek, Staffordshire to Dave, a lorry driver, and Lynda, a psychiatric nurse. The youngest of three boys. Diagnosed with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita.
1980 Wins Children of Courage award after years of operations; is carried up the stairs of No 10 by Margaret Thatcher.
1983 Rides his first horse, a pony called Duke. Before that he rode Annie the donkey, his "hairy BMX".
1994 Tells parents he's gay.
1996 Watches the Atlanta Games on television and decides he wants to give the Paralympics a go.
2000 Wins three gold medals in all three equestrian events at his debut in Sydney.
2003 Becomes the first disabled rider to win the British Dressage National Championships.
2004 Wins another three dressage medals in Athens.
2005 Awarded an OBE, three years after he is made an MBE.
2008 In Beijing, he takes three further gold medals in dressage. This takes his overall total to nine.
2009 Made a Commander of the British Empire for services to equestrianism.
2010 Gets married in a civil partnership to fireman Mark Latham; they separate two years later.
2012 Prepares for London's Paralympics, his fourth.
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