The Paralympic star who was given up for dead

When Lynda Pearson gave birth to the youngest of her three sons 34 years ago, by Caesarean section, doctors kept her sedated for 36 hours. She awoke to the sound of nurses whispering: "Ssshh, she's coming round."

A dozen doctors, nurses, and psychologists escorted her down a corridor to where her baby, Lee Pearson, had been put in a broom cupboard. Doctors had all but given up on him. Nestled between mops, buckets, and brushes, Pearson junior was asleep in a cloth-covered crib.

"I suppose I was not a pretty sight," Pearson would later say. "My right foot was wrapped round my left knee, my left foot was wrapped round my right knee, my arms and hands were horribly twisted and I had an ugly birthmark covering half of my face and the top of my head. Mum took a gulp, picked me up and gave me the first of a million cuddles".

Several more were owed to him this week when Pearson, an equestrian rider, won his third gold medal in his third successive Paralympic Games, and his ninth gold in total. He joins a pantheon of British Paralympic greats such as the wheelchair athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson and the swimmer Dave Roberts.

"I want to cry," he said. "But I can't." Born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a muscle and joint condition that has left him with small, twisted limbs, Pearson controls his horse, Gentleman, with his lips.

He rides with plastic splints running from his backside to his heels, and makes a living managing his own stables.

Pearson, who has been appointed MBE and OBE, acquired the champion's knack of winning influential admirers at an early age. In 1980, still only six years old but having undergone 15 operations to untangle his joints, he got his first taste of success when he was carried through the door of No 10 Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher to receive a Children of Courage Award.

"I don't know why, but she just took a shine to me," Pearson said. "When she bent down to pick me up, my Dad said: 'I'd better carry Lee, he's heavier than he looks,' to which the Prime Minister replied firmly: 'I'll carry him'."

The impediments to Pearson's ambition took bureaucratic as well as physical forms. He attended a special needs school near his home in Cheddleton, Staffordshire, while his parents, Lynda and David, struggled to get him into a mainstream school.

When admission came he would become "Mr Popular". "I even dated [girls] in the year above," he said. His parents bought him a donkey named Sally on which he learnt to ride.

After leaving school he worked in a supermarket but stacking shelves proved a far from straightforward task. He turned briefly to antidepressants.

Sport provided an escape route. "If I hadn't discovered the possibilities of a full-time career in sport through watching the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta [on TV], I'd have committed suicide."

He won three golds in Sydney in 2000, another three in Athens in 2004 and completed the triple hat-trick in Beijing this week. And he already has an eye on the next challenge.

"I've got to do London 2012. To do the Paralympics in your own country will be amazing."

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