x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pearson's courage earns him respect

Born with his limbs bent and warped, Lee Pearson has grown into one of Britain's most successful sportsmen.

When Lynda Pearson gave birth to the youngest of her three sons by caesarean section 30 years ago, she was kept sedated for 36 hours after the operation. When she finally regained consciousness, Lynda knew something was worryingly wrong when she heard one nurse hiss to another: "Sssshh, she's coming round." Having been told of the subsequent events when he was of an age to regard the incident with black humour rather than mortification or anger, Lee Pearson takes up his mother's tale.

"The nurses wouldn't reply to any of her questions and although mum's very passive, when riled, she's a force to be reckoned with," he says. "'If I've got a live child - whatever the circumstances - I want to see him or her right now,' she demanded. 'And if I haven't, then I want to be told'." What happened next is a shameful scene from the Dark Ages. "She was put in a wheelchair and pushed down a corridor surrounded by a team of about 10 doctors, nurses and psychologists," says Pearson.

"Finally they stopped at a broom cupboard and there, in the middle of the pile of mops and buckets, was a crib with a cloth over the top. "Remember this was 1974 not 1874, but I suppose I was not a pretty sight: 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 my face and the top of my head.

"Mum took a gulp, picked me up and gave the first of a million cuddles." Born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita - "the muscles in my arms and legs grew as scar tissue in the womb" - which left his matchstick limbs bent and warped, the baby in the cupboard has grown into one of Britain's most successful sportsmen. Wearing plastic splints running from his backside to his heels, Pearson has won six Paralympic Games dressage gold medals (three apiece from Athens and Sydney), plus a notable victory in an able-bodied national championship event at Hicksteadquad while pursuing his favourite hobbies of motorbikes, jetskis and clubbing until all hours.

A master horseman, Pearson first came to public attention at the age of six, by which time he had already undergone 15 operations, when the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher carried him up the staircase of 10 Downing Street to receive his 1980 Children of Courage Award, melting the Iron Lady's heart with his cheeky grin and delighted chuckles. "I don't know why, but she just took a shine to me," he says.

"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'." Since then, however wobbly they might be, Pearson has always stood on his own two feet. "If you ever tried singling me out to my mother, she'd be down your throat." he says. "She has three sons and she's equally proud of us all. That's why when I went to mainstream school at the age of nine, I thought it was no big deal.

"When the school asked if I would like an adult minder to carry my bag around mum snapped, 'You must be joking. He'll either make friends who'll carry his bag around or else he'll carry his own bloody bag'." And did he make friends or was he the victim of the playground bullies? "I'm afraid to say I was Mr Popular at school. I went out with the girls in my year and even dated ones in the year above," he says.

By then he was also an accomplished equestrian, having started riding as a toddler when, banned from joining his two elder brothers on their BMX adventures, his parents bought him Sally the donkey on which to romp around the paddock. "My great grandfather had been the neighbourhood horse whisperer so I've probably loved horses since I was an embryo," he says. "Even now I love sitting in the field just watching the way they move."

The child of courage grew into a frustrated young man, hidden away in the back room of a supermarket where he stuck prices on jars, tins and packets. "If I hadn't discovered the possibilities of a full-time career in sport through watching the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, I'd have committed suicide," he says. "I hated the job so much I was on anti- depressants. "If I'd worked on the checkout at least I would have been meeting different people every day but I got to talk to nobody. It's the people who are stuck in jobs like that who deserve a bloody medal, not me."

Horses were to be his salvation; seeing Pearson aboard in the dressage arenas of the world is to witness a true genius at work. "I feel lucky that I found my talent, not unlucky that I was born with a disability," he says. "When I'm on a horse I'm more worried about what the riding hat is doing to my hair than what my bent legs and arms are doing. "What riding has given me is respect. When I compete in an able-bodied event, I'm not seen as an 'Aaaah, bless. . .' factor, I'm seen as an 'Why does he have to be in my class?' factor."

Though Pearson loves his boys' toys - motorbikes, tractors, his high-speed 7½-ton lorry and horsebox and sports cars it is in the saddle on Gentleman, a handsome a seven-year-old Hanoverian giant that he enjoys the greatest thrill. "He's got an enormous floaty trot and has a nice brain." he says. "I'm a nutter for speed but sitting on Gentleman give me the freedom, movement and energy that pushing a wheelchair certainly can't."

Only Pearson could admit that when he arrived in Sydney to compete in his first Paralympics his initial sensation was one of disappointment. "I'd always liked to think that I was unique and there I was, suddenly surrounded by hundreds of athletes with far more severe problems than me," he says. " I may daydream occasionally that I've got a gorgeous, muscled body, but I don't have a choice about my disability.

"I'm me and I'm happy with who I am." rphilip@thenational.ae