Sir Lee Pearson is the world’s most successful equestrian Paralympian, with 14 Paralympic medals to his name – 11 of them gold – and many more from European and World championships. But there is much more to Lee Pearson as a rider and as a person than just medals, and his new autobiography, defiantly titled I Am Who I Am, is a fascinating account of a life and career riddled with adversity, yet filled with achievements and joy.
As one of the most successful and well-known athletes in the world, Lee’s is a life many may consider themselves to have had a window into, through varying media coverage. But this book straight away offers up refreshing authenticity. It is filled with honest – often VERY honest – accounts of the most significant events in Lee’s life, as well as many of those that might be considered less significant. Lee’s audacious personality and dark sense of humour really comes through, and I personally read the entire book in his broad Staffordshire accent. If you ever wanted to get an insight into the real, uninhibited Lee Pearson, this is your opportunity.
A shocking start
That Sir Lee Pearson was placed in a broom cupboard after birth as the nurses were so horrified by the deformities caused by arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, has been well documented. This shocking episode opens the autobiography, and it’s this quite unbelievable start to life that really emphasises the magnitude of what Lee went on to achieve in his life.
“They put me in a broom cupboard. Can you believe it? I wasn’t placed in the tender arms of my mum or dad; the heavens didn’t open and the angels didn’t sing. Instead, I was packed away like an old vacuum cleaner and left to gather dust. The first three days of my life were spent in a windowless room with bottles of Vileda and chamois leathers. Amazing, isn’t it. It’s a wonder I didn’t become a window cleaner.”
A remarkable career
He recounts the highs and lows from the early days of his dressage career, from falling off and sustaining what doctors thought would be a career-ending elbow injury, to his first experience of riding a “real” dressage horse during a session with Stephen Clarke, and building his relationship with the talented, but quirky Blue Circle Boy, whom he trained up to grand prix level.
Lee’s account of winning his first Paralympic gold medals, at Sydney 2000, and subsequently receiving his MBE, is a section that will stick in the mind.
“My true love is riding a horse to the best of my abilities. I rode to my best in Sydney and that was the most important thing, even more than receiving a medal…. Riding well is the be all and end all. Besides, by the time it gets to the medal ceremonies, if you’ve done your job you’re mentally and emotionally and physically exhausted. I think by the time I got to the podium at Sydney, I felt: ‘Oh my God, I did it.’ and when I received my MBE, I thought: ‘Oh my God, thank God I did.’”
He also offers plenty of interesting insight into his mindset while competing, which will ring true for almost any dressage rider.
“As I enter the arena, I’m willing the horse to stay calm, listen to my leg aids and listen to my rein aids. Then the judges ring the bell and throughout the test I’ve got to make split-second judgements at an alarmingly fast rate. Is this what I should do on this horse at this particular moment? In my head, I think about the technical aspects of the test. Like a chess player, or a snooker player, I always think a couple of moves ahead. I’m continually assessing the horse: is he going well or do I add more, allow less, be straighter, more bent?”
More than dressage
While Lee’s equestrian achievements provide the building blocks for documenting his career, this compelling autobiography is about so much more than dressage. Lee holds nothing back when describing the turmoil and self-loathing that accompanied his coming out as gay to his family as a young man, and the sexual exploits that followed over the course of his life. He discusses his love for nightclubbing, the depression he experienced while working his first job, at the Co-op, and the emotional impact becoming a foster father in recent months has had on him.
The story fluctuates between dressage and other, very different areas of his life, interspersing poignant moments with hilarious and sometimes outrageous anecdotes. These include Blue Circle Boy “bolting in walk”, to a championship “love hexagon” involving, among others, a German team trainer and Danish groom, and being stopped by Chinese police for driving a mobility scooter to a party in Beijing.
His memories of being selected as the Team GB flag-bearer at the Rio Games in 2016 are another highlight, despite in the run-up having “visions of being whooshed off the mobility scooter with the world’s media looking on.”
“The whole experience was humbling. It also felt like Great Britain was giving the rest of the world a positive message, because of my disability and because of my sexuality. It was like GB was saying they appreciated me as a sportsman, irrespective of disability or sexuality. I was proud of my fellow team members; there were 264. It was incredible to lead them.”
As the title suggests, this is a deeply personal memoir with equal weighting given to all facets of Lee’s colourful life. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the man behind the dressage saddle, and to understand what has shaped him into a rider and the person he is today. It made me appreciate his achievements all the more.
I Am Who I Am, published by Away With Media, is out on 15 May and is available for pre-order now.
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