“Love has to prevail, really. Whatever shape or form, I think love has to prevail. If you’re born with a disability, if you have a child with a disability, if you’re born with same-sex attraction, if your daughter comes out or your son, then just love them. Nobody wants to be different but we have to embrace different people because that’s society, that’s the world. Those different people they’re not going anywhere. So you can say it’s illegal, you can make them feel awful, but somewhere in the world another gay boy or girl will be born. Somewhere in the world someone will be born with no limbs. Do you know what I mean? Life goes on and it’s silly in this day and age when we have countries that are still in the stone age, as we say, 100 years behind. But I’m just a horse rider. Promise.”
Some horse rider. On Thursday Sir Lee Pearson scored a comprehensive triumph in the Grade II individual test in dressage, to win the 12th Paralympic gold medal of his career. He did so on the back of a new partner, Breezer (son of Bacardi), and ahead of his great Austrian rival, Pepo Puch. In the stifling heat of the Tokyo afternoon, with the weather warning dropping just below the level local organisers term a “danger”, Pearson and Breezer, well, breezed home.
The 47-year-old from Cheddleton, Staffordshire, who was born withwhich causes muscle weakness and contracture of the joints, is the pre-eminent equestrian athlete in the history of Paralympic sport. By the time the end of this year’s Games comes along, and Pearson has competed in both the team dressage and the individual freestyle test, he could have more gold medals on his own than Germany and the United States (the second and third most successful countries in Paralympic equestrian sport) do between them. That he is more than that, an icon of disability sport as well as an openly, confidently gay athlete who performs to a global audience and has been out for decades, makes the man unique.
He is, also, just a horse rider. Before being asked about his feelings on Tom Daley’s moment at the Olympics by a young Japanese reporter who wanted a message to send to Japan’s LGBTQ community, and giving the eloquent inspirational message he did, Pearson was just talking about Breezer. A nine-year-old bay, Breezer was raised by Pearson in his own stables. As he puts it, the gelding grew up “hacking around Stoke-on-Trent”.
But Breezer is a sensitive horse, one who can be affected by unexpected lights and sounds, things humans might not even detect. Something had caused Breezer to react badly in the last event before leaving England and Pearson had been worried about him.
“To say he has been with me since he was hours old in Staffordshire does make this extra special, but also because he’s not a dope-on-a-rope,” Pearson said. “He is very sensitive to environments and to complete that test, which at my last selection test I did not complete, added to the emotion.
“You go in there [to the dressage arena] and think an insect or microphone buzzing or a flapping flag could spook him. People don’t realise how much you try to eliminate that. The hacking track is just back here, so I have been walking him back and forth so he can hear the flags on that side of the arena. We don’t just jump and ride on feeling without trying to eliminate any negativity, both so we can have nice rides and to prevent an accident. And also for our sport, because none of us want to have too many accidents.”
On the day, that care and attention looked to have visible results. After Georgia Wilson, a late addition to the ParalympicsGB team who eventually won bronze, went into an early lead, Puch executed all 20 of the fixed components of the individual test in a controlled manner that suggested he, the current world No 1, would be the favourite to find the latest edge in their rivalry.
But when Pearson and Breezer entered the rectangle, bordered by plants and three small wooden huts, the energy was suddenly different to anything that had gone before. Breezer bounced through all his exercises almost as if en pointe. He looked like he was enjoying himself, showing off almost, and the screen relaying the judges’ scores recorded a better technical performance on every single measure, often by multiple percentage points.
“It was soft, harmonious but also as powerful as you can make it,” Pearson said. “Some riders can’t ride to power. I am lucky that even though my disability when I walk is very obvious, when I am in the saddle I have a brilliant feel and suppleness in my lower back. My lower back in slow motion absorbs the movement with the saddle. You should never move at the saddle, you should move with the saddle and the saddle connects you to the horse’s back, so you want to feel freedom and athleticism and that [the horse] wants to be directed. That said, we had a little jog in there, and I will have words in the stables about that.”
Pearson is the life and soul of the ParalympicsGB party and, by his own account, may have a sense of humour that is a bit too much for some. But he also insists he is the “most abnormal normal person” out there. “I’m not very political”, he says, “I’ve made change just by being. Obviously me just being has made you realise my disability and my sexuality. There are very important people out there who do chain themselves to gates and do fight for rights and I wouldn’t be here if these people hadn’t fought. But I think me just being … will help other people just be too.”