Lee Pearson, star of the ParalympicsGB Para- Equestrian team, had a clear goal for the Games: “Twelve gold medals by London 2012.” Pearson has represented Britain at the Sydney, Athens, Beijing and now the London 2012 Games. The Paralympic veteran has been competing since soon after equestrian was first introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games.
The sport has developed since then, in 2006 the sport moved from being governed by the International Paralympic Committee to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), this made the FEI the first international sporting federation in the world to regulate and govern a sport for both able-bodied and disabled athletes, drawing a parallel between the Olympic and the Paralympic Games.
However, unlike its Olympic counterpart para- equestrian at the Paralympics includes only dressage (where the Germans remain Britain’s biggest threat) and not jumping. But Britain remains the nation to beat due to the astounding 10 medals won at the Beijing Games alone, five of those being Gold.
As in other Paralympic sports, each athlete is classified according to their disability. The grades for equestrian are Ia, Ib, II, III or IV, with grade IV being the least disabled.
Para-equestrian sport is different to the other sports that are headlining the Games as it’s not one athlete competing but a partnership between man and beast. Pearson expresses the uncertainty riders face: “In athletics you know how fit you are, you know how fast you’re running or how high you can jump, but with horses you can train and train everyday of your life and something could still go wrong in the arena. You can never predict how animals are going to behave, especially horses.”
When asked to comment about competing on home turf Pearson said: “It’s very nerve-racking going into a Paralympic Arena. I think it changes my awareness that, when we go in, we’re going to have more supporters than we have ever had, which adds an extra pressure.“ The pressure isn’t helped by the tricky relationship Pearson has with Gentleman, his stead for the Games. “He is a very, very awkward character! We actually don’t like each other very much,” Pearson laughs. “Sometimes he is really angry or happy, or refuses to go into the arena!”
But the experienced veteran Lee Pearson keeps calm and focused by repeating to himself: “I can only do my best. I can only do my best.“ And so far his best has been good enough. Which is also thanks to Gentleman. “He generally knows his job, and the judges like his way of going, but he is not a horse who has the same character every day.“
Pearson also has his fellow team members to thank for his extensive medal collection. As Sophie Christiansen who was part of the gold medal winning team in Beijing says it is “phenomenal” to compete on such a “grand scale” in London. Rising to the challenge of their previous successes Christiansen says of the para-equestrian team: “we always want to better our performance.”