The faces of the gold medal winners at the Alltech 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games were an unforgottable gallery, each more poignant than the one before. I think WEG photographer Dirk Caremans could do a book just on the medal ceremonies, showing both the amazing contrast between the winners and the way that each of the equestrians expressed or controlled the emotions behind his or her victory.
While I'll never forget Edward Gal channeling Fred Astaire in the dressage, or the scarved mystery of Spain's Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton in endurance, or the spontaneous horse hug of Belgium's Philippe Le Jeune in jumping (or any of the others), I will always remember WEG for the new equestrians I met--the most special equestrians of all--the paradressage riders from all over the world.
Before I went to WEG, the only world-circuit paradressage rider I really could call a "household name" was Great Britain's Lee Pearson. I had featured him on my Discover WEG blog and had fun with his sarcastic comments. He was a soundbite catcher's dream. In person, he was as fast with his wit as he was slow in other areas. But, then again, once you were around him, you found out that he wasn't really that slow. An athlete on crutches is still an athlete, after all.
So the news from Britain today is tough to hear: Nine times Paralympic gold medalist Lee Pearson will miss out on selection for the 2011 European Championships in September this year, the last major championships in the sport before the London 2012 Olympics. The 37-year-old dressage champion fell from his horse during a training session, injuring his back and putting him out of the saddle for the next eight weeks.
At first, after the fall, Lee indicated that his injury didn't seem severe. But because he is a member of Britain's elite World Class Performance Squad, the fall warranted an investigative MRI scan, which revealed that he had fractured three vertebrae and crushed a fourth. "The news came as quite a shock" revealed Lee, according to a Team GBR press release. "I thought I must have sprained it as I'm able to carry on with life pretty much as normal. It's just uncomfortable to ride; I never dreamed it could be broken."
Although the fractures are stable and Pearson expects to make a full recovery he has been advised not to ride in order to allow everything time to heal. He will be working closely with World Class Performance Squad medical professionals as he recuperates.
Pearson is philosophical about the news: "Nothing is set in stone and I could be riding again sooner than I think but either way it's much more important that I'm injury free and back in form for the London Paralympics next year," he said in the Team GBR press release.
Lee has a condition called arthrogryposis. The condition develops when a fetus's muscles don't grow correctly while in the womb; it will cause joints to be limited in movement at birth. Lee had to have 15 operations and still can't move his ankles or knees, so he controls horses using his hips. He walks with his legs completely splinted from hips to heels and uses crutches or an electric wheelchair to get around.
Lee competed in show jumping and endurance before turning his attention to dressage after seeing it performed at the Atlanta Paralympics. Lee currently breeds dressage horses as well as trains and sells sport horses.
He has won all three gold medals at the last three Paralympics: Sydney, Athens, and Hong Kong.
Here's a short video clipped from a demonstration of Lee riding a kur at a clinic. Remember, he does not have the use of his legs; he's using his hips.
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I'm sure I speak for everyone in the horse world when I say that today's news was a shock and a disappointment, and I felt some relief that the injury wasn't more serious. It will be a triumphant return for Lee next year at London, and more reason than ever to anticipate an Olympics full of stories much larger than just who won.
No doubt the face of para dressage will be looking straight into our cameras from the podium again soon.