Britain’s Sir Lee Pearson has started at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics as he means to go on, winning his 12th gold medal since 2000, when he bested the field in the Grade II Individual Test at Baji Koen Equestrian Park.
It is Pearson’s sixth Paralympic appearance since 2000, and he rode his home-bred Breezer to the title with a score of 76.265% to finish ahead of Pepo Puch (AUT), who rode Sailor’s Blue to score 73.441%. These two highly experienced athletes are used to tussling for the top spot, with Pepo claiming Individual gold in Rio ahead of Pearson and vice versa for the Freestyle medals.
Pearson said it was an emotional occasion. “It’s been such a long journey. Breezer is a horse who I’ve had since he was born. I am also a Dad myself now, and that has also made me more emotional. I didn’t think having a home-bred horse would give this a little extra meaning but it has. I saw him at hours old in a field and to complete that test, which at my last test event I did not complete, that added to the emotion,” Pearson said.
“To say he [Breezer] has been with me since he was hours old in my parents’ field does make it extra special.
Britain’s Georgia Wilson picked up a fairytale of a bronze medal on Sakura, with 72.765%. She was the team’s reserve rider and was called to the Paralympic Games just two weeks ago, when her teammate Sophie Christiansen was forced to withdraw following a veterinary issue with her horse.
Was young Georgia intimidated by competing alongside Sir Lee Pearson? Of course not: “It’s nice to compete against Lee and to have that super athlete in the same class, so I can try and get to his level and hopefully be as successful as him one day!”
Commenting on his longevity in para sport, Pearson said he just tried to enjoy every day. “IWith horses, it’s hard to think to far ahead, you have to think about where you are now and in your training. What will they give you that day, what changes are you going to make. I never believed my life would be how it is, up to Sydney and afterwards. It’s surreal, I use that word a lot, but it’s true. I never take anything for granted – I won’t take today for granted, or tomorrow. I literally live for today.”
As for being an LGBT+ athlete, Pearson said: “For anyone in any job or life situation, it’s a shame if they can’t feel they can be themselves, they can’t accept their disability or their sexuality. I think it’s sad that we still have countries where people still feel they can’t be themselves. When I came out, I struggled with my own feelings more than society did. Things were changing when I was 20, but it’s a big battle you have with yourself.
“You can hide your sexuality, but I can’t hide my disability and I’ve walked around with my head held high in both cases. The Paralympics is about acceptance and if we can’t make acceptance around sexuality as we’ve done with disability into the world, I think that’s a shame really. I’m the most normal abnormal person you’ll ever meet! Love has to prevail over everything, no one wants to be different, but we have to embrace it – that’s the world. Those different people aren’t going anywhere.”
Sanne gets the missing gold
Dutch rider Sanne Voets took out the Grade IV Individual Test, the one gold medal missing from her collection of European, World and Paralympic titles.
Voets scored 76.585% on Demantur N.O.P, which was the highest score of the day, while Rodolpho Riskalla (BRA) took the silver medal on Don Henrico with 74.659%. Belgium’s Manon Claeys marked her Paralympic debut with a bronze medal, scoring 72.853% on San Dior 2.
“I think my face pretty much told it,” Voets said. “I’m just over the moon with him. He still amazes me every day and he travelled here well. When you enter the stable and you see he’s happy, relaxed and at ease, you realise again that’s what is most important.
“Of course you’re here to perform at your very best and you want to win medals, but there’s always one thing more important than the result, and that’s just your horse being happy,” Voets said. “But when you are sitting on a horse like that, there’s no way you cannot smile and not enjoy your test.”
Best of 8 gives her best for Michele George
The last medal of the night went to Michele George with Best of 8. She scored 76.524% in the Grade V Individual test to finish ahead of Sophie Wells (GBR) who rode her reserve horse, Don Cara M to an impressive 74.405% in his first-ever overseas competition. Frank Hosmar (NED) took the bronze on Alphaville N.O.P., with 73.405%.
George wore the gloves and boots she wore at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at which she won the Grade V Freestyle, with a silver in the Individual Test, on the late FBW Rainman.
“I’m really proud of my mare and I enjoyed the ride,” she said. “And this is for me the most important thing, that I could come home and say I’ve done everything I could. She had a beautiful performance and she gave her best. Best of 8 gave her best!
“She did great half passes and I think she had a very nice extended canter as well. So it’s amazing. I can’t find the right words to express how impressive it was for me. It is a once in a lifetime experience,” George said.
Wells has had Don Cara M for less than two years, and the 12-year-old stepped up on the international stage in emphatic style. Trending in the lead for much of the test, a miscommunication in a simple change and tension in the collected walk just lost a few crucial marks, but it was a performance to be proud of for 74.405%, which gave them a well-deserved, and emotionally charged, silver – medal number seven for Wells.
“It means the world to put him on this stage – to show the judges what he can do is so exciting. I’m not at all disappointed by the fact we were leading and then dropped – if he’d have made mistake a couple of weeks ago, he would have lost the plot. He overtries and overthinks, so he catastrophises it in his mind. For him to come back from that made me proud,” Wells said.
“As a horse, he doesn’t really have a weakness. He’s got a great walk, trot and canter, and he can’t do flying changes, which was one of the reasons he came to me as for para – he doesn’t have them, so he was a bit of a write off in able-bodied. His talent is there and the future is exciting.”
At the end of day one of the competition, Great Britain top the Para Dressage medal table with one gold, one silver, and a bronze, with The Netherlands and Belgium close behind on one gold and a bronze each.
There are a total of 11 sets of medals being contested at the Para Equestrian Events of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games across the five Grades – five Individual, five Freestyle to Music and one overall team medal.
Grades I and III Individual Test medals will be decided on Friday. Roxanne Trunnell, the world No.1 in Grade I and across all five Grades will be aiming for her first Paralympic title, while in Grade III look out for a real tussle for the medals between the likes of Natasha Baker (GBR), Tobias Thorning Jorgensen (DEN), Rixt van der Horst (NED) and Rebecca Hart (USA).
The top eight ranked riders in each Grade earn a spot in the Individual Freestyle to Music test, which takes place on Monday, August 30.
Additional reporting: Winnie Murphy