“Why should a disability define who you are?”

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Former Marine Lee Spencer just rowed solo from mainland Europe to South America in just 60 days, beating the able-bodied record for the route by 36 days.

An astonishing feat of endurance that Lee puts down to “good weather”.

This wasn’t the first time Lee has crossed an ocean using only manpower. In 2015 he set off to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. The Row-to-Recovery team, a British military all amputee team of four, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 46 days.

Lee is a hard man to track down. For someone who’s been getting international attention, getting him to sit with me for an hour has proven to be quite the task. Lee and I first spoke around two weeks ago.

He had just hit the tarmac at Heathrow and was reeling from jetlag. After a barrage of phone calls from the media Lee went to the van to find the head-gasket had blown. “3am we got home in the end.” I can imagine it has been quite a hectic couple of weeks.  As our week-long game of phone-tennis comes to an end, I meet him in Tavistock where he’s helping raise money for the Royal Marines Charity.

We go to a café in the famously pretty Dartmoor town. On our way to the table Lee is greeted and congratulated by a couple of passers-by. Ordering some coffees and a couple of bacon sandwiches, Lee insists on paying. We pick a table in the sun and we start to chat when a member of staff informs us that we had ordered our snacks from the wrong café – eh?

We are essentially trespassing with third-party coffee and are politely shooed away. The café shall remain nameless. We pick a nearby bench and hover over; on the 5 seconds or so journey, Lee is stopped by another member of the public who congratulates him. A pattern is starting to emerge.

In 2014 Lee Spencer lost his leg in an accident. It was an event that would shape his life but not in a way you might expect. Like so many debilitating injuries, this accident would prove to define his future. Lee was, technically, disabled. But as he tells me, this was more a time of re-adjustment and re-defining his identity, rather than submitting to the injury.

Although donning a South East accent Lee is very proud of the Horrabridge community he now calls home. “Ah there’s a real community there. It’s a strange place, when I had my accident, the whole of Horrabridge rallied round, there’s such a strong community spirit. I will never live anywhere else.”

Originally from Dagenham he left school with no qualifications, but he gave sixth form a go: “When I reached Sixth Form the teachers insisted that we call them by their first name, like we were all mates all of a sudden, it was creeping me out and I soon left.

‘I’ve never been tested, but I’m pretty confident that I’m dyslexic, both my children are and so was my father. I always struggled with writing.” Before dyslexia was ever a thing, Lee, like so many others, was deemed ‘lazy’ by the teachers at school.

After Lee quit sixth-form with no qualifications the careers office got him a job as an animal technician. He became a technician for animals that were being used for medical research. Finding the job miserable, Lee would work in the role for around five years but he was terrified that five years would soon become ten years in the blink of an eye. “It was horrible, but it was a job, especially at the time in the mid-eighties when you couldn’t be fussy about work.”

At the age of 21 Lee went for it and signed up to the Marines.
“I always assumed you had to be superhuman to join the Marines, so I left my job, got fit over 3 months. I was put on a Royal Marines course and I passed the training. I’ve never looked back.”

As a Royal Marine Lee found a sense of purpose that had been missing so far in his life. “I loved it from the moment I joined. As soon as I got in training, I had some sense of purpose, a mission.” It was also what would lead him to his beloved Horrabridge, having been stationed down the road at Bickleigh Barracks, a couple of miles south of Yelverton.

His first field deployment was in South Omagh, Ireland in 1994. I….. “WELL DONE SIR!”. Passer-by number three has spotted Lee and some polite chat ensues. To be fair to him, the man starts doing some of my work for me. How was it, Lee? “Worst bloody idea I’ve ever had. I don’t know what made me think it was going to be a good idea.”

Where were we? After serving in Ireland, Lee, as part of
42 Commando, was part of a group that were some of the first troops into Iraq in 2003. He also served three tours of Afghanistan, during which Lee worked undercover as a local Afghan citizen in full disguise. Any attempts to extract further details hit a smiling brick wall. “I don’t talk about operational information.”

Lee’s accident didn’t come from the battlefield. In 2014 Lee lost his right leg after being hit by flying debris as he was helping a motorist, the car having hit the central reservation on the M3.

Lee was put in a medically induced coma; the incident would redefine his life and outlook. “The police officer who first attended the scene of my accident said that people with that kind of injury normally die. That was quite something to hear.

‘I host talks where I challenge people in the audience to name a positive word that starts with ‘dis’ as in ‘Dis-abled’. It’s such a negative word, there isn’t a positive word in the English language that starts with dis”.

‘After rehabilitation I went on a mission to redefine who I was. I had the opportunity to row the Atlantic in 2015, I went through a long selection process and I was named as a member of the crew. It changed my life in such a positive way. I realised when I was rowing that I am still the same person.

‘It’s really hard to explain to people how important rediscovering that sense of identity is. It’s fundamental to who you are. Every one of us takes that for granted and you can’t imagine the void that it leaves when you lose it.”

When it comes to disability it’s not just the visual aspect that Lee has thought about, but the way in which a person with a disability views oneself.

“After the accident I thought, right, I’m disabled, I’ve lost my leg, that’s not going to change. I thought that if I’m going to be a disabled person then I’m going to be the best disabled person I can be.” It’s not that Lee is sensitive to the issue as such, but highlights the unique way in which we view disabled people by their disability first and foremost.

“I’m not saying I don’t want people to notice it, but it’s not what defines me, why should a disability define who you are? When I got off the boat in Antigua from the first trip, I knew that I’d come to the end of my rehabilitation. That’s when I got the idea of going solo. That’s where I got the idea,  if I can beat an able- bodied record in a physically demanding challenge. I told the Mrs that night, she was despaired.

‘Three days before I set off, I was in Gibraltar. 18th December was the date I set, the departure is always weather dependent. I got a phone call from my sister saying that mum had gone into hospital.” Sadly, Lee’s mum passed away that night.

“They said she was fine, she’d be out tomorrow or the day after, then I got a call saying she’d taken a turn for the worse overnight. The doctors said they would make her as comfortable as possible until the end –those words, I headed home but mum had passed before I got there.”

When asked for highlights of the challenge Lee puts it simply “The best part is finishing and the worst is starting.” When I spoke to Lee initially, he had mentioned seeing sperm whales in the wild, maybe this was down to sleep deprivation and now he just says “seeing land”.

He describes the last three weeks as “hell”. “I hit ‘the wall’ about 3 days in and it was just miserable.” Whilst there’s no doubt that physical strength plays an important role in such an odyssey, it’s the psychological determination that is arguably far more impressive. To just ‘keep going’ for so long and in such solitude takes a resilience that’s hard to understate.

Lee knocked 36 days off an able-bodied record. “The weather was perfect for breaking records, but this meant there were massive waves that always look like they’re going to flip the boat, it was scary.”

It’s only just starting to sink in just how extensive the coverage has been – from newspapers in Europe sporting his photo to national broadcasters and a skype call with Prince Harry. Lee’s fully aware that any attempts to generate publicity for a good cause are always at the perils of the news cycle.

In 2019, as Lee himself highlights, it could take only one daft thing tweeted by President Trump to hog the public’s attention. He’s broken a world record and put the term ‘disability’ on the ropes. All of which happened during a media-saturated, constitutional crisis in UK in the form of Brexit.

The story was inspiring enough to cut through all that political coverage. I put that to Lee but he seems incapable self-praise, “Maybe it was down to the weather, ay.” What is indisputable is that Lee has now raised over sixty thousand pounds for two charities: The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and The Royal Marines Charity.

Another passer-by spots Lee and takes the next question straight from my mouth. “What’s next then Lee?!” “Down the Amazon in a kayak.” I don’t think he was joking either.

I would like to thank the people of Tavistock for their impromptu questioning; who says community journalism is dead?

To donate to Lee’s challenge, go to: http://www.leespencer.co.uk and follow the link for his charities where you will be directed to his donations page.

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