clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Outsports Male Athletes of the Year: Tom Daley and Sir Lee Pearson

Britain’s most famous diver and most decorated dressage rider did LGBTQ sports fans proud at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Tom Daley and Lee Pearson both won gold in Tokyo.
Shelby Weldon

Thanks to a record-shattering number of out competitors converging on Tokyo, LGBTQ athletes were responsible for several of the biggest moments from this past summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The men behind two of the most emotional LGBTQ victories of the summer, Great Britain’s Tom Daley and Sir Lee Pearson have been named the 2021 Outsports Male Athletes of the Year.

Daley authored one of the seminal moments in LGBTQ sports history when he and Matty Lee won Olympic gold medals in Men’s Synchronized 10m Platform Diving in Tokyo. The iconic shot of Daley and Lee embracing one another after realizing that they had become Olympic champions was the kind of tearjerker moment that will be replayed for decades.

Diving - Olympics: Day 3
Tom Daley feels all of the emotions after winning Olympic gold in Tokyo.
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

During a time where even Daley’s knitting has become a worldwide sensation, it almost feels like we’ve reached a point where we can ask “What’s left to write about?”

But here’s one thing that cannot be emphasized enough: Even though we know Daley’s win is an inspirational story, we still don’t fully comprehended the pressure he was competing under.

Tokyo was Daley’s fourth Olympic Games. And while he had taken home bronzes in London and Rio, he still hadn’t fulfilled his long-stated ambition of winning Olympic gold. In addition, because he’d entered Olympic competition as a 14-year-old wunderkind in 2008, he had to deal with a creeping question of “When is he going to fulfill that potential and win the big one?”

Then after Daley was eliminated during a rough performance in the 2016 Rio individual semis, a few conservative Christian dead-enders crawled out of the woodwork to kick him when he was at his lowest point with homophobic attacks. Like any top-level athlete, all Daley wanted was the opportunity to get back on the platform and take another shot at gold.

But the roughest part about the Olympics was that after Daley suffered such a stunning set-back, he had to wait four years for his next chance at redemption. Then, as if that wait wasn’t hard enough, a worldwide pandemic tacked on another year and forced him to perform in an eerily post-apocalyptic empty arena.

Any one of these factors would have made it difficult to compete at the highest level. But with Daley stepping up his game and pulling off the greatest night of his professional life in the face of all of that adversity, it was a beautiful clutch moment to behold.

After capping off the Olympics of a lifetime with a bronze in the Individual event, Daley has used his elevated platform for both fun and activism, unveiling his Made With Love knitting line and advocating that countries that with death penalties for LGBTQ citizens be banned from the Olympics within a month of one another.

He ended the year releasing an “alternative Christmas message” voicing his wish that a Premier League soccer player would feel comfortable enough to come out and expressing unequivocal support for trans athletes.

Pearson’s story, on the other hand, is one of longstanding dominance. The openly gay Paralympic horseback rider took home two gold medals in Tokyo, in Grade II Individual Dressage and the Dressage Team Test. The victories gave him a staggering total of 14 gold medals in his Paralympics career to go along with two silvers and one bronze.

But it was the emotional component that made these two golds extra special for Pearson, as Tokyo marked the first time he competed on the Paralympic level with his horse Breezer, whom he had raised from birth.

Upon completing the Individual event, Pearson broke down atop Breezer and was visibly moved by what he and his horse had just accomplished. Even before the scores were announced, everyone in the crowd could tell that he had achieved something special.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 2
Sir Lee Pearson shares a special moment with Breezer after a gold-medal winning Individual Dressage performance.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

Following the Team Test event, Pearson was ebullient and expressed an even closer connection to Breezer than he’d ever felt before:

“In the final day’s freestyle to music, Breezer gave me the best test he’s ever given me, in able-bodied and in para dressage. He was on the aids, soft, and really listening. I just fell in love with him all over again. He gave me his little heart out there.”

And just as Daley has credited husband Dustin Lance Black and son Robbie with giving him a new perspective on his diving career, Pearson’s life changed by becoming a foster father of a 15-year-old in 2020.

“It’s made me into an emotional wreck,” he revealed to Horse and Hound. “We get on really well and he’s great. He completes my life and my family.”

Both Outsports Male Athletes of the Year achieved huge career goals in Tokyo. Happily, once the competitions ended, they’ve had even more to celebrate at home.

Previous Outsports Male Athlete of the Year winners:

2020: Strongman Rob Kearney
2019: 8 Out gay college football players
2018: Figure skater Eric Radford
2017: Rower Robbie Manson
2016: Boxer Orlando Cruz
2015: Figure skater Eric Radford
2014: Soccer player Robbie Rogers