Jane Lee took up horse riding when she was in remission after a particularly nasty strain of cancer; this year she competed at the Badminton Horse Trials. Her battle against adversity fits neatly into The Mixed Zone’s She Who Dares campaign, aimed at encouraging women to leave their comfort zone behind them and get into sport. Eleanore Kelly tells her story
Eventing is a sport that laughs in the face of adversity. It is as well its protagonists can see the funny side because it is also a sport that stares danger full in the eye with injury shrugged off as an accepted occupational hazard. Just ask Andrew Nicholson and Jane Lee, two riders who found themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum at the Badminton Horse Trials earlier this month.
Nicholson, now 55, won the three-day event at the thirty-seventh attempt, stretching back to 1984, and just eighteen months after narrowly escaping death when he broke his neck in a fall. He was told he would probably never ride again.
Lee, five years younger and competing in the Mitsubishi Motors Cup Amateur Championship, had also cheated death nearly twenty years ago when she was given months to live after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma. Her Badminton did not end with the same fairytale finish as Nicholson’s: her black-and-white gypsy cob, George, refused to jump the final obstacle in the showjumping ring and the pair were eliminated. But in the best sporting tradition, it was getting there that was the triumph.
At the age of 31, Lee’s lungs collapsed and her kidneys stopped working. Despite aggressive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, the cancer spread to other organs. The prognosis was not good; the eventual outcome nothing short of miraculous. The last two decades in remission have included an appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to raise money for her care, finding a miracle treatment and then defying the odds by learning to ride again. For Lee to be among the top riders to qualify for the amateur championship is testament to her courage and determination.
When the bone marrow transplant failed to take effect, the doctors lost hope. But Jane and husband Dave refused to give up. “They had fobbed me off throughout the treatment and suddenly they were saying they didn’t expect me to survive the next six months,” she says. “At that point, I did start writing letters to friends just in case I didn’t make it. There were definitely times where I wasn’t sure I could go on, but they didn’t last long. My husband was amazing – he phoned up every hospital in the country to find out what treatment was available.”
Dave was determined to get the best possible treatment for his wife, but that meant opting for private medical treatment. So Jane went on ‘Millionaire’ to try and fund it. “I think they only wanted me on because I had no hair at the time,” she jokes. “I didn’t do that well. I failed on a keyboard question. And I’m a secretary.” But it was a chance meeting with the make-up artist on set that may well have saved Jane’s life. She was introduced to Professor Child, a specialist who was pioneering a new antibody treatment in Leeds.
Jane started the treatment soon after. She also took up riding again for the first time since childhood. “I needed to put some structure into my life. So I started riding and went and bought a horse. My family thought I was mad. Especially when I took up snowboarding, too, and broke my arm.”
The innovative antibody treatment was a huge success and Jane went into remission in 2001. “I had my last treatment 16 years ago,” she says, “and I’ve not looked back. I bought an old horse to start with. He was a great jumper and that’s when I realised I loved jumping. We were like two old crocks turning up at shows together, but he would jump anything and I had so much fun.”
Eventing is definitely not for the faint-hearted – it involves blood, sweat, tears and broken bones. Despite all that, Jane took up the sport at the age of 43. “It scares me a bit, but it also excites me. I love the buzz of galloping and jumping and going as fast as you can to get inside the time,” she says. “But I also love the preparation, the training and trying to improve a bit every week. It also makes me determined to be as fit as I can. The radiotherapy affected my lungs and paralysed my vocal chords, which does affect my breathing.” She had intensive speech therapy, but her voice is still impaired.
Competing at Badminton meant more to her than anything else in the world. The competition itself was only half the fun; it was the sense of occasion and being able to rub shoulders with heroes like Pippa Funnell and Sir Mark Todd that gripped Jane. It was just a shame her equine partner was less enthused.
George is not the archetypal horse for eventing. “We don’t even know his breeding,” explains Jane. “He is an overgrown pony who hates men and mud, has a quirky personality but is a great jumper.” He was discovered on a tiny allotment as a young and nervous three year old and Jane puts his dislike of men down to fear and a bad start in life. “We are both a couple of misfits,” she smiles. They know each other inside out. Jane broke George in to ride herself and has taught him everything he knows. His wilful ways have sometimes got the better of Jane. “He calls himself a gypsy cob but he doesn’t like jumping in the mud.” So Jane, who has never given up on anything in her life, spent an entire winter jumping George in mud only for him to refuse to take off at Badminton.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t get to complete the competition,” she says. “I had seven friends there supporting me and they had even made T-shirts with my name on. I felt that I had let them down. But I’m very good at putting these things behind me. I know that with horses it’s all about highs and lows and you have to have these lows in order to enjoy the highs.
“Horses are great levellers and Badminton was another example of that. George and I are very much all or nothing – we are either winning or coming last. But it was still one of the best weeks of my life and just getting there was certainly the biggest achievement of my riding career. I’ll be aiming for the championships again next year, so I won’t dwell on the disappointment because it’s one of those things and you’ve just got to keep kicking-on.
“To lift my spirits, I bought myself some new boots. I had stayed off alcohol in the lead-up to be in the best physical state for Badminton, so I really enjoyed having a few drinks with my wonderful friends that night,” she says. “I analysed what went wrong, made a plan and then put it away. I think after an illness you put disappointments like that into perspective. My brother sent me a text reminding me of where I’d come from.”
Reflecting on her illness, Jane says horses and eventing have given her a sense of purpose and hope. “Horses mean the world to me. George has taken over my life,” she says. Due to several rounds of aggressive chemo, Jane went through the menopause at the age of 31. “I would have liked to have had a family, but there is no point dwelling on it,” she says. “Horses have filled that gap and that’s why they mean so much to me. I remind myself that if I had kids, I would not have had the time to do all this. And this makes me very happy.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.