Royal Navy Officer and Olympic Champion Pete Reed on a New Way of Feeling

Pete Reed, O.B.E. — Royal Navy officer, former Olympic rower, friend of Omega, paraplegic — has embraced the life changes imposed on him by a medical calamity. But not only that: he is sharing his emancipating new philosophy with the world. Interview by SCOTT HARPER.

Royal Navy Officer and Olympic Champion Pete Reed on a New Way of Feeling

Must an epiphany, by its very nature, be spontaneous? What if a cognitive awakening comes by degrees, over a period of several years? And what if the episode that clefts a single life into two distinct chapters is heralded not by light breaking through clouds and spiritual euphoria but by a portentous moment of physical catastrophe? 

In September 2019, Pete Reed, a Seattle-born, Gloucestershire-bred Royal Navy officer and highly decorated Olympic rower, felt the vitality drain from his legs. Then 38 years old, he’d been hospitalised three days before by an onset of chest pains and numbness in his lower limbs while tackling an assault course with the Royal Marines. But it was this second, more severe spinal stroke — a disruption of blood supply to the spinal cord — that would leave him paralysed from the chest down. 

The Rake meets Pete, who won Olympic golds at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, in a wheelchair-friendly guest room at the Nobu Hotel Portman Square around four years after the incident. A few weeks after it, Reed had described his prognosis thus: “There is no crystal ball. There is a very small chance I will make no recovery and a very small chance I will make a full recovery.” 

Today, with the same candour and stoicism, he updates us on where he finds himself. “Where you fall on that spectrum is governed largely by the magnitude of the injury, not by who you see or what you take or how hard you work or how much you believe,” he says. “I’m as far along that curve as I can possibly get. I probably won’t get any further. With all the rehab we did, we got back as much [mobility] as we could possibly get back. But in my case, my spinal cord injury was massive and catastrophic.” 

Pete Reed wearing a Speedmaster Chronoscope 43mm, MoonshineTM Gold on MoonshineTM Gold, Omega; navy blazer, Oliver Brown; shirt and tie, Polo Ralph Lauren.

The most misguided phrase a participant in the conversation could use at this point is ‘given up hope’. For a start, there remains in Pete’s case the potential for medical intervention, that clinical researchers will “find a way of connecting my healthy piece of top spinal cord to the healthy piece of bottom spinal cord”. He adds that, “It’s worth working hard and staying fit and strong to be ready for when that comes”. But for now the possibility remains hypothetical for him — a tangent on the flow chart representing his life sketched lightly in pencil, with a question mark at the end of it. 

While stem cell research, wearable technology and other areas might affect the narrative in the future, the word ‘hope’ has a vastly more edifying and profound meaning for Pete right now. “There’s more to life after spinal cord injury than constantly trying to flap your arms to pursue the life that you used to have,” he says. “There’s a lot of loss, and I’m not glossing over that, but there’s a lot of gain as well. It’s not all bad, and I don’t spend time thinking, Oh, I wish I could go back in time — futile gesture! I just think about working towards all the cool things in the future. I think that’s what hope is: just hope that tomorrow can be better than today. And that’s worth working for. 

“The life I had pre-injury included being able to use the loo whenever I wanted to, going wherever I wanted to, and walking and running and hiking. In my case, it was by injury that a lot of those things were robbed from me. But those things will get taken from everyone healthy in the world as well — not by injury, but by time. I don’t mean to sound in any way morbid, quite the opposite, but it’s important for all of us to recognise and remember we’re mortal and that we will lose the things we have because it makes you appreciate them now when we’ve got them.” 

I love finding out where people are in their journey, and delivering something I think is tangible and helpful.

Asked whether he cherishes life’s joys more than he did before his spinal stroke, he doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Yes, I think I do. No, not ‘I think’, I definitely do. I find joy and motivation and satisfaction every day by enjoying what I have, which is a wonderful life, wonderful wife, new baby boy, Frederick, a home in London we hope to adapt, friends, family, a career. And despite what it might look like, my health as well. I still feel healthy, I still feel like myself. Being injured shines a light on all the reasons I should be grateful.” 

Adversity, he says, is an antidote for complacency. “Looking back, I took so much for granted. I was tall and strong and looked a certain way, and everything was easy in life. I grew up with a lovely family, and we didn’t have everything, but it was privileged and wonderful. I wasn’t bullied and didn’t have any grief or loss. I grew up, until my late twenties, with no hardship at all, which makes you a bit naive in some ways. I look back on those simpler times, and I don’t ever think, Oh, I wish I could be back there. I just think, Thank goodness I did what I could when I could; thank goodness I had that chapter in my life. It’s a case of two completely different lives, but not one better and one worse. There are lots of things that are missing, but life in a wheelchair has also given me access to new things that I wouldn’t ever have dreamed of having, not least a much greater capacity for empathy.” 

Pity, Pete says, can be a niggle. He wasn’t just an athlete. This is a man who, on top of those three Olympic golds, won five more plus three silver medals at the world championships during an 18- year rowing career; whose lung capacity at his prime was almost twice the average; and whose extraordinary physical talents, discovered accidentally during a training exercise in the Persian Gulf, earned him the nickname ‘the Commander’. “People think it’s further to fall,” he says of the perceived contrast. 

Another bugbear is incredulity at his stoicism (“Hmm, are you saying that I’m putting on a performance for everyone else, for your benefit?”). But he acknowledges that all approaches to his condition are well meaning. Which brings us to that newfound capacity for empathy he just mentioned. “I think I can relate more, help more, listen more, learn more, whereas pre-wheelchair, it’s like there’s a barrier around you,” he says. 

Reed’s Olympic gold medals from Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and Rio in 2016; Speedmaster Chronoscope 43mm, MoonshineTM Gold on MoonshineTM Gold, Omega; tie, Polo Ralph Lauren.
Reed’s Olympic gold medals from Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and Rio in 2016.

“Before she died last year — that was a very sad thing — I told my mum, ‘It’s hard, I have these 80-year-olds moving for me on buses because I’m more in need than they are’. Mum’s point was, ‘You’ve given those people a gift. They’ve been able to physically do something for someone else for the first time in ages. That’s a special thing.’” 

Pete is chatting to us today in part in his capacity as a friend of Omega, with whom he has had a cordial relationship for more than 20 years. He first made contact with the Swiss giants when seeking sponsorship for his rowing crew at Oxford University, where he was on a two-year MSc course in engineering, a subject that still informs his love of timepieces (“I’m a proper nerd, and find it pure perfection that a bunch of moving parts and springs can keep time like that — it ticks every single one of my boxes!”). 

He’s also a campaigner for better facilities for people who cannot walk, and recently teamed up with Transport for London for an awareness project that saw wheelchair-user traffic light symbols installed close to Tube stations that offer step-free access. This writer defies anyone to spend an hour or more with Pete and not realise how shamefully badly wheelchair users are catered for in our urban areas — a problem whose lack of salience is self-perpetuating and detrimental to all of us socially and economically. 

Pete also works as a motivational speaker. “I’ve been talking to corporate audiences about things like high performance, teamwork from my Olympic days, leadership, culture and ethics from my navy chapter,” he says. “But more recently I’ve been speaking a lot about how to become more resilient. It’s all stuff that I’ve learned from brighter, better people than me, and I just try and package that with some stories and leave people things to think about. I really enjoy it — I love finding out where people are in their journey and what they need, and delivering something I think is tangible and helpful.” 

To put that another way, Pete has devoted his life to sharing his gradual epiphany with others, so they can experience, vicariously, the life-enhancing realisations forced upon him by loss of mobility. 

He is the man for the job. After all, if battling adversity were an Olympic sport...