Schroders-sponsored Lee Spencer on the power of positivity and not being defined by his disability

Schroders-sponsored Lee Spencer, amputee and ex-Royal Marine, is no stranger to pushing himself beyond his limits. He believes that “no one should be defined by their disability.” Ahead of his upcoming epic challenge – never attempted by anyone before – we catch up with him on mental health, resilience and positivity.

When Lee’s right leg was severed in a road accident on a busy motorway in 2014, his survival instinct and Marines training kicked in and he coached two bystanders through saving his life. Eight  years later, Lee is taking on a new challenge this summer: the Triathlon of Great Britain.

Lee intends to swim 22 miles across the English channel; cycle 1,060 miles from Lands End at the bottom of England to John O’Groats at the top of Scotland; and hike 45 miles summiting the three highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. All in 14 days. No one has ever attempted this challenge before.

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Hi Lee, thanks for joining us. You’re embarking on a huge physical and mental challenge, what made you decide to take this on?

I was a Royal Marine for 24 years and someone that defined themselves by their physicality. In 2014, in one moment all that changed. I stopped to help at a car accident and got hit by a car engine, losing my leg. When I woke up in hospital, I was grateful to be alive  – but now I was a disabled person. I felt I had to redefine who I was but within the parameters of disability.

The opportunity to row across the Atlantic as part of the world’s first all amputee crew changed my life, probably as significantly as losing my leg.

I remember the moment vividly. We were two thirds of the way across the Atlantic when I realised I was still the same person. The penny suddenly dropped and I realised how wrong it was to feel that I had to redefine myself.

That’s incredible – and that gave you the idea for your upcoming challenge?

To me the logical next step was to row across the Atlantic on my own, and beat the able-bodied record sending  a  positive message that “no one should be defined by their disability”. I went on to beat the able-bodied record.

I then had the idea for the Triathlon of Great Britain straight after I lost my leg. I thought about a marathon and swimming the channel, but lots of disabled people have done both. Then I thought about the three peaks and it suddenly hit me – that’s the tri! I’ll be the first person - able-bodied or disabled - to combine the three iconic endurance events in Great Britain.

I want to set a record that no one’s done, to again prove that no one should be defined by disability.  

What an inspiring story. Weeks away from the start line, how are you feeling?

I’m feeling incredibly lucky to be able to do this, but I’m also daunted. I’m most daunted by the swim - everything else on the challenge I know I can do through grit and determination. But the channel is a one hit wonder, there’s no stopping until you get to the other side. You can’t stop to rest, you can’t touch the support boat or it’s over. Nobody can do it for you.

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How’s your training going so far?

I’m putting 80% of my effort into making it across the channel. One thing I’ve got to my advantage is that the vast majority of people that fail this swim, do so mentally. I’m hoping this will be my strength. I know I’m not the best swimmer in the world but I know I can keep going until I get there. I’ve got the grit and resilience  – or stupidity!  – to keep going.

And how are you preparing mentally?

I’m relying on my past experience, I know that I can keep going. I know that when I have absolutely nothing left to give, I can and I will. I genuinely believe we all have this in us. It’s just practicing this positive thinking and belief, and really digging into it.

Why is mental health important to you?

I’d say as much as 60% of my friends and peers have struggled with mental health issues. For me, having a mental health issue can be far more debilitating than a physical disability. You can see I’ve only got one leg – it’s a very visual thing, so you have a level of empathy but it’s hard to see if someone is struggling with their mental health. 

Have you ever struggled with your mental health?

When I was a kid I had times when I was very, very down but I learnt coping mechanisms that still help me to this day. It’s important to me to focus on what you can change. When I lost my leg I had to focus on the positive because there’s always a positive, it puts things into perspective for me.

Do you have a mental health mantra?

This goes back a long time to when I was a child and it’s the only thing we’re absolutely guaranteed on. That this moment isn’t going to last – everything is transient.

What would your advice be someone taking on a new challenge?

Once you’ve started the process don’t look at the end. Look at your next step and the next step after that. Think about right now.

What do you do to look after your mental health?

People assumed when I lost my leg that I would have mental health issues, but so far, I haven’t. I’m not an expert and when people come to me advice I signpost them to professional support where they can get help.

But what I would say is that is that if you don’t have to go through something on your own then don’t.  reaching out to just one person can make such a difference to how you feel.

At times, when I was rowing the Atlantic the closest human being to me in the was on the International Space Station. I was that alone. The fear I experienced was fundamentally different to that I experienced in a team. It was horrible. 

What does it mean to have the support of Schroders?

Everything, I can’t do this challenge on my own. It’s far more difficult to do things on your own than doing it with someone. The truth is that when you’re part of a team things are easier. It’s invaluable knowing that you’re all behind me.



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