Olympic rowing royalty Pete Reed is leading the way in wheelchair accessibility

Pete Reed was nicknamed ‘the Commander’ early in his career and its suitability remains as apt now as then.

A mainstay in British boats for over a decade, only Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent have won more Olympic rowing golds for Team GB than Reed.  

Soon after that chapter of his life closed, Reed suffered a spinal stroke which paralysed him from the chest down.

Now he is leading a campaign to improve the lives of wheelchair users in London and living up to his 20-year-old military moniker.

“It's how I like to live my life,” said Reed. “I've got a wonderful family and had a wonderful mother.

“Sadly she died earlier this year, but she taught us the value of other people in life and doing things for others.”

Born in Seattle but raised in Nailsworth, Reed joined the Royal Navy aged 18 and it was during a training exercise in the Persian Gulf that his rowing talents were first discovered.

“Rowing was only on my radar because of big Sir Steve Redgrave,” recalled Reed. “I was swept along with the rest of the nation when he won his fifth gold in Sydney, but I had no experience of rowing.

“At that time, I was sailing around the world and I got the fastest time in the fleet on my first ever use of a rowing machine.

“It was pure luck and circumstance.”

The ship's captain recommended rowing to Reed at University and, coached by Olympic silver medallist Fred Smallbone, he rocketed through the ranks and went on to represent Oxford in the Boat Race on two occasions.

The pain of defeat in 2004 stoked Reed’s fire and a redemptive victory followed in 2005, by which time he was already a favourite of legendary GB coach Jürgen Gröbler.

“Jurgen called me the Commander early on and I think it's because he wanted to do some leadership jobs,” said Reed.

“I was very fond of Jürgen and he was fond of me. The name stuck with some of the Oxford guys and they still call me Commander now.”

After Reed and his ‘brother in arms’, Andrew Triggs Hodge won GB senior pairs trials, they were selected for the flagship coxless four alongside Steve Williams and Alex Partridge.

The team powered to 27 consecutive wins, cementing their status as one of the greatest crews of all time, thanks in no small part to Reed’s breath-taking lung capacity of 11.68 litres – at one stage the highest ever recorded for a sportsman.

A first Olympic gold followed in 2008, and two more in 2012 and 2016, but there is no debating Reed’s favourite.

“I feel very lucky that all three medals are special for very different reasons,” he said.

“Beijing was my first and becoming Olympic champion was extraordinary. Rio ended up being my last, but it was just the most memorable experience with Team GB second in the medal table and a phenomenal away Games with a carnival atmosphere.

“But there's no denying that London 2012 was just the most extraordinary privilege to be part of.

“Everything fell into place for the most extraordinary experience of possibly all of our lives – that was the pinnacle of my sporting career.”

Reed called time on his career in 2018, retiring undefeated in Olympic Games.

Then, in September 2019, by this stage a Lieutenant Commander, Reed felt an overwhelming pain the morning after a trek through Dartmoor.

A few days later, life drained from Reed’s legs and his towering 6ft 6in physique left hospital in a wheelchair.

He very briefly considered a Paralympic pursuit but instead set about improving accessibility for wheelchair users. 

“I made my first trip back to London in the summer of 2020 and it was like seeing the city from completely different eyes," said Reed, who has teamed up with TfL to introduce wheelchair user traffic light signals across London in Earl’s Court, King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Tower Hill and Whitechapel.

“I remember being at a pedestrian crossing and seeing the little green man figure for the walk, don't walk sign, and I just remember thinking not everyone walks.

“One of the hardest things about London is not knowing where you can use the loo and not knowing where you can sleep at night.

“I'm hoping the campaign will open people's eyes to the value of making their businesses and hospitality accessible for wheelchair users.

“I want to be able to take accommodation and loo facilities for granted again, I miss that.”

Reed now resides in Topsham, Devon, with his wife Jeannie, and was made an Honorary Captain of the Navy last year.

He hopes to one day mentor athletes in their pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic glory, but for now he is happy to front a very different fight.

“There's a big community out there of people who can contribute and improve your life if only they can get out and about,” he said.

“Rowing is a sport where you need to hold your hand in the fire longer than anyone else for other people. With 20 years of those values instilled in you, it becomes very easy to do things for others.

“That's a nice way to live for yourself – you can quit on yourself, but you won't quit on other people.”

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