She has eight Paralympic gold medals, so what fires the para star up for more? Martha Terry talks to Sophie about building a legacy and starting afresh
Sophie Christiansen spent much of lockdown itching to get back into the saddle. The para dressage star should have been using the past few months to ramp up her training for her fifth consecutive Paralympics, but plans have been on hold.
“This was the longest I hadn’t ridden for a very long while,” says Sophie, 32, who has been riding since the age of six as physiotherapy for her quadriplegic cerebral palsy. “I was really missing the horses.”
While the coronavirus crisis has played havoc with many people’s riding logistics, elite riders have largely been able to train at home as normal. But, until late June, Sophie had been grounded since February when, soon after winning the para winter championships on Innuendo III, he “was so pleased with himself for being national champion, he had a full-on bronking fit”. Sophie fell off and broke her shoulder. The ensuing lockdown meant Sophie had to wait even longer to get back on board, because her grade I disability means she needs three people to help her get on.
“That proved impossible until just a few days ago because of social distancing,” says Sophie, as we chat virtually over her breakfast of yogurt and berries after a strength and conditioning session.
Although Sophie is technically classed as vulnerable to Covid-19, she brushes off any personal concerns. “You have to stick to the rules, but I’m not worried for myself because I’m fitter than most; I’m more worried about my trainer [Anna Miller] catching it as then I’d need to find someone else to exercise my horses,” says Sophie, whose horses need more work and variety than she is able to give them due to the fact that she only walks in grade I tests. “I feel like my trainer needs shielding, not me.”
This defiant, spirited attitude epitomises Sophie, who has surmounted her debilitating disease and the consequent obstacles of everyday life, not just to scale the heights of Paralympic sport but also hold a job as software engineer with premier investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. She commutes into London in a wheelchair – “sometimes stranded on the train because no one has come to help with a ramp”.
A work/life balance
Sophie thrives on this work/life balance. Besides needing the income to fund her sport, this is the way she’s always operated. “I balanced doing my GCSEs with my first Paralympics in Athens 2004,” she says. “I have to work to earn money, but I’ve always had that balance. Many people don’t understand it, but I find working at Goldman Sachs is a relief when sport gets stressful, and the opposite works too. I hate it when people say, ‘You’re lucky’ – I work damn hard!”
With eight Paralympic gold medals hanging in her trophy cabinet, it must be hard to fire up motivation for yet more gongs when anything but gold would be a disappointment to her fiercely competitive nature.
“I’m used to coming back from a championship with a gold medal,” she says. “I can’t go anywhere from here, so it’s now about making a difference to other people, which diverts pressure from me and my need to win.
“I do have that need to win at all costs,” she admits. “But I’m working hard with my psychologist about making it more about the process than the outcome.”
This Paralympic cycle, by Sophie’s own admission, has been a torturous one. Following Rio, she lost her top ride, Athene Lindebjerg, when she upped sticks from her previous long-term base, and starting again hasn’t been straightforward. She’s contemplated retirement, struggled with new horses, yet focusing on Tokyo 2020 kept her striving forwards. I suggest the postponement may be to her advantage, giving her more time to regroup. But for a Paralympian like Sophie, the status of the Games supersedes everything.
“When I first heard the Games were postponed, I was really upset because that never happens,” she says. “As a Paralympic athlete, you’re always working for that one day you’re going down the centre line. For that to be taken away was upsetting.
“I also felt guilty because I was upset about a little sporting event when the coronavirus crisis is a matter of life and death. Then I realised it was a good thing for me, and the rest of the British team, to have another year. I do believe we would have had a good chance of gold this year, but we’ll be even stronger next.”
A glorious triumph
Rewind to Rio, when Sophie returned home in glorious triumph having bagged another golden hat-trick. But underneath the lustre and her beaming smile, Sophie’s own invincible aura was falling apart.
“I didn’t have a good year for Rio, even though I won three gold medals,” she says. “I was deeply unhappy. I felt my team weren’t in my corner, which is so important. So after Rio, I decided either to retire or start afresh.
“I decided I wasn’t ready to retire. Elite sport is like a rollercoaster with such extreme highs and lows, and I’m quite frankly terrified of having a normal life! Will it be boring just going to work? I love my job in the City, but I know I can make a massive difference by having the platform I have as an elite athlete.”
Cutting ties with that team also meant saying goodbye to fabulous Athene Lindebjerg, “the most talented horse I’ve ever ridden”.
“I loved that horse, but the situation I was in was making me ill and I still haven’t got my confidence back,” she says. “I view my time with Athene with rose-tinted spectacles – she maybe made me a worse rider because I knew every time I went into an arena, she’d win!”
Sophie started anew at Anna Miller’s yard in Surrey in 2018 with a chestnut gelding, Amazing Romance (Harry), but the partnership’s early promise disintegrated when Harry learnt “he could get away with things”.
“He was spooky and started going backwards and sideways – he needed an able-bodied rider to help him,” says Sophie. “It was a really difficult decision because it was the first horse I’d had who had done that with me. It knocked my confidence to the extent I felt I couldn’t ride any more. I had this new team and they didn’t know what I was capable of.”
With Sophie’s background in the Riding for the Disabled Association, she’s well used to riding all sorts of types and has piloted four different horses at each of her four Games.
“That’s why I was so upset about Harry, because I can ride different horses,” she says. “It was heartbreaking as he was talented enough, but I couldn’t get through a test by the end.”
After a fraught few months trying unsuitable, over-priced or unsound horses, Sophie eventually found Die Furstin (Stella) through Froxfield Stud. Although the Dankeschoen chestnut mare was younger than Sophie wanted, she ticked every other box.
“I tried her in a storm and I trust her completely – it’s all about temperament,” she explains.
As Stella is only eight, Sophie wanted a more experienced horse to campaign alongside for Tokyo – enter Innuendo III (Louie), a 13-year-old by Last Minute she found while on holiday in Newquay with her “very patient” boyfriend, Peter.
“Louie’s not my normal sort – he’s not flashy but he’s nice, steady and reliable,” says Sophie of the 17hh gelding. “Stella is my risk horse, while Louie’s solid. He’ll give me confidence again and he’s more than ready for a championship, though both horses need work.”
Sophie is well aware the tussle for Paralympic slots is evermore competitive. “The standard of grade I now is much higher than it was even in Rio,” she says. “Athene was phenomenal. My current horses aren’t as talented, but they enable me to showcase my abilities as a rider. That’s what dressage is all about, getting the most out of your horse as a rider.”
Raising the profile
Sophie talks frequently about her “legacy” and using her “platform as a disabled elite athlete” – this has been a trigger in her reinvigorated career post-Rio.
“Because of my life balance, I can be a gold-medal winning Paralympian talking about having a normal life as a disabled person,” she says. “I can talk about how hard it is to get on a train. If I retire, I won’t have that platform. It’s less about me and more about how I can help the wider disabled community.”
She’s working hard on raising the profile of para dressage and disability in general and has set up a “gold club” to showcase the sport, inviting members to shows, giving tips and trying to generate more income.
“Funding is a massive thing for para riders because we can’t earn through our riding,” she says. “I have to buy my own horses because there are no owners – and then I have to pay someone else to ride my horses as I can’t do more than walk. It costs me £1,400 a month per horse. People assume riders are rich, but I have to work to be able to ride – and I feel a responsibility to improve this.”
Although the 10,000-strong crowds at London 2012, chanting Sophie’s name, proved there was an appetite for the sport, Sophie believes it has made the financial side tougher.
“More riders have got into para, so the calibre has gone up and we need more expensive horses,” she says. “That’s great, but there’s no more money.
“The owners just aren’t out there and this affects the lower grades so much. Who wants their horse to be the best walk-horse in the world? It needs a whole mind-shift for owners to want to be involved in this amazing journey, rather than having the most spectacular dressage horse.”
Four Paralympics before hitting 30 is indeed an amazing feat. Sophie’s enforced hiatus is finally over and the clock is ticking down to number five.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 July 2020