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Sophie riding Janeiro 6 at the 2014 World Equestrian Games

Sophie riding Janeiro 6 at the 2014 World Equestrian Games ©Gettyimages

Sophie Christiansen CBE, equestrian, has competed in four successive Paralympics from Athens 2004 to Rio 2016 Games winning 8 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze medals.

Early life

Sophie Margaret Christiansen was born two months prematurely on the 14th November 1987 in Ascot, with a severe form of quadriplegic cerebral palsy. 

At the age of six, she began riding every fortnight with a local RDA group because the physiotherapists who visited her junior school saw the value of horse riding for those with disabilities and took them to the sessions in the school van. 

She moved on to Charters School in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which, in 1981, had made the decision to become a centre for physically disabled students, starting a programme of inclusion and modifying the buildings with lifts and access ramps.

As one of the 50 Faces of the Riding for the Disabled Associations’ (RDA) 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019, Sophie said

I was always quite sporty and used to love playing football and hockey but I was rubbish at them and kept falling over. Dressage was the only sport I was good at, so I was determined to see how far I could go.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

When I was 13, and my RDA group had just told me they felt they didn’t have the expertise to help me any further, a couple of different people simultaneously recommended applying for South Bucks RDA. It was here (once they let me in, as I had to face the fierce scrutiny of Para trainer Clive Milkins to be deemed worthy of a place!) that I was introduced to Para dressage as a sport, not just as therapy. I discovered I could go to competitions in Para dressage, with the coaching and close guidance of all at South Bucks, who put me on old schoolmasters at first. I was also helped at this point by the Lottery Funded Start and Potential Squads, which took me to my first international competition.

In 2002, having been selected for the Lottery-funded World Class Potential Programme and winning her first national event the previous year, in a newspaper interview, Matt Straker, the British Equestrian Federation Performance Director said

Sophie has what it takes to compete at the highest level. She is a promising star for the future.

Sophie was quite clear about her objectives

My main aim in life is to win gold at the Paralympics… I want to be like Tanni Grey-Thompson and show that handicapped people are the same as anyone else. That we are real athletes. 

Sophies’ first major international success came at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, where she rode Hotstuff who belonged to fellow team member, Nicola Tustain. Aged 16, she was the youngest athlete in the Great Britain squad.  

I was taken for experience, and no one expected me to win a bronze medal. The whole experience changed my life; I learnt the importance of teamwork, became more confident and less self-conscious due to the amount of interviews I had to do, and generally grew up.

The Beijing 2008 Paralympics saw Sophie achieve her gold medal goal for the first time, riding Lambrusco III who belonged to the Para Training Trust.

At the London 2012 Games, Sophie won 3 gold medals, you can watch Sophies’ London 2012 Freestyle performance on her own horse, Janerio 6 (stable name Rio)here. The music included excerpts from Land of Hope and Glory, Big Ben's chimes and a quotation from Shakespeare's Richard II. 

In 2014 Sophie was interviewed by Peter White for the BBC Radio 4 series No Triumph, No Tragedy - listen here

Having graduated with a First Class Masters degree in mathematics from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011, Sophie took unpaid leave from her job as an analyst at an investment bank to compete at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. She went on to win another 3 gold medals.

After the Rio 2016 Games, Sophie took a year off from competing and, with Athene moving to a different rider, she had to look for a new horse. With the Tokyo 2020 Games in mind, she bought Amazing Romance (stable name Harry), but the partnership did not work out, leading to her withdrawing from the 2018 Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games.

It’s heartbreaking, but he didn’t want to be a para horse. There are certain horses that can’t stay quiet for 25 minutes of walk. He’s safe, or I wouldn’t be able to ride him, but he just didn’t have the consistency I need

In 2018 she launched a membership club, aiming to change the way funding is raised and to support up-and-coming riders, saying in an interview with Horse and Hound magazine,

This is different from crowdfunding — it’s about getting a new group of fans into the sport and closer to the action, which will only be a good thing……… I’m worried about the future generation and how are they going to fund getting to Paralympic level and afford horses so I think this is a really innovative way to increase funding for them.

Sophie went on to buy two new horses, Die Furstin (stable name Stella), and Inuendo III (stable name Louie). A broken shoulder after a fall in early 2020 and the Covid pandemic delay to the 2020 Tokyo Games have given her more time to prepare, in a June 2020 interview for the FEI, Sophie said, 

It’s disappointing of course, but with this injury, the three months preparation I would have had would’ve been hard. The uncertainty of when we’ll be able to compete again though is hell for me. I like to plan everything…. I’ve spent the last three years trying to get back to the top. It shows how tough it is to get there.

Watch Sophie as part of Channel 4's coverage of Paralympic sport, in a video billed as ‘takes us behind the scenes of a life less ordinary’ here.  

In addition to her two, 13-hour, days at work, riding twice a week and regular gym sessions, Sophie is a Women in Tech and Disability campaigner and Patron for The Movement Centre, The Rainbow Centre, Chance for Childhood and Mane Chance Sanctuary.  She was Project Patron for the Riding for the Disabled (RDA) Lowlands National Training Centre in Warwickshire.

Recollections

In 2009 Sophie paid tribute to those who helped her in her early life,

I am the nurses who resuscitated me after I had a heart attack and a collapsed lung as a tiny baby. I am my Dad, who caught me each time I fell off my pony as I tried to start jumping at age 9. I am the volunteers at the Riding for the Disabled Association. I am my school physical education teacher who recognised me as a sportswoman. I am the famous and inspirational people I have met as well as my brother, who has always treated me like a normal sister.

In 2020 Sophie said London 2012 was an “unbelievable” experience and, of her horse, Rio,

He was my favourite of the horses I’ve ridden, because of his personality, I prefer them to have a bit of something and he was cheeky. My balance isn’t the best but he knew that, and he looked after me.

Sophie paid tribute to her coaches, the Assoulines, and Di Redfern, owner of Athene Lindebjerg, after winning three gold medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games,

Michel and Mette helped me look for the right horse for Rio 2016 a few years ago. They know what I need in a horse and what my goals are. Through their connections, they found the perfect horse, Athene, on which I knew I could defend my Paralympic titles. Di Redfern bought Athene for me purely based on her talent and temperament. We knew she would need a little more training for a Para rider, so the Assoulines’ head girl, Jess Thompson, took her out to shows and let her see everything she would with me. When Jess became Open Elementary National Champion with Athene in 2014, that was beyond anything we expected! I would not have won gold in Rio without Michel’s help as Para coach. The whole team has definitely contributed to my success in Rio!

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Sophies’ impressive medal collection began at the Athens 2004 Games with a bronze (riding Hotstuff), at Beijing 2008, while a student, she added 2 gold and 1 silver (riding Lambrusco III), before adding a further 3 gold at London 2012 (riding Janerio 6) and 3 gold at Rio 2016 (riding Athene Lindebjerg).

Sophie Christiansen winning gold on Lambrusco III at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics

Sophie winning gold with Lambrusco III at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics © Gettyimages

Other sporting events

Sophie competed in half-marathons and won the Windsor half-marathon wheelchair race in 2002.

Sophie has won a further 16 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals. 3 gold at the 2005 IPC Equestrian European Championships (riding Martini Maybe), 1 gold and 1 bronze at the 2007 World Para-Dressage Championships (riding Gazel), 2 gold and 1 silver at the 2009 European Championships (riding Lambrusco III), 2 gold and 1 silver at the 2010 World Equestrian games (riding Rivaldo of Berkley), 3 gold at the 2013 FEI European Championships (riding Janerio 6),  2 gold and 1 silver at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games (riding Janerio 6) and 3 gold at the 2015 FEI European Championships (riding Athene Lindebjerg).

Other awards and recognition

In 2004, Sophie won the BBC London Disabled Athlete of the Year award.

Sophies picture was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in an exhibition called Exceptional Youth: Photographs by Emma Hardy from 2006 to 2007.

2008 saw Sophie awarded the Vivien Batchelor Trophy, for the most outstanding rider under the age of 25, by the British Equestrian Writers’ Association and became the first para rider to be awarded the Raymond Brooks-Ward Trophy for Most Outstanding Young Rider.   

In 2012 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of Royal Holloway, University of London. 

In 2015 Sophie won the Woman of the Future award which recognises women under 35 who are influential in their sector, the first time there had been a sports category. Pinky Lilani, founder of Women of the Future said,

The judges picked out Sophie for her ferocious determination to succeed

Sophie commented,

I feel that it is important for me to use my platform as gold medallist to promote disabled rights and the judging panel recognised my accomplishments and work outside the arena too.

After the Rio 2016 Games, a post-box in Sunningdale was painted gold to honour her and she featured on a commemorative postage stamp.

2016 also saw her nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, watch her video, A Proven Equation here.

The most important thing I've learned is that you can't be afraid of going outside your comfort zone.

 Sophie Christiansen at a Victory Parade after the Rio 2016 Paralympics held for the Great Britain teams on 17th October 2016 in Manchester.

At a victory parade for the Great British Paralympic and Olympic teams returning from Rio 2016. © GettyImages

In an interview with the Radio Times, she said,

So please vote for me if you: have ever overcome a challenge, believe in the benefits of sport, studied maths, have a disability but never let that stop you, work in an office, love riding and horses, went to university, always strive for better, go to festivals and gigs, are a computer geek and proud of it, fight for things you believe in or just like to support the underdog!

Having been awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to disabled sport in 2008, in 2013 she was awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to equestrianism and disability sport and in 2017 became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to para equestrian.


Interviews with Sophie Christiansen

Sophie talking about the 2004 Athens Paralympics 

Sophie describes how competing in Athens changed her life.

An interview with Sophie Christiansen

Interview by Catherine Turnbull-Ross, February 2013

“I got involved in Paralympic sport through the Riding for the Disabled Association when I was six years old. The physiotherapists at my primary school just happened to believe in the benefits of riding for kids with a disability so I went with my school every week to ride and immediately fell in love with horses and the freedom that they gave me because riding to me was much more fun and less boring than physiotherapy exercises on the floor. And I carried on for recreation and then at 13 I found South Bucks RDA group who specialise in making that transfer from therapy to sport riding. And it all happened really quickly. I just loved being able to compete in dressage, because I’ve always been quite sporty; at school I used to play hockey and football, so, for me, finding this sport that I could excel at was just beyond my wildest dreams. And then I started competing and loved it and got selected for the Athens Paralympic Games when I was just 16 years old, and I won a bronze medal very unexpectedly and everyone cried. And I just loved the experience that it gave me.

Since then I’ve become European and World Champion numerous times and then went to the Beijing Paralympics where I won 2 golds and a silver, and then to London where I won 3 gold medals.”

Relationship with your horse

"My relationship with my horse is very special especially when we take them to big competitions like the Paralympics.  You know London 2012 was the biggest audience we’d ever seen and we couldn’t replicate competing in front of 10,000 people beforehand. So I had to really make sure that my partnership with my horse was perfect and that he trusted me completely; so we went into that arena just like it was another training day and kind of ignored the people watching. And I think to be able to ride there’s a connection between the horse and rider that you can’t really describe. I think that’s what makes me a good rider as I know intuitively what the horse wants me to do. So it is a sport unlike any other in that you’re dealing with another being and the communication between the two has to be spot on.”

First visit to the Paralympics in Athens

“When I went to Athens I was so young and it really, really changed me as a person. I went to the Paralympic village and saw all these other disabled people who I had never seen before. And it really made me stop and think about myself, and seeing these people just get on with it. That really made me think about how I wanted to be perceived. And I was really shy and self-conscious before I went mainly due to my speech problems, but I had to talk to so many people, do so many interviews that it forced me out of my shell for the better really, because ever since then I’ve been really outgoing and never let anything stop me. So the whole experience at the Paralympics really changed my life.”

Comparison between first Paralympics in Athens and Beijing

 “With Beijing it was a really different games to Athens for me because, I was four years older, and being 21 years old, you really know by then the extent of the games. I went in as World & European Champion so I had a lot of pressure on me, unlike I had in Athens, so I really went to Beijing wanting to win gold, therefore it was more of a job and I took it a bit more seriously than I did when I was 16 – because you can imagine as a kid being in that environment, it’s just mindblowing. So I really think it helped me then going into London having those two different experiences that I could draw on, because I knew what to expect and I was so focused when it came London and I think that’s why I did so well.”

Which was your best Paralympics

“All three of my Paralympic experiences have been extremely different and I think definitely London would have been the best one, but I think I did learn from every one of my experiences. Athens was special because it was my first games and I didn’t expect a medal and when I did it just changed my life. Beijing was special because I’d dreamt of winning a Paralympic gold medal all my life, and I did, by the time I was 21. But then London I really learnt so much from; to cope with the pressure of going in as reigning Paralympic champion, I took so much from that experience and I think Great Britain really showed the world how the Paralympics should be done and I hope it carries on.”

Being part of the team

”When I was younger and I just joined the team I was the big baby of the team, and all my team mates looked after me and I really looked up to them, because they were so professional in how they put themselves out there. They were friendly with the other nations, they knew that doing media was really important in raising the profile of Paralympic sport, so at that age it was really influential I learnt a lot from them on how to behave, not only in the sporting arena, but also outside as well, so I’ve got a lot to thank them for.”

How long do you work with a horse before a competition

“The length of time that I work with my horses will vary. I’m quite a unique rider in that, because of my riding for the disabled background I used to get on any horse every week and just get the most out of the horse I was given, so that gave me a lot of skills as a rider in that I can adapt to any horse. Now I change them quite frequently; I used to borrow them from owners, so I never really knew when the owners would want them back so I used to have them for a year or two and then move onto the next one. Now, the horse I took to London he’s my own horse which I bought - my first one - and I had him for about 14 months before the Games and that was perfect for him, because we managed to click just on time to be selected. Now with other horses that might have been different; it could have taken a shorter amount of time or a longer amount of time so it really depends on the horse.”

What was the best part of London 2012

“My favourite experience from London - you can tell from the way I’m smiling - was my third competition when I had just finished my test and I kind of knew it was good enough to win a third gold medal even though I wait until the end of every class because you never know what could happen. But I came out of the arena and my brother and my two cousins stood out of the crowd, bare-chested, and shouted ‘We love you Sophie’ and the whole crowd just erupted; 10,000 people cheering my name,it’s something I’ll never ever forget. So that was my favourite moment thanks to my brother.”

Are your family able to travel to watch you compete?

“My family have travelled to watch me compete, pretty much at every major competition they come out and watch, which I’m really grateful for. I do like to distance myself from them a bit because I have a job to do and I don’t want to be distracted. Normally my brother can’t come as he’s at school or at university, but in London he was actually a volunteer in Greenwich which was actually really quite weird seeing him about but it was really comforting at the same time. So I would catch up with him at times which really helped because it made me relax as it was more of a family thing than before, so that made it special as well.”

What’s next

” This year in 2013 we’ve got the Europeans in August in Denmark which I’m aiming for. We have a major championships every year, so next year is the Worlds in France, and then the Europeans again and then it will be Rio 2016. But I’ll need another horse for that, because my horse will be a little too old by then and you never know what could happen with horses, so I’m not saying I’ll definitely go but it’ll be my aim and I’ll try my best to get there and do what I did in 2012.”

“The Paralympic movement has really grown, even in the years that I’ve been involved. In Athens virtually all of the stands were empty, Beijing was better, but London, with record numbers of ticket sales, really showed just how much the Paralympic movement has come on. And I think that Britain has gone the right way about it. In this country the Paralympics are virtually treated the same as the Olympics, which you wouldn’t get in any other country really. So I’m very lucky to be British in that I can be an athlete and not just a disabled person doing sport . So I hope that the London legacy will carry on to Rio. I think that will be the main test with the legacy, if we can carry it out in another country. I think there still can be some growth; I think Paralympic sport should be more mainstream on the TV, not just every 4 years, we compete every year. Nowadays you can watch athletics or cycling virtually any main events they have, so I would like to see that for the Paralympics too.”

Are young people interested in participating in the Games?

“I’ve had a lot of younger people come to me for advice on how to start. And I’ve heard from different groups and disabled clubs that their intake has been much higher since the Games. I still would like to see a bit more; I believe in the benefits of being fit as well. I think there was a danger for London that maybe disabled people saw Paralympians compete at an elite level and they might have thought ‘I’ll never really get to that level so I won’t do sport at all’. Which for me doing sport really, really helped my disability; I believe that keeping fit has reduced the limitations I do have, so I can get out of the house, I can do stuff on my own, I can get a job as I’m fit enough to be able to. And I’d really like to see more disabled people just doing sport or going to the gym and get active and fit so that they can make the most out of life.”

Profile of equestrian sport

“I think equestrian in general, able-bodied and paralympian has really come to the forefront because all the teams at both the Olympics and Paralympics did so so well and I really believe that before it was seen as something people do on horses and not really seen as a sport. Whereas now I get people coming up to me and saying ‘Oh you do that dancing on horses thing.’ And I say ‘yup’; I don’t need to explain what dressage is anymore, because they know and I think that’s really good for our sport. And I’d like to see more people getting involved because it’s given me so much.”

To download the transcript as a pdf, click here


References

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