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Sophie Christiansen: Back in the saddle and in the hunt for more Paralympic success

Sportsbeat
·5-min read
Following a tough period in the wake of Rio 2016, eight-time Paralympic champion Sophie Christiansen believes she is back on the pathway towards success © REUTERS
Following a tough period in the wake of Rio 2016, eight-time Paralympic champion Sophie Christiansen believes she is back on the pathway towards success © REUTERS

Getting back in the saddle is - for most of us - the quintessential breakup cliché, but for eight-time Paralympic dressage champion Sophie Christiansen it’s a literal proposition.

Christiansen and her mount Athene Lindebjerg turned in a dominant performance at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, equalling the rider’s personal best three gold medals from the London 2012 Games.

But behind the scenes, the stage was getting set for a split. Christiansen and her coach were not seeing eye-to-eye. It upset them both, to the point it made the Paralympian feel “ill”.

She explained: “2016 was actually a really unhappy year for me.

“My team around me didn’t have my best interests at heart, even though they thought they did.

“After Rio I really had to make the decision where I couldn’t carry on like it was, so I could either retire or move, change teams, get a different horse, and I made that decision. But the next four years… have not gone according to plan for me.”

Christiansen took some time out from sport to regroup from the fallout. When she decided to continue, she invested in a new horse. Like many rebounds, the new relationship didn’t work out, setting her back another year.

It was a trying time for the Berkshire native, who is the sort of person who loves a plan. Usually she’d have everything mapped out, but the pandemic made that impossible.

She explained: “It’s so weird, because all the other years it’s been like right, I’m competing on this day.

“I know what I’m doing, when I’m doing it, and this year I haven’t even put Tokyo in my diary yet, because I feel like if I do it might get cancelled.”

The 33-year-old added: “Normally I plan everything out to the nth degree, but Covid has definitely taught me to be more zen and calm and just go with the flow.

“In equestrian sport you’re relying on your horse as well, and the owner of that horse didn’t really agree that my coach was the wrong person. So [in 2016] I was like I need to leave.

“Even though that horse was the most talented horse I’ve ever ridden, and it would have been amazing to see where we got to.

“I feel like Rio wasn’t her best, but I’m in a much, much happier place right now, so that’s all that matters really.”

Christiansen is trying to apply her newfound zen to managing the uncertainty surrounding which horse she wants to ride in Tokyo. She has two options, Stella and Louie, both of whom present unique challenges. Despite her demonstrable success, she insisted there are no golden guarantees with a new partner.

She said: “My favourite horse fluctuates every day depending on how they’re going. I fell off Louie last year and broke my shoulder, and so I don’t think I’ll ever have 100 per cent confidence in him.

“I kind of like Stella because she looks after me even though she’s a bit young and unpredictable, she’ll always think ‘oh, I’ve got my mum on board. I need to look after her’, whereas Louie is a bit like no, if I’m scared I’ll run.”

Stella, the younger of the two, is “a bit more talented than Louie” but has a “severe case of FOMO.” One can’t help but wonder how she’d feel if her “more predictable” stablemate gets the nod.

All the meticulous diary management begins to make more sense when Christiansen explains her life in detail.

She made her Paralympic debut as a 16-year-old in Athens, where she took home a bronze medal in 2004, and already had two gold medals under her belt when she added a first-class degree in maths to her list of accomplishments.

Christiansen still works two days a week in London as a software developer for Goldman Sachs, serves as a disability campaigner, and mentors up-and-coming para riders Tegan Vincent-Cooke and Jamie Winduss as part of her Ambassadors programme.

She said: “I’m so much more than just an athlete.

“And I really like to showcase that, because I think it’s so important for us to be seen as normal disabled people, and that’s why I talk about the issues that I face being disabled in society.”

Christiansen is also a strong advocate for athletes broadening their skill sets to give themselves options later in life.

She explained: “A lot of athletes don’t think about getting work experience. And even I kind of made the same mistake. I got a first-class maths degree and had two gold medals to my name. I thought I would walk into a job after I graduated. Obviously that was not the case.

“I’m like what are other athletes going to do? And there is no denying the disability employment gap, which does not help at all.

“The Paralympics are designed to create a level playing field. The world does not have a level playing field.”

Make no mistake: for now, that sporting field is still at the forefront of Christiansen’s mind - even if she can’t quite bring herself to pencil it in the calendar just yet.