I have the privilege of meeting and seeing many world class athletes, listening to their stories and showcasing their extraordinary feats. It is such a joy - and once in a while you meet someone who has a particularly profound effect on you.
Sophie is a Para-equestrian Dressage rider competing for Great Britain. Born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, she is in the most disabled category for
Para Dressage, Grade 1a. In this she has won 19 Gold medals, 3 silver and 2 bronze medals. She is Britain’s first triple gold medalist at the Paralympic
games, x5 Paralympic champion and current Supreme British Champion. Spending time with her as she trained and on our photo-shoot gave me a unique insight
into the behind-the-scenes world of all things horse related as well as Sophie herself. Sophie is an athlete of the best order, world class. (She also
is a phenomenal athlete with a shared love of poor jokes!) Sophie is successful because of what she does and how she does it - but there is far more
to it than that. For her it’s about a connection with the horse: “...you have to feel it. You have to feel what the horse is wanting you to do,” she
says of the relationship with her horse Rio. As I watch her interact with Rio you can sense the affection and bond they have. As she rides around the
arena, as she gets off, as she strokes and talks to Rio the connection is tangible and, surprisingly, an emotional one.
One of the many things I liked about Sophie was that she was very clear about her skills and happy to talk about them and acknowledge them. “I’m unique,
it’s a gift,” she says of her ability to ride so many different horses and to connect with them. She isn’t coy about all her success nor talks herself
The interesting fact about this is that she is very aware of what horse riding has given her. “I wouldn’t have sat on a horse if I wasn’t disabled,”
she says. “It has given me a freedom to forget all the challenges in life”. The confidence and acknowledgement of her talent is one thing, but
it doesn’t come at the cost of gratitude and humility.
Where therapy can often be simply being placed on a mat on the floor in front of a video, her experience at school was, however, different. “It wasn’t
a video on a mat on a floor. It didn’t feel like therapy,” Sophie recounts of her first experiences of horse riding which began as therapy via
her local Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) group.
Riding is what completes Sophie, connecting her not only to the horse but to the world. You can visibly see the energy that it gives her as she talks.
There is a fire, and yet it brings a peace to her; it allows her to fulfil that huge competitive streak on the world stage as well as being good
for her physically. Sophie says, “I am less disabled when I’m riding. When I haven’t ridden for a while my coordination is worse.” Riding gives
to Sophie and she in turn gives to riding. It’s a perfect match.
A keen intellect and a healthy dose of competitiveness has helped Sophie along the way - gaining a MSc in Maths and being the youngest athlete
both to attend a Paralympics and win a medal is part of the list of her achievements. However, a ‘by the way’ comment she made spoke volumes
to me: “...at secondary school I would compete in sports even though I was not good, I took part, I did them all and they let me,” she explained
about her competitive nature.
It says more about the person, the determination to get on with things and never to allow anything to get in your way, to never use excuses,
to push. Not once did I hear a complaint about a reason for things not going right. The closest we came was when we spoke about the lead
up to the Paralympics in London and the pressure she was under and of her losing sight of why she was doing it: “....for fun and I wasn’t
“The instant I had a smile on my face again my performance shot up,” she says of her mentor who got her through. This wasn’t moaning but an
acknowledgement that she needs to keep in focus the reason why she does what she does. For me this was a major part of the inspiration
in the day with Sophie. There was no ‘I can’t, no, I’m disabled’, but instead a desire to try - and more importantly to succeed.
Sophie is a world-class athlete who is totally connected to her horse/horses, who is aware of her talent as well as being proud of it. She
isn’t arrogant, she is humble - or as the stable hands said, “she is just Soph to us.” Sophie is in the category of most disabled Grade
1a, but she doesn’t allow this in anyway to control her mentally or physically. There is a drive inside that is remarkable but balanced,
with an awareness of what it has given her. This makes her a gentle, funny and inspirational person to be around. She says, “...when I
ride I’m less disabled.” The riding frees her and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I feel humbled to have spent the time with Sophie.
Sophie Christiansen OBE is Managed by Siu-Anne Marie Gill at 11th Hour Global Management - London.