Five-time gold medallist Sophie Christiansen is competing in her fourth Paralympic Games this summer. The equestrian won three of her gold medals at London 2012 with her horse Janeiro 6 so expectations for Rio are high.
In this guest blog post, Sophie, who has cerebral palsy, talks about witnessing first-hand the growth of the Paralympic movement and how she handles the pressures of competing at a top level.
My family isn’t at all horsey. I don’t think I would ever have ridden if I hadn’t been disabled.
I started riding when I was six with the Riding for the Disabled Association to improve my coordination. When I was about 13 I found out about dressage and I was hooked. When I’m on a horse I can forget about my disability and I can compete on a level playing field with other disabled people.
The riding school where I learnt dressage, South Bucks RDA, had a history of training Paralympians so they were looking out for talent from the start.
Being selected for Athens in 2004, aged 16, was incredible. I was ParalympicGB’s youngest athlete. I learnt such a lot from that first experience of the games.
To be selected for my fourth Paralympics this year is a huge honour. I’m only 28, but I’m seen as a Paralympic veteran!
The Games have changed so much since my first time in Athens. The standard is so high and there is a lot more interest.
We’d be used to competing in front of 200 people – that would be a big crowd – but then in London there were 10,000.
In Beijing there was a lot of interest from the public and we attracted a really big audience. But there was so little media coverage. I won my first Paralympic gold medals and it hardly got a mention.
I think attitudes have changed. There was a lot expected of London in terms of changing perceptions and I think it did achieve it, to a certain extent. It showed disabled people achieving some amazing things and I think people who aren’t disabled were inspired by what we could do.
But I know a lot of disabled people felt it did not represent them and I totally understand that. It’s why I make it my mission to talk about my life outside sport, about the barriers that still exist in society, whenever possible.
Road to Rio
I’m really looking forward to Rio and I hope people get behind us. It will be a shame if they don’t manage to sell tickets and the stadiums are empty. But as an athlete, you just have to get on with it and focus on your event.
It would be great to see more coverage of disability sports. At the moment there’s the Paralympics every four years and then nothing in between. I think it would help disabled athletes get more sponsorship and make disabled people more visible. If people can’t see disabled people, they just don’t exist.
Relaxing with maths
I work as an analyst at the investment bank Goldman Sachs in the technology department. This might sounds funny, but I see my job as like a holiday from the highly pressurised atmosphere of Paralympic sport.
I’ve always had a logical brain and I love maths.
They’ve created the perfect role for me, which fits around my impairment and my sport commitments. I know it’ll be hard for me to progress in my career while I’m doing dressage, which is frustrating. But everyone I work with is so understanding. It would help support a lot more disabled people into work if more employers were as creative and flexible with roles as mine.
When training in a Paralympic year, it’s about knowing how to balance training with fatigue. It’s difficult because I’m a workaholic, I’m always working. That’s my biggest challenge, knowing when to stop.
Pushing myself outside my comfort zone is how I’ve always lived my life. I never thought I’d have a job in London. I enjoy the independence it gives me and it enables me to pursue dressage.
We’ve published the findings of a new poll which asked disabled people whether the Paralympics can change attitudes to disability and asked what life is like if you’re disabled in 2016. Read more about our Parlympics survey.
Visit the ParalympicsGB website for more information.