Sophie Christiansen is not only a leading Paralympian rider and a high-flyer in the City, she also has the heart of a campaigner, particularly on a whole raft of disability issues. Eleanore Kelly went along to find out more about one of the stars of the #OneChallenge film series jointly produced by Virgin Money Giving and the Women’s Sport Trust
Sophie Christiansen has a new, imposing Danish-bred chap in her life. “I wanted to name him after someone who was big and ginger so I called him Harry – after Prince Harry. It was either that or Ed Sheeran. I’m like a schoolgirl around him, excited and adoring.” Harry towers above her at seventeen hands, or around five feet six inches. “It’s a long way down,” she smiles in an acknowledgement of fact rather than fear. Despite having severely limited use of her limbs, fearlessness is clearly one of Christiansen’s prime characteristics in life as in her riding.
That is probably why the 29-year-old dressage champion has achieved so much already. She is, after all, one of this country’s most successful Paralympians with 10 medals from four Games, eight of them gold, and a CBE beside her name. Harry is being prepared for the World Equestrian Games next year when she attempts to add to the 30 medals she has won at championship level. That she has been successful on seven different horses – and says Harry is one of the best she has sat on – not only augurs well for the future but underlines her affinity with horses.
Yet it is a sign of the disparity in terms of finance between able-bodied and para athletes that she seriously contemplated retiring after the Rio Games. “It is such an expensive sport that I really had to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I am at a different place now. I want pay for a mortgage, I want to have money for my future, but with horses that is really difficult. If I retired from the sport, financially I would be in a much better position.”
Dressage and Para dressage have seen a remarkable growth and British riders have had great success at championship level. This has meant that both sides of the sport have continued to receive Lottery funding, yet prize money can be wildly disproportionate. In her Virgin Money Giving-Women’s Sport Trust #OneChallenge film conversation with the Group One-winning jockey Lizzie Kelly, she reveals: “In 2014 at the World Equestrian Games, Para dressage winners got paid one per cent of what the dressage riders did. It didn’t even pay me what it cost me to be there.
“Although we get an equal amount of funding – which I couldn’t do this without – there shouldn’t be such disparity in the prize money offered. I am trying to highlight these things and make a change.”
At the top level of equestrian sport, most horses are not owned by their riders; instead, they are purchased by supporters who are usually passionate about the sport, and also fund the upkeep of the horses. While Christiansen has ridden for a number of owners, she had to buy Harry herself. “I was under pressure to secure him so I had to use my own money. I’ve worked out that to campaign two horses for the Tokyo Games, I will need to spend £206,000 to cover all my riding costs between now and 2020. This is a massive financial sacrifice, and while I could retire from sport to work full-time in the City, I don’t really want to. I want to keep winning gold medals!”
She has had to work hard at life from the outset after being born two months prematurely with cerebral palsy. In infancy she suffered a heart attack, a collapsed lung, blood poisoning and jaundice. Determined from the outset, it was after starting riding as a form of physiotherapy at the age of six that she began setting goals.
Christiansen holds a Masters degree in mathematics and juggles riding with a high-flying career in banking where she works as a statistical analyst at the leading investment bank, Goldman Sachs. Yet in spite of her incredible list of achievements, on graduating she struggled to get a job. Christiansen speaks out about this and recently commented on Twitter: “Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.”
She knows the difficulties at first hand. “When I graduated from university, I applied for every grad scheme under the sun,” she explains. “I thought, ‘My c.v. is quite good. I’ve got a first-class Masters degree and [at the time] two Paralympic gold medals’. I applied for hundreds of jobs and I got one interview. I know it is hard for all graduates, but I did wonder whether it was because of my disability. I had to tick the box ‘disabled’ to confirm I was disabled because I can’t hide it when I go to interviews. But I believe I might have had more luck if I hadn’t.”
Even when she eventually gained employment, it was thanks to her sporting prowess. “I got my job at Goldman through ad-victor, an agency which places athletes and servicemen in industry. Goldman have been very good to me, fitting work around my schedule. I’ve worked for them for over three years, two days a week. This really helped me with my disabilities and I think that is how we can help other disabled people. I think if the employers like what they see, they think outside the box a bit and think about what their role can be to match their talent rather than try to find the perfect person for a specific role.”
Christiansen enjoys her job. “I would be bored if I just did one thing to do. When my sport becomes pressurised, I can go back to work and that grounds me. For a lot of athletes these days sport is their full-time job and it can get to you. Sometimes you need to take a step out of that world to realise it’s not the be-all and end-all if you don’t win a gold medal. It’s easier to take when you have more of a balanced lifestyle. I can go away to ride and come back to work with new ideas, so it helps both ways.”
However, she admits: “I work hard, though, probably to an unhealthy point. When I met my boyfriend he told me I needed to relax more because I am all about ‘go go go’. But actually I find it easier to rest with someone.”
Cue Peter McKnight, Christiansen’s other half. “If she was left to her own devices she wouldn’t have any downtime.” he says. “It’s my job to make her stop and relax sometimes otherwise she really would keep going until she collapsed.” The pair live together, having met on dating website Badoo, and are clearly soulmates. “He put up with a lot last year as everything that could go wrong in the build-up to Rio did. He was my sounding board,” sighs Sophie.
Christiansen has used her high-profile status to good effect, speaking out on a number of issues concerning disability, such as public transport which she describes as “simply unacceptable”. Classification of Para athletes is another hot topic. “It’s a really complicated issue and I’m glad it has raised its ugly head because I’ve been saying for years that it needs looking at,” she says.
“I have spoken to the IPC, my international federation and my national federation about it. I think there just isn’t enough funding to do the research to upgrade it all. The classification was made 30 years ago and it was a very different situation. The Paralympics have got so big now, and more disabilities have got involved, so I think we are struggling with the number. For example, I am put in the same class as people with MS. What if they are classified when they are having a bad day and end up competing on a good day, whereas my disability is consistent? It is difficult because they can’t have a class for every single person. Even in cerebral palsy there is such a vast range they are never going to get it just right.
“I read an article the other day which said Usain Bolt is a freak of nature, so how are the other sprinters ever going to compete against him? They are on a so-called level playing field, but he’s got an advantage because of his biomechanics. I think it is the same in classification. Some athletes have an advantage because they are slightly more able.”
Christiansen has the heart of a campaigner and the will of a champion to pursue those goals. Don’t expect her to let up as she gets older. She does, however, admit to getting a bit softer as she approaches her third decade. For instance, it doesn’t take much to make her cry these days. “It must be my old age,” she jokes “I get quite emotional at lots of things. I cry at things on TV, particularly sporting achievements. I never used to be like that, but I think once you get older you realise how much goes into these things, especially sport. I understand the sacrifices and I know how much it matters and it’s like that for me. All or nothing.”
To watch Sophie Christiansen’s Virgin Money Giving-Women’s Sport Trust video where she is in conversation with top jockey Lizzie Kelly, click here
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.