Sophie Christiansen was at Buckingham Palace today to be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, awarded for her services to para-equestrianism. It was amazing she found time in her hectic diary. Sue Mott caught up with the multi-Paralympic gold medal-winning rider to receive a breathless update on what’s going on in Sophie’s life right now
It’s one thing being distracted by fluffy kitten videos online, but for a whole new experience of “Aaaah-Wow-No-My God!” enlightenment try five minutes on Sophie Christiansen’s Twitter feed. The woman is ridiculous. She is also eight times a gold medal-winning Paralympian, Goldman Sachs analyst, fearless campaigner for disability rights (and that includes you with no ramp, Maidstone Station), ambassador for multiple charities including cerebral palsy, motivational speaker, not above shamelessly tweeting @Glasto for a couple of Festival tickets this summer and house-hunting with her boyfriend, Peter.
To add to the list – miraculously finding enough time – today she was at Buckingham Palace to receive her CBE. Whichever royal was on pinning duty would not be stuck for a topic of conversation. Horses? Hay? Pension provision (she has a first-class honours degree in mathematics). Then there’s Tokyo 2020 and her plans for the next Paralympics. Safe subject, you might think. Wrong.
In the aftermath of Rio, which Christiansen called “horrendous”, she very nearly opted for retirement. “I did because it was so awful. Basically I felt like my home team weren’t on the same page as me. They were forgetting what I needed, even though I was the athlete at the centre. In their eyes I was still a 13-year-old used a bit like a pawn. They introduced a trainer in February last year and she didn’t quite get it. By then it was too late to get another one. I had to throw everything at my poor horse, Athene, to get her ready for Rio. In the end she still wasn’t. She’d been injured on and off for a year. Literally the week before the Games I still didn’t know which horse I was going to take.
“I honestly don’t know how I got through Rio. I was under so much pressure both with the horse and with me being defending champion. And having a very inexperienced trainer at a time when I needed the most support was just horrendous. Luckily the squad were all on my side. It was just people on my home team who weren’t. It was like I was battering a brick wall the whole time.
“Fortunately, I have a mentor, Leon Taylor, the former Olympic diver, who can be impartial because he’s not from my sport. And my boyfriend really helped me a lot. He’s the complete opposite of me. He likes to relax, but he gets my sport and he gets people. When we talked about things, he would come up with ideas that other people who were too involved didn’t really think about.”
A sign of her appreciation was out there for all to see on February 14 this year when she tweeted: “Happy Valentine’s Day to this one …” (she helpfully added a photo) “… I figure if he can survive dating me in Paralympic Year, he’s a keeper! I love you, Peter xx”.
Typically, she took the same direct approach to finding him in the first place. “We met online. We got to know each other quite slowly, just chatting at first. I was the one who asked him out. I was getting impatient. But it was quite difficult for me because I asked myself, ‘Do I tell people about my disability when chatting online or not’. Of course, I should tell them, but when do I do it? Tell them straight away or let them get to know me first?
“When I first started dating online I wanted them to get to know me first. But I got so disheartened when I finally told them and they said they couldn’t cope with it. I thought, ‘I’ve just wasted two or three weeks talking to them’. I decided with Peter to bring in it into the conversation straight away. He was like, ‘So what?’ I think he was more put off by the fact I had five gold medals at the time.”
The viewers of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year 2016 were more wowed than intimidated by Sophie’s personal precious metal collection. She was fifth overall in the public vote and No1 sportswoman despite being up against Rio luminaries like Sarah Storey, Kadeena Cox, Laura Trott, Nicola Adams and Kate Richardson-Walsh. She is still blown away by that result.
“SPOTY was a massive shock to me. Even being nominated. I was like, ‘How did I end up in the top 16?’ But coming fifth was beyond my wildest dreams. My disability is a blessing and a curse. It means I stand out, but it’s hard sometimes. I think it worked to my advantage that night.
“I did not really want to walk up on stage. I wanted to just be in place. But the producers said, ‘You’ll make more impact if you walk up’. They didn’t know how nervous I was and it was so much more effort to walk up the ramp. Normally it would be fine, but part of my cerebral palsy is that when I’m nervous my muscles don’t work as well. They tense up. But I was semi-ok until I turned round and saw the lights and audience. My mouth went completely dry and I thought I was going to be sick. But I held it together.”
That was the theme of her year. Holding things together that threatened to overwhelm her and emerging triumphant just the same. Now, never knowingly unambitious, she is moving both home and yard at the same time. She will also invest in new competition horses – one this year and a second one as a standby if/when she can afford it in 2019.
Affordability is key and one of her ongoing problems. “It’s so expensive for para dressage because the able-bodied side of the sport work incredibly hard but have horse owners that pay for absolutely everything. It’s not like that in our case. It’s really difficult for disabled riders to find people to invest in us. And because of my disability I can’t look after the horses myself. Livery per horse costs around £1,000 a month. Ideally I have two horses. So before you start, that’s my funding gone.”
Sponsorship has been a perennial problem. “I do think the need to be conventionally ‘good looking’ has something to do with it. That dress [she means the skin-tight, dead-short, red-lace number she wore to SPOTY], for example. I knew I had to look good. We live in a different world now. It’s all about celebrity. I hope I’ll be able to change that because stereotypically I’m not able-bodied. I don’t look like Cheryl Cole. I’d like to see a lot more diversity in the media and not just within stories about disability.”
She retains the inspiration – if that’s the word for it – from meeting the actor with cerebral palsy (R.J. Mitte) who has become a major American TV star from his role in the monster hit series Breaking Bad. “When I met him I was like, ‘I love you’.” Surely not. “Nearly,” she admitted, adding: “My boyfriend was with me …” as though in explanation of her reticence.
“I think having more people with cerebral palsy on show is a very good thing. Something I’ve always said about the Paralympics is that the media seems to pick on the more ‘fashionable’ disabilities. If you’re an amputee or in a wheelchair I think the media imagines more people can relate to that. With CP it’s a bit more difficult to get your head around.
“But SPOTY has proved different. My disability affects me all over: my speech, how much I can walk, how much I can use my hands. But people embrace the Paralympics because they can see what difficulties we have overcome and the barriers we’ve knocked down. I think it helps to see obviously disabled people.”
It is one of her ambitions to promote that thought, not just in sport but in wider society, too. Meanwhile, she is taking a break from major competition this season while her joint quests for a new horse and a new home continue. The plan – and her plans have a habit of working out – is to move in with her boyfriend soon.
“I think it will be quite tough on him. Because I can’t cook. I can’t do housework. He’ll have to do a lot of that. But sport’s really taught me that communication is key. It’s the same with anything. We’ll see how it goes.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles