Medals & mindsets, grading & grassroots: an exclusive interview with Sophie Christiansen (part 1)

Sophie (centre) and her team

Maybe there is some truth in the idea of speaking something into existence? When put on the spot about future interviewees for my blog in this webinar for RDAUK, I said I wanted to focus on the extraordinary everyday people and stories within the organisation (and have already made a start, with this interview with Winnie Wilkins of Avon RDA). I also said that obviously I would love to interview some Paralympians if ever given the opportunity, and offered my default example of Sophie Christiansen. It’s easy to admire Paralympians for their talents, and this has been the case with Sophie since I was aware of para dressage in the first place, but I’m also a big fan of hers for three other reasons: she’s down to earth and realistic, openly sharing her struggles with funding, accessible transport, and everything in between; she’s a highly skilled woman in tech holding down a job in London (I’m big on good role models); and she also grew up at South Bucks RDA, attending the same regional and national competitions which hosted previous generations of riders at my own group.

About a week after I said I’d quite like to interview Sophie, she and her business partner (who is also an RDA coach) appeared in my inbox offering me the opportunity to do just that. Sophie was kind enough to sit down with me, via the magic of Zoom, at the end of a busy training day prior to Hartpury CPEDI and the selectors’ decisions for Tokyo: she was since called up for her fifth Paralympic games.  This is what we talked about…

Sophie, how are you?

“It’s been such a weird time for everyone, but honestly I feel like I’m panicking a bit at the moment. The postponement (of the Olympics & Paralympics) made it feel like the games were never going to happen, and now it’s imminent I’m like, “am I ready?!” Since I was named on the nomination list everyone’s been congratulating me and my coach, which is lovely, but final selection – my “dress rehearsal” for Tokyo – is still to come next week. Although I think that will probably be fine, what’s at the front of my mind is how the standard in Grade 1 has shot up over the last five years, and I’ve not competed at a championships since 2016: there have been a lot of ups and downs and I literally don’t know what to expect. All I can do is my best and hope that it’s good enough.”

You aren’t a stranger to the games and their selection process – how have you had to adapt your approach this time due to Covid, and what’s been difficult about that?

Despite having been, by her own admission, “around the block a few times” as a Paralympian, Sophie was very honest about not taking any possibilities for granted, agreeing with my suggestion that she didn’t want to “jinx” herself, regardless of any previous gold medal (or 8).

“I used to have Anne Dunham, the second best Grade 1 in the world, competing alongside me. She retired after Rio, so I haven’t had her there pushing me, which is different for Tokyo because I won’t really know where I stand until I get there. My world record score has also been broken this year (by the USA’s Roxanne Trunnell), so we’ll see!

In terms of how my preparations have been different this time around, exemptions for elite athletes meant that I could still ride my horses through lockdown, the only thing I couldn’t do was go to the gym, or take the horses out to things like arena hires to give me the chance to dress up and run through my warm up and tests – I have missed that. Every athlete is in the same position, though, so I can’t really use that as an excuse, and if I can get to Tokyo I’ll have no regrets because four years ago I was in such a bad place, and went through all sorts of changes after Rio – so really, I’m winning!”

At the moment it definitely feels like there’s a lot more discussion of mental health and positive mindsets, including but not limited to within the equestrian community. Do you have any insights you’d be able to share about this?

“You can have all the talent in the world, but you’re not going to succeed and get the best out of yourself if you don’t get into that right mindset: I’ve been there countless times. Before London 2012 I was so desperate to go to a home games, and all my desperation was being channelled into my performances, which meant that they didn’t go that well. I actually did a talk at my old university alongside some other Olympians, and this guy called Leon Taylor, who’s a former Olympic diver, spoke about mentoring and the highs and lows of elite sport: he was also mentoring this guy called Tom Daley! I thought to myself “you know what, this guy knows what I’m going through” so I asked him to be my mentor, even though he had nothing to do with equestrianism, or disability sport: he still knew.

He asked me a simple question: “are you enjoying your sport?”, and my answer was “well… no… not really at the moment.” When I got back to enjoying it, with the smile back on my face, it sorted it out – that’s how I got three gold medals in London, after it had looked like I honestly wasn’t going to be selected that year. Mindset is everything, although it isn’t easy and I am still going through the same sort of struggle right now. You can’t tell yourself to enjoy something and expect it just to happen! I’ve tried a few different things, like meditation which has worked really well for me recently. Not everything will work the same for everyone, though, so it’s about finding your own groove.” 

It’s definitely important to enjoy your sport – that’s something which I definitely recognise as part of the furniture from the RDA world! But what’s the most frustrating thing about para dressage?

Sophie had a good laugh at this question, claiming she was getting cynical “in my old age”: “How long have you got?! First of all, it costs a hell of a lot more to be an elite athlete, especially in equestrian, if you’ve got a disability. I don’t think the equestrian community fully understands what makes a good para horse, in the same way that they might understand what makes a talented (non-para) dressage horse or show jumper: therefore, we (para equestrians) don’t get them. I’ve had to buy my own horses, and I think this cycle it’s really hit me quite how little support that we have with our horsepower. You do make your journey your own: for me, with no owners, that’s involved going out and doing my own fundraising, getting a job in London… so I’m not saying that anyone should sit back and say “the world’s unfair”, you can go out and make it happen, but it is quite tough. I will eventually retire because of financial reasons, rather than anything else, and I feel for the next generation of para riders because if I’m struggling, what are they going to do?”

The standard of the horsepower required for a successful para dressage mount has also gone up in the same manner as the cost of horses of all types and level: something Sophie describes as “exponential”. “Rio, my London horse, was considerably less expensive than my current two horses, and was national champion in advanced medium. That would be unheard of now: it wouldn’t be enough.”

I know I’ve heard a lot of discussion of money as a huge, frustrating problem for the para-equestrian world. Another one I’m hearing a lot about at the moment is classification: something that you’ve got first-hand experience of. Do you have any perspectives on the goods and bads of the system which you’d be happy to share?

“I’ve actually only recently stepped down from the advisory board of the British Paralympic Association: I’d been on it since 2013, so it is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes. I think classification works for 90, 95% of riders who can be classified, but for that 5% or so… Of course, it’s really important to consider fairness across all athletes, but there’s no way of questioning these decisions. I’ve been around the block a bit, so I’ve got a decent idea of what we should be capable of, but there’s no way of raising queries internally if you see someone who seems to be in the wrong grade: I’ve stayed quite quiet about this sort of thing because it isn’t right to do that sort of thing in public, and it isn’t ever the athlete’s fault. But it needs to be taken as seriously as queries about anti-doping. There’s definitely a very fine line to tread with classification, but I am still proof that you can be not the most able in your grade and still win. I do really feel for those for whom the system doesn’t work: I think it is a fair system for the majority, but we have to keep pushing to iron out the creases.”

What’s your biggest strength and biggest weakness as an athlete?

“My biggest strength is self-awareness: it means I know where my weaknesses are, and therefore who to go to for help with those. I think it’s a big part of being an elite athlete.

My biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist. I’m quite goal-orientated, which often doesn’t work well when you’re working with horses! I can find that tough.”

I’m taking both of these pieces of wisdom straight to the yard to share with my riders, because future Paralympians or not, I definitely have some perfectionists on my books… I told Sophie about some of our misadventures and re-takes for Virtual Regionals, and discovered that they were in good company: “I’m like that too. Sometimes I’m riding my test and it isn’t quite there, and I’m just like, “do it again!” The way I overcome my perfectionism is by telling myself you can’t go for the absolute best in every single thing. My tip is to pick two or three things in a test that you want to nail. Otherwise you just go around constantly thinking “what can I do better?” which isn’t the way to ride.”

Come back next week to read part 2 of this interview: talking coaching; the development of grassroots para dressage; supporting our Paralympians in Tokyo; and how this year isn’t actually the first time we’ve had a virtual RDA championships…

Sophie & Louie (Innuendo III)