The equestrian discipline of Dressage requires great control and discipline and is hard enough for an able bodied participant to master but if you are severely disabled you have a real challenge on your hands. At the London Paralympics in 2012 Sophie Christiansen became the first Britain to win three gold medals at the same Paralympics demonstrating that with determination even the most severe obstacles can be overcome.
Sophie was born two months prematurely suffering from cerebral palsy, jaundice, a collapsed lung and a heart attack. It is a miracle that she survived at all but she did and obviously possessed the sort of fighting qualities that would serve her well in a sporting career.
After overcoming her fight for life she went on to attend mainstream schools which offered additional help for the disabled and at the age of six was introduced to riding via her local Riding for the Disabled Association as a form of Physiotherapy. She showed great promise as a rider and loved the freedom the sport gave her but quickly reached the point where her local RDA centre could take her no further despite her appearances in many competitive events.
She was recommended to apply for the South Bucks RDA where, having passed the scrutiny of resident para trainer Clive Milkins, she was introduced to dressage as a sport rather than just a therapy and carried her dressage whip in earnest for the first time. Dressage is the ultimate challenge for a rider with cerebral palsy as the condition causes involuntary muscle spasms and a floppy body, not ideal for a sport which requires precision and control.
Sophia started to enter competitions and was helped by the Lottery Funded Start and Potential Squads which took her to her first international competition. At Just 16 years of age Sophie competed at her first Paralympics in Athens where she won a bronze medal in the grade 1 individual dressage, the class for the most severely disabled riders.
The medal was unexpected and the success and ensuing interviews and publicity gave Sophie great confidence in herself personally and in her sporting ability. The Athens success was followed by winning three gold medals at the European Championships held the following year and a gold and bronze medal at the 2007 world championships.
At the Beijing Paralympics Christiansen competed in the individual freestyle and championship dressage events winning gold and silver and was part of the British quartet who won gold in the team discipline. These remarkable achievements were topped in 2012 when Sophia won gold in all three dressage events in London on her horse Janeiro 6, mostly without having to raise a whip!
Away from the Ring
Sophie’s achievements in dressage are matched by success out of the ring. She was awarded the MBE in 2009 for services to disabled sport and gained a Master’s degree in mathematics from the University of London. She works part time as a statistician whilst continuing to strive for excellence in her riding. She is a bubbly and amusing character who jokes that she took up riding to annoy her mother who is allergic to horses! You have to wonder what she will go on to achieve in the future as Sophie is still just 24 years old!
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Sally S writes for a wide range of blogs and websites, writing subjects as diverse as family and extreme sports. You can find out more about Sally Stacey via her Google+ profile.