“It’s difficult in the year after a Paralympics. The Europeans are still important, and although there’s not as much pressure, it’s actually quite difficult to keep the enthusiasm going after a Paralympics. I’ve been through it three times and keeping that momentum can be difficult.”
Just 12 months after her triumphant triple-gold performance at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Great Britain’s Sophie Christiansen returned to major international competition at August’s JYSK FEI European Para-Dressage Championships, where she repeated her results.
Once again riding Rio, she dominated in grade Ia to take gold in both the individual and freestyle test events, as well as team gold alongside Natasha Baker, Sophie Wells, and Ann Dunham.
So far so par for the course – Christiansen turns up at a competition and wins. No one would expect anything else.
But it is exactly that kind of expectation, and the accompanying pressure it brings, that makes the nature of her victories in Herning, Denmark, so impressive.
That pressure is enormous, and it mainly comes from Christiansen herself.
Her coach and mentor, and the man who introduced her to dressage back in her early teens, is Clive Milkins. He was, as ever, at her side throughout in Herning. In 14 years, he’s never missed a competition.
“It was outstanding,” he said. “Because it’s the Europeans, people may not register how important it was, but it is vital for any athlete to demonstrate consistency and to do that under pressure is hard. It throws the gauntlet down to everyone that London wasn’t a flash in the pan.”
Watching Christiansen, one would feel her overwhelming reactions to her victories in Herning revealed a sense of relief.
She the past year as a roller coaster, during which she balanced riding and campaigning for disability rights, culminating in receiving a standing ovation at Great Britain’s Labour Party annual conference.
“It’s difficult in the year after a Paralympics,” Christiansen said. “The Europeans are still important, and although there’s not as much pressure, it’s actually quite difficult to keep the enthusiasm going after a Paralympics. I’ve been through it three times and keeping that momentum can be difficult.
“But my partnership with Rio and with Clive is strong, and we knew what we had to do in Herning. After London, it was such a difficult competition with the pressure of knowing that everyone expected me to win but that’s what makes you a top competitor.”
In Herning, Christiansen’s main competition came from teammate and fellow multi-Paralympic medallist, Ann Dunham.
Dunham – who didn’t compete in London – and Christiansen have been rivals for years, and the Herning competition between them was as close as ever.
Just 1.4 percentage points separated them in the individual competition, and 0.75 in the freestyle.
“Ann was there chasing me all the way,” Christiansen said. “But Herning proved that I could do it again on Rio, and as an athlete you want to emulate your successes.”
Christiansen has also received plenty of support from her family. Her mother, Caroline, and father, Karl, attend competitions when they can. Her brother, Alex, who helped her around the stables when he was younger, now works as an NHS physiotherapist.
He said: “I’m massively proud of her achievements, but I've grown up with her being just my sister. It puts it into perspective when she walks home with three gold medals, though.”
And when Christiansen’s focus, perfectionism and professionalism distract her from more mundane tasks Alex, Caroline and Karl are on hand for the basics, too. “
She can be so focused she forgets to eat well,” he said. “So we’re there to force feed her Lucozade and jelly babies as well.”