Para equestrian sexagenarian Karjalainen hoping to crown career with Paris 2024 medal

Finland's Para equestrian veteran Katja Karjalainen is preparing for her fifth Paralympic Games  12 Apr 2023
A female Para equestrian rider smiles as she rides a horse during competition.
Katja Karjalainen, who has already competed at four Paralympic Games, is the only elite-level athlete who has a vision impairment in addition to a physical impairment.
ⒸThomas Lovelock/OIS
By AMP Media I For The IPC

Finland's Para equestrian veteran Katja Karjalainen is still going strong at the age of 61. The Paralympic silver medallist refuses to let a physical or vision impairment – or age – stop her from competing at the highest level.

For Karjalainen, who finished second in the dressage freestyle grade Ib at the London 2012 Games, riding became a way of life more than half a century ago.

"I have been doing it since I was nine years old, more than two times a week, and I have had my own horses for the past 22 years," said Karjalainen, who also has bronze medals from the World Equestrian Games and the European Para-Dressage Championship.

"At first I wasn't interested in competing at all. It came only after I became a Para equestrian. It made me more determined to be successful and I started to train harder."

Dark horse

Born in Finland's capital, Helsinki, Karjalainen initially regarded riding as only a hobby, and studied to become a nurse.

She was aiming to be an anaesthetics doctor when her life suddenly changed. Karjalainen woke up one day with a health condition that resulted in her unable to use her left arm, while her legs and right arm were very stiff. When she tried to eat, food came out of her nose. She was later diagnosed with vasculitis – a rare disease which in severe cases can be fatal.

As a rider with a vision impairment, Karjalainen can use a 'caller' who guides her to the right positions on the dressage court. @Julian Finney/Getty Images

In addition to the physical impairments, the disease also affected Karjalainen's vision, which worsened until one of her eyes had to be removed. In the early 1990s, she became ill with a bone marrow infection, and doctors told her to stop working.

Following treatment, Karjalainen learned she could no longer have children. Determined not to feel self-pity but to find new meaning in her life, she decided to stop studying. In 1996 she sat on a horse for the first time in 10 years, starting a new career as a Para athlete.

She made her Paralympic debut at Beijing 2008.

"I have a picture of myself in Hong Kong where the equestrian competition was held. I have the widest of smiles in it, a true 'this is what I have always wanted' expression on my face. It was truly amazing to be there," she said.

"I remember hearing some athletes of my grade going through the names of the competitors on the noticeboard. They stopped on my name and someone asked, 'Who is this one?' Well, they got to know my name when the competition started. It was only the 13th competitor who dropped me off the podium."

Calling the way

Karjalainen is the only elite-level athlete who has a vision impairment in addition to a physical impairment, which makes her eligible for Para dressage. She competes in Grade I and has permission to use a 'caller' who shouts letters of different parts of the dressage court during her programme, guiding her to the right positions.

"I'm not in the same position as others in my grade as they don't have a visual impairment. It is hard because in my grade it is especially important to be able to go straight and sometimes I think I'm going straight but in reality it's going just a bit awry," Karjalainen said.

"When I start my programme I can't even see my caller at first as she is standing 20 metres away from my starting point. It takes a while before I get a sight of her. There are some things that I have to work on that others in my group don't."

A rendez-vous with Rasse

With her fifth Paralympic Games approaching, Karjalainen, who carried Finland's flag at the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, is now facing another challenge. Her veteran horse, Dr Doolittle, had to retire after Tokyo 2020 so Karjalainen must get to know a new partner.

"It's different than before because after I let go of my previous horse, Dr Doolittle, I decided that I wouldn't buy a new one anymore," she said.

"I have a rented horse called Fabriano Sil, or 'Rasse', as we call it. I need to go to its owner to train with it.

"We are still a long way from being ready with Rasse. It is a very different horse compared to Dr Doolittle. Dr Doolittle was 182cm and quite a sporty horse whereas Rasse is a huge 186cm horse – a beautiful, dark horse."

Karjalainen earned a silver medal in the dressage freestyle grade Ib at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. @Julian Finney/Getty Images

But Karjalainen is used to not letting any obstacle get in the way of chasing her dreams. With just over 500 days to go before the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, she still dreams of being back on that podium – perhaps to claim the gold medal her collection is missing.

"We still have a lot of work to do with Rasse. It always takes time for both of us to get to know each other and truly understand what each other means. We had a domestic competition the other week and it was quite promising – all the mistakes we made were because of me, not because of Rasse," Karjalainen said.

"Winning a medal in Paris would be a beautiful crown to my long career. And it would, 100 per cent, mean that my career would end.

“It has been such a great journey. I have always given everything I got and have always been willing to learn something new. This is a sport where you never get ready. The horses make sure of that. You can always learn something new from them."