"Gold in Rio was a massive relief. And after that I had to take this break to think about what I wanted and I’ll admit I came close to retiring.”
Sophie Christiansen decided to take 2017 off from Para equestrian completely, hoping to “find the fun again.”
It is the first time in her long career (she made her Paralympic Games debut in Athens 2004) that she has taken such a break, having been a feature of the British team since then.
“I’ve been on the squad since I was 16,” she explained. “But last year was such a tough year that I simply didn’t enjoy my sport. I needed to take the time off to re-evaluate how I felt about it all. I joke that I’m on holiday, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
The eight-time Paralympic champion and defending European champion was among the top British riders absent from the Longines Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Para Equestrian European Championships in August.
Usually fielding a strong team, Great Britain did retain the team gold they have won at world, Paralympic and European levels since 1996.
But with the exception of multi-medallist Sophie Wells, all the riders were making their major international competition debut. There was no Lee Pearson, no Natasha Baker and, significantly no Christiansen.
Christiansen was honest about how difficult the run-up to Rio was. She had a great new horse, Athene Lindebjerg, whom she won gold medals at the Europeans in 2015. She kept her London 2012 winning ride, the aptly named Rio de Janeiro, in the running as a reserve.
But it was unclear which one the selectors would pick in the lead-up to the 2016 Games. Athene got the nod in the end, but Christiansen’s training regime was not going as planned.
“When I won in Rio it was the first time I ever cried on a podium,” Christiansen said. “I knew how uncertain it was for me to do it and no one knew what I had been through to get there, so gold in Rio was a massive relief.
“And after that I had to take this break to think about what I wanted and I’ll admit I came close to retiring.”
Just months after the Games though, she received a nomination for the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year award, the Oscars of British sport.
“When the BBC called I didn’t believe it,” she laughed. “I thought I would be in some sub category so I asked them to repeat what they said.”
On the night of the awards, when the British public vote for the winner, Christiansen not only finished fifth out of 16, but was also the highest ranked female nominee across all sports.
She has continued her two-days a week job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, she maintains her role as a go-to disability rights spokesperson, competed in a couple of mixed ability team triathlons – “I love my recumbent trike” – and moved to a new riding centre for the first time since she was 13. She also moved home to live with her partner of nearly four years, Peter.
Now, as her year off starts to wind down and her eyes turn to defending and regaining her World Equestrian Games individual and freestyle crowns, she thinks she may have found the perfect new horse, Amazing Romance.
“It’s bad luck to change a horse’s name so I have to live with that,” she laughed. “But I’m not that fluffy. He’s big and ginger so I’m going to call him Harry at the stables, after Prince Harry.”