Sophie Christiansen interview: Five-time Paralympic champion on why City banking job is vital to her success

 
Ross McLean
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2012 London Paralympics - Day 4 - Equestrian
Christiansen won triple gold aboard Janeiro 6 at Greenwich during the 2012 Olympic Games in London (Source: Getty)

Coding statistical models at one of the City’s leading financial institutions is not everybody’s idea of downtime but for Great Britain dressage rider Sophie Christiansen it offers a therapeutic release from para-equestrian dominance.

Christiansen is a five-time Paralympic champion, having claimed triple gold at Greenwich during London 2012 aboard her horse Janeiro 6, affectionately known Rio, as Great Britain topped the equestrian medal table.

Rio, incidentally, is the venue for September’s Games and next instalment of Christiansen’s Paralympic odyssey, which started 12 years ago in Athens where she won individual bronze.

The 28-year-old, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, combines training for what is set to be her fourth Paralympic Games with her part-time job as a statistical analyst in the technology department at investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Not an easy balance to strike in theory, although in practice Christiansen, who holds a first-class Masters degree in mathematics, views her City alter ego as a form of escapism from the rigours of starring on the global sporting stage.

“It’s hard being at the top of your sport and if you don’t have something else to think about it could really get to you,” Christiansen told City A.M.

“You could be driven insane by thinking ‘oh my God, it’s Rio this year, I have to win three gold medals again’.

“Instead, I can think about something else, about which statistical model solves a particular problem. Going away and being normal really helps me.

“Training gets pretty intense in Paralympic year but when I go to work I am just a normal employee and I can forget that I’m an athlete.

“I always joke that going to work at Goldman Sachs is like a break. You would never normally think that because working at an investment bank in London is viewed as a pressurised environment.

“But compared to sport it’s different and it would be difficult to cope with the sporting pressure if I didn’t have my job.”

As well as being born two months prematurely with cerebral palsy, Christiansen also endured other health problems during her formative years such as jaundice, blood poisoning, a heart attack and collapsed lung.

Her fightback started early in life and aged just 16 she became the youngest rider to compete at the Paralympics when she represented Great Britain in 2004.

A plethora of other titles have followed, including her crowning as triple European champion in September on Athene, the horse upon which she is set to compete in Brazil.

Despite such accolades it has not been the easiest of periods for Christiansen, who has had to cope with the loss of long-serving coach Clive Milkins in the past year.

One again, however, it has been her professional life which has provided Christiansen with the necessary sanctuary and perspective.

“I’ve actually been through a really, really difficult couple of months with my sport. My coach of 13 years decided to emigrate last year and there are a lot of politics going on in my support team,” said Christiansen.

“Having my job, where I can go off and forget about it and do well in a different field, has helped me to deal with all of the added difficulties.

“Equally, all the difficult moments which you go through as an athlete are ultimately what make you a champion.

“All the cynics have made me work even harder and hopefully I can come out and fulfil my dreams of winning another three Paralympic gold medals.”

While Christiansen talks of her City career acting as a shield from the stresses of her sporting life, that fails to mask the levels of endeavour required to succeed.

“People sometimes think ‘it’s Sophie Christiansen, she will just turn up and win gold’ but that’s without seeing the hard graft we put in day in, day out as athletes in order to win,” added Christiansen.

“This year, of course, we have upped the intensity of my training and trying to balance that with my job is quite challenging. But due to coming into my sport so young, ever since my GCSEs I have been trying to find balance between something and sport.

“In terms of my disability, I get tired quite quickly because of the amount of effort it takes me to do everyday things. With my life being so busy and hectic, I am always so tired.

“Balancing my fatigue levels is the biggest challenge for me, which I have to confess I’m not very good at as I do not know when to stop.”

Overcoming hurdles and defying odds in the face of adversity has been a recurring theme for Christiansen, who was awarded an MBE in 2009 and OBE two years ago.

She has also hinted at following her Paralympic hero Tanni Grey-Thompson into politics, although her underpinning hope is that her experiences can prove inspirational for other disabled people in society.

“I’ve always been one to step outside my comfort zone. When you grow up with a disability you have to. Everything is that bit harder and you need determination and resilience,” added Christiansen.

“I like talking about my work as people need to know who I am outside of my sport.

“There is a large employment gap between disabled people and able-bodied people and if I can talk about my job that might give other people confidence to break down barriers.”

Sophie Christiansen is an ambassador for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s ‘Stay Ahead of the Games’ campaign, aimed at ensuring residents of the United Kingdom have a safe a successful trio to the summer Olympics. For further information: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/stay-ahead-of-the-games-rio-2016