I have a disability called Cerebral Palsy, which means I do not have full control over any of my limbs. I was born two months early and nearly died several times. I went to normal schools with special units attached to them to give disabled pupils some extra support. The physiotherapists who visited the unit at my school when I was about six happened to believe in the value of horseriding for kids with disabilities and took us in the school van to the local Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) group every fortnight.
I continued riding with different RDA groups, as I loved horses and the freedom that they gave me when I rode. The groups did their best to help me progress, allowed me to compete in fundraising events, where I won my first riding trophy. I was privileged to be invited a couple of times on the annual RDA ride through Windsor Great Park, where I started to show my competitive instinct: I was furious when my poor helpers wouldn't go fast enough to allow me to win all the events at the ‘gymkhana’ which rounded off the day! They even tried to get me jumping. (Dad had to run alongside and catch me as I fell off virtually every time I went over a pole!)
When I was 13, and my RDA group had just told me they felt they didn’t have the expertise to help me any further, a couple of different people simultaneously recommended applying for South Bucks RDA. It was here (once they let me in, as I had to face the fierce scrutiny of Para trainer Clive Milkins to be deemed worthy of a place!) that I was introduced to Para dressage as a sport, not just as therapy. I discovered I could go to competitions in Para dressage, with the coaching and close guidance of all at South Bucks, who put me on old schoolmasters at first. I was also helped at this point by the Lottery Funded Start and Potential Squads, which took me to my first international competition. I may have thrown up on several car parks as my nerves got the better of me, and yelled at my Mum more than once, but I knew this was what I was meant to do.
I was selected for the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004 at the age of 16 and borrowed my teammate, Nic Tustain’s, horse, Hot Stuff. I was taken for experience, and no one expected me to win a bronze medal. The whole experience changed my life; I learnt the importance of teamwork, became more confident and less self-conscious due to the amount of interviews I had to do, and generally grew up.
After that I became triple European champion on Pam Tottman’s Martini Maybe, World gold and bronze medallist on Gill Drew’s Gazel and then I won two gold medals and one silver medal at the Beijing/Hong Kong Paralympic Games last year on the Para Dressage Training Trust’s Lambrusco III, whilst studying for a maths degree at Royal Holloway University of London. I have won individual gold and silver, as well as team gold at the European Champs' '09.
My favourite moment from London 2012 was at the end of my third and final test in Greenwich. Due to health and safety, the ten thousand strong crowd were told to do a "butterfly wave" instead of clapping, so the horses would not be spooked. But Rio is so perfect that he would not have minded at all. When I came out of the arena I could feel the buzz and anticipation of the crowd. It was then that my brother and two cousins jumped up and shouted "we love you, Sophie!". The whole crowd just irrupted with applause knowing that they were about to witness my third gold medal. I get emotional just thinking about it even now!
2013 was going to be tough following such an amazing year. Everyone knew that Rio and I were capable of winning three golds at the Europeans in Denmark. It was really hard sustaining the momentum from London, but my experience shone through and I followed the pattern that I knew worked in order to pull off three more winning performances.
This year I want to make Rio triple Paralympic, European and World champion by winning another three gold menials at WEG. He's such an amazing horse and I want to do him justice. I am also just about to start an internship at Goldman Sachs using my maths degree in the investment banking world. I know, I'm mad!
The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games are definitely within my sights. Unfortunately Rio may be a little too old for the journey so finding and training a replacement will be difficult but I'm always up for a new challenge! Bring on a new chapter...
WEG 2010 in Kentucky was very special for me as my father is from Michigan, so some of my American family came to watch. They had never seen me ride before so for my 93 year old grandpa to be there when I became World Champion meant a lot to me. But the experience that surpasses all others was winning three golds on home ground at London 2012, team gold and two individual gold medals on my new ride Janeiro 6. But I couldn’t have done all of this without the people who have helped me along the way. It's been an awesome experience!