Last week, Hui Min from MyPlus Students’ Club had the opportunity to interview Sophie Christiansen, who is a dressage rider and an eight time Paralympic champion, on Facebook Live. We talked about her journey to the Paralympics, going to university to study Mathematics and getting her first job in an investment bank.
HM: Hi everyone and welcome to our first MyPlus Students’ Club Facebook live interview. Today I’m really excited to introduce our guest, Sophie Christiansen who is a dressage rider and an eight time Paralympic champion!
Sophie has represented Team GB in four successive Paralympic games across Athens, Beijing, London, Rio. Sophie, congratulations on being the official Team GB torchbearer for the 2018 Paralympic flame ceremony and thank you for being with us today.
SC: Yeah that was so exciting for me! I sometimes wonder if it was sensible to trust me with fire (laughter) but it was all okay and I was honoured to be part of the ceremony in preparation for PyeongChang.
HM: You’ve been riding since you were 6 and I read that it all started as part of physio therapy for your cerebral palsy. When did you decide that dressage was a sport you loved and wanted to pursue as a career?
SC: When I was little I used to have physio therapy all the time and I found it really boring. When I was on a horse I felt free, you know. I could forget about the challenges that I faced in day-to-day life so I continued riding with the Riding with Disabled Association (RDA) UK and it just went on from there. When I was 13 I found a centre that specialised in para dressage and it was the first time that I found a sport that I was actually good at. I wanted to be the best that I could be!
HM: I love that you’re inspiring everyone to be the best that they can be. What has your proudest achievement been to date?
SC: I’ve done a lot of things in my life. Alongside my sport, I also went to university. So I would say the two proudest moments of my life were when I got my degree in mathematics because I’m a bit of a geek I like math and I worked so hard and I was on the cusp of gaining a very high grade but I had to work super hard for it. So when I got the email and read that I got a first, I screamed. I was so happy because I worked so hard.
And my second favourite moment was when I went to the London 2012 games - that was a massive deal for British Paralympians to compete in front of their home crowd. It was the first time Paralympic dressage had 10,000 people in the audience. My favourite moment was when I came out for my competition and the audience was told to do a wave and they would clap so I could feel the anticipation in the air. But it was silent and then my brother and cousin got out of their chairs and shouted “WE LOVE YOU, SOPHIE!” and the whole crowd - 10,000 people got up and shouted and cheered, “We love you Sophie!” That was quite special for me.
HM: Speaking of the games… I love that in this year’s PyeongChang Paralympics, Team GB started the hashtag #BeFearless and it’s such a powerful attitude to have. What does being fearless mean to you? What advice would you give an aspiring athlete or young person with a disability who wants to overcome the odds and be fearless?
SC: Being fearless is so important, not just for Paralympians but for everyone. I’d say that the most important thing that I’ve learnt is to not be afraid to step outside my comfort zone so that is being fearless! It’s really scary to go away to university for the first time on your own, or go to an interview for the first time. So scary but you need to do it. The more you step outside your comfort zone the comfortable you feel pushing your boundaries.
HM: Thank you. I think that message really resonates with our belief and mission at MyPlus Students’ Club. We always encourage our students to be disability confident because we see disability as giving a person something extra, an additional strength, talent, a plus. That’s why we started the Faces of MyPlus campaign to raise awareness of the experiences that individuals with disabilities have, and to celebrate the incredible strengths that you can develop through managing a disability.
What challenges (if any) have you overcome to get where you are today? Has your experience with cerebral palsy helped you develop a unique strength, and given you a plus?
SC: So when I was a child I was really shy and self-conscious because of my disability but that helped make me push and push and become more confident and able to talk. I think we also have to think outside the box - so I can’t do a lot of things but I can do them if I think about other ways of getting round it. I think that mentality and mental strength is something that employers really look for and benefit from. And I really think that I almost inspire my other co-workers they’ve seen me working really hard and they want to be the same.
HM: That’s really inspiring and something to take away for our students as well! Sometimes it’s about resilience, even when you are faced with challenges to keep at it and apply for more jobs.
SC: Definitely. When I left university I had a really good CV with my degree and my gold medals but because I had no work experience I found it really difficult to get my foot in the door. But I kept trying and I kept trying, and after countless applications and interviews, I got my first job! And that’s the kind of experience you’re talking about. I got turned down so many times and to be honest I wasn’t used to it, but you just can’t give up.
HM: One thing that our students might not know about you is that you work two days a week as a technology analyst at Goldman Sachs! Do you have any advice for disabled graduates interested in pursuing investment banking careers in the City?
SC: So as I said, work experience is really crucial. For me it was difficult to have time for that because I was balancing my sport and my education but you know you’ve got long summers – perfect for internships and work experience and apprenticeships. You always have time to do more. That’s what I really recommend doing to get into the job that you really want and actually, it kind of proves to employers that you can do it. Doing an internship - you have a finite amount of time for you to work for, so for your employer that is risk free. They might think you’ve got a disability, you might not be able to do that job but you can prove them wrong! So they are more willing to get you in for a short term internship and then you can prove to them and make them want to employ you at the end.
HM: Yeah that’s right. I would highly encourage all students who are watching this to get work experience. If you’re not sure what you want to do after university, this is your opportunity to try out different things! If you have a disability, don’t be afraid to be open and upfront with your employer about the adjustments you need. Sophie, do you have any adjustments at work?
SC: Hmm, not too many. So I can sit at a normal desk but I do have adjustments in getting to work. So my office is in London but as most of us know, public transport in London isn’t the best at accessibility so Goldman set up an account for me from and to the station. However if you don’t want to ask your employer to pay for reasonable adjustments you can go to through the Access to Work government grant- so when you’ve got an offer for the job, you can apply for them to pay for reasonable adjustments because I know it’s always awkward to ask new employers to make reasonable adjustments for you.
I think the other reasonable adjustment I have is that I can’t carry drinks back to my desk so I just ask my colleagues if they can grab me a coffee and they don’t mind that at all. I can’t go through a day without coffee!
HM: Don’t we all have that problem? I’m addicted to coffee. (laughter) That’s all we have time for today, thank you for sharing your story with us! I know you’ve certainly inspired me to be fearless in pursuing my career ambitions. For everyone who is watching, I hope you enjoyed this interview and if you have a story about disability to share, head on over to www.myplusstudentsclub.com and share your story with us! We have advice and blogs for anyone who is looking to apply for a job with a disability, job opportunities and employer information on there so do join the club!
SC: Thank you so much, if anyone has any questions for me just message me on Facebook or comment below. I’m always happy to help through my experiences.
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