Sophie Christiansen of Great Britain, who won two gold medals at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Thursday, started riding horses when she was six years old as part of physical therapy to help with her cerebral palsy.
Christiansen, now 22, discovered para-equestrian dressage at 13.
In three years, she rose to the top levels in competitions. She won her first bronze medal at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, six years ago. Then, in 2008, at the Beijing Paralympics, she brought home two gold medals and a silver.
"It all happened really quickly," Christiansen said in an interview this week. "It's been quite a steep learning curve."
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Christiansen said she thinks that one of the reasons Great Britain's para-dressage team often sweeps world competitions is that in her home country "they treat us like proper athletes."
She and other para-equestrian athletes get financial support from the British government's lottery fund. Christiansen has a support team behind her that includes a trainer, a physician, and a physical therapist
"That whole backup really makes a difference," she said.
Christiansen's gold medals Thursday were in the individual championships and in the team tests for the 1a divison, the group of the most disabled athletes.
Her British teammates Anne Dunham and Emma Sheardown won silver and bronze, respectively.
She said para-dressage has improved her balance, coordination and gait, all challenges for people with cerebral palsy. While working toward a master's degree in mathematics at a British university, she rides three to four times a week and works out in a gym twice each week.
This week at the Games, Christiansen and her horse Rivaldo of Berkeley have been getting support from another team —family members who live in the United States.
Christiansen's father, Karl Christiansen, is originally from Michigan. Some of her father's family members have driven to Lexington to see Christiansen compete for the first time, including her 92-year-old grandfather.
"They are overwhelmed," Christiansen said Thursday night as she was about to accept her gold medals. "It was amazing."