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Meet Sophie Wells, Paralympic gold medallist

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Ahead of the European Para Dressage Championships in Deauville (17–20 September), Georgia Guerin spoke to the defending Grade IV champion, Sophie Wells

I’m a classified Grade IV para dressage rider because I was born with amniotic band syndrome. Before I was born, parts of the amniotic sac wrapped around parts of my body. In my case, my fingers and lower legs were affected. I lost a fair few fingers, others were impaired and I nearly lost my feet. Luckily, the doctors managed to save them, but there is quite deep scarring around my calves, which affects the nerves in my lower legs. I can’t feel below the scars, but it’s the nerve pain that causes me the most problems. 

Para dressage riders are classified Grade I to IV depending on their degree of disability. Grade I riders have the greatest degree of disability and the tests for each grade have different required movements to be performed. Grade IV is roughly equivalent to Medium level for the individual tests and Prix St Georges level for the freestyle.

I tried lots of different sports as a child. When I was seven, I started at my local Riding Club and never looked back. Seven months later, I got my first pony, Crystal. She was a 12.2hh liver chestnut, and I did some showing and showjumping with her. All I can remember is that she bucked over fences and, because I couldn’t hold the reins properly, I kept falling off. Now I have three competition horses – Pinocchio (Noki), Valerius (Reece) and C Fatal Attraction (Jorge). I also have a few others who I compete for clients to bring them on.

I can’t imagine my life without horses and I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a professional rider, but maybe I’d have a bit of money! I liked science and sports at school, and I started a sports science degree, but left to concentrate on London 2012, so I would probably still be doing something related to high performance sport. When I’m not riding, I train in the gym, which makes me a stronger and fitter rider. Other than that, down-time is incredibly rare between training, competing and teaching!

I love being able to compete in both para and able-bodied competitions. There isn’t much difference between them really, but able-bodied competition is much bigger. There are more levels, tests and a lot more people competing, so it’s an extra push. Being able to compete in both means I can show it’s all about ability, not disability. I have special looped reins because I cannot hold or grip normal reins and I have a dispensation that allows me to ride with them in able-bodied competitions, too.

To be selected for the Para European Championships in France this September is really exciting. I won three gold medals at each of the Europeans in 2009, 2011 and 2013, which is a big act to follow, but hopefully I will be able to successfully defend my titles.

All of my horses have gone well this year and it is Valerius who has been selected for the championships again. C Fatal Attraction, who has also been selected as a reserve, is in his first year of international competitions abroad, and it has really made him grow up and change. He’s still young, but is looking really promising. 

It’s hard to choose my greatest horsey moment. The whole experience of London 2012, and winning a team gold and two individual silver medals was a massive achievement. It was especially exciting as it was my first Paralympics and it was on home soil. Becoming World and European champion has also been special, along with competing at the young rider Europeans, World Cup final and competing at Grand Prix. 

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