Sophie Wells MBE is the most decorated Olympian/Paralympian in Lincolnshire’s history, with eight medals to her name, but says she still strives for excellence and is looking to add to her medal collection at the next Games in 2024.
Sophie, 31, is an incredibly successful dressage rider who has claimed medals at the last three Paralympic Games, most recently winning a silver and a gold in Tokyo this summer.
She was born with amniotic band syndrome, which results in having little to no feeling or movement in her feet, as well as losing a number of fingers, but the Lincoln-born para-equestrian rider is a fierce competitor who has always had steely determination during her rise to glory.
Sophie now lives in Saxilby and after growing up on a cattle farm with her parents, she describes herself as “just a farmer’s daughter from Lincoln with big dreams”.
The Lincolnite caught up with the eight-time Paralympic medallist at her training base in Harby, discussing her career in dressage, how she managed a potential COVID crisis before the Games in Tokyo, and buying a dog in lockdown.
“The horses help drop you down to reality”, says Sophie, as she trots out to her riding hall with Don Cara M, the horse she rode at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
“I went from winning a Paralympic medal to mucking out the horses within a day of each other!”
Sophie went into the Games this year with a perhaps surprising lack of optimism on the surface (she’d already won medals on the grandest stage in previous Paralympics) – but there were plenty of headaches along the way to justify this.
She said: “My usual horse George (known professionally as C Fatal Attraction) got injured before the Games so we had to adjust to Donny (Don Cara M) instead.
“George is the current world champion, so it was always going to be tough to replicate that on another horse. It is so important to know the horses and their personalities, because obviously you can’t communicate with them like you would a human.”
Sophie also tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks before flying out to Tokyo, which very nearly shattered her Paralympic dream.
“It was touch and go right up to the last moment,” she said. “The team doctors were worried we wouldn’t make it, so when we got the all clear and I could compete it was a weight off my shoulders.
“I naturally put a lot of pressure on myself, and because of our previous success we always have a target on our backs as Team GB in this event, but because of the circumstances our expectations were quite low.”
She said of her performance: “I’m normally quite hard-faced and keep my emotions in check out there, but the second it was over I just cried my eyes out. The pandemic definitely played into the emotions of the event, it was a huge relief above all else.”
Wells had come full circle all over again. She started riding horses at eight-years-old, but didn’t take up dressage until a few years later when she “kept falling off” her horse.
After leaving the University of Lincoln in 2009, Sophie became the first dressage rider to compete in both an able-bodied and para-dressage team in the same year, as well as winning multiple titles across Europe.
She then soared to stardom at London 2012, where she won team gold and two silvers in the individual and freestyle competition, which resulted in a golden postbox in Lincoln’s Bailgate, as well as an MBE in 2013 and appearances at Sports Personality of the Year.
It brought unprecedented attention to Sophie and the sport of dressage, which Wells poignantly defined as “dancing horses” when we asked what the sport entailed.
“The Olympics and Paralympics completely encompasses everything about this country, everyone forgets about real life for a bit and we feel the buzz of the nation.
“In London for instance, there were 12,000 people in the stadium watching me do what I do most days on my own, I’ve never seen a crowd like that for dancing horses!”
She then went one step better in Rio four years later, defending team gold and again winning silver in the freestyle, but this time winning individual gold for the first time in her career.
Her two medals in Tokyo were the seventh and eighth of her Paralympic career, further cementing her place in Lincolnshire folklore as the person with more Olympic and Paralympic medals than anyone in the county’s history.
Sophie said the pressure was reduced in Tokyo, allowing for her to perhaps enjoy it a bit more.
“I’ve always found it more enjoyable being the underdog, we felt like we let the country down in London because I didn’t win all three golds. I think I’ve become more rational as I’ve got older, so now I can be thrilled with silver, given the circumstances.”
Sophie had to wait a year for the Paralympic Games to even take place, as coronavirus put a halt to proceedings for 2020, meaning she had a year of no competition and lockdown.
You might be wondering how a successful sports star coped through coronavirus lockdown… Sophie told us a post graduate diploma and binge watching her new favourite series was on the agenda.
“I’ve never been much of a TV series person, but through lockdown I had more time on my hands, so ended up watching Grey’s Anatomy,” Sophie said. “I am now obsessed with it, I even got a lockdown puppy and called it Bailey after one of the characters.
“I also decided to pursue a post graduate diploma in sports coaching, it was hard to adjust to lockdown in general. I’d competed in a championship every single year from the moment I left school, so to go from that to nothing at all was really bizarre.”
Sophie is now taking a keen interest in coaching, but will continue to compete herself and insists she is fully committed to going for more medals in Paris in 2024.
When asked what advice she would give to any hopeful athlete, Sophie said: “Don’t let anyone else put a limitation on you. Find a passion and stick with it, just remember that the moments of glory are minutes in history that do not last.
“You’ve got to appreciate the sacrifices you have to make and the hard work you have to put in to reap the rewards. I think what some people struggle to deal with is understanding that our lives happen in four year cycles, all for that four to five minutes we are out there competing.”