Sitting here post two hip operations I had an epiphany. When you hear what made the light bulb turn on you’re probably going to say well “Duh, Robyn, that was pretty obvious” and in a way it was, but it just wasn’t very real to me.
I read an article about a British badminton player who had represented her country at the London Olympics and won a silver medal. The article told how she now had bills piling up and had to resort to selling her possessions on eBay to make ends meet. The reason for her not being able to earn a living was put down to the fact that her CV listed a Sports Science degree completed in 1998 and “professional badminton player for 10 years”. She had initially done motivational talks, but they had dried up and it appears as though she has no usable skills with which to find a job. She has an MBE, an Olympic medal and is struggling to put food on the table.
Wow, just wow. Eyes opened. And yes, I always “knew” this, but I didn’t KNOW it. Professional sport has always seemed like this amazing ideal. Something to aspire to. And yes, for some athletes it works out – the highly-paid rugby, cricket and soccer players will probably get to retire on the money that they made during their athletic careers. How many people in South Africa might that be? 100, 200 people? I’m guessing. Then for the smaller South African sports like triathlon or athletics how many people might it be? 5 or 10? Doesn’t sound like good odds to me. A sporting career is generally not that long. For rugby players it might be as short as 5 years. For triathletes and other endurance sport athletes it might be a bit longer, let’s say 15 years. So you might find yourself retired at age 25 or 35 and then what? What’s next? And I think that that is the question that gets ignored. And maybe it needs to be ignored if one is to make it as an athlete. I am guessing that one needs to commit whole-heartedly if one is to really make it.
For me ignoring that question was never an option. Maybe because I didn’t display the raw talent or maybe because my folks didn’t have the money to send me to race overseas from the age of 15 to gain the required experience. But what my parents (and grandparents) did was ensure that I received the best education, because to them that was what was really important.
A bursary helped me through the Western Cape’s best all-girls school. I then received a sport and academic bursary to attend the University of Pretoria and pursue my triathlon career. Sports Science was the degree of choice for most of the student-athletes – most likely because it was what they were interested in and because it allowed them ample time to train. I had other ideas. In my mind Herschel girls were expected to become Engineers, Doctors, Actuaries or Scientists. Playing small or taking the easy road was frowned upon. At least in my head it was. I wanted to study mechanical engineering, but was talked out of that due to the hours that the course required. Instead I settled on mathematical statistics. As if the hours required were any less. I often found myself in class from 07:30 until 17:30, missing scheduled training sessions and then having to study in the evenings as well. But through it all I pursued triathlon and I loved it. I got to race for a team in the BSG Triathlon series, race as an Elite at nationals and even represent my country. I also got a degree. And then an honours degree and then I decided that I still wasn’t ready to face reality and get a job so instead I did my Masters and did triathlon a little longer.
Professional sport had never really been an option for me, but it was still the fairy tale, still the dream – no matter the fact that it would never happen. And now I have a full time job and I do triathlon on the side. And I love triathlon, but I suppose I’ve realised that I am also thankful that I have the skills to hold a good job. Because I am now sitting unable to do sport, but still able to earn a living. I can only imagine how stressful an extended injury would be for the professional athlete whose livelihood depends on him being able to train and compete. Plus, I’ll still be able to do my job when I’m 55.
Moral of the story: stay in school kids! Professional sport only works out for a teeny tiny percentage of the population and it would be wise to have something to fall back on. But if you have the financial backing and feel that creating a backup plan based on education/ real world experience is going to detract from your sporting career then by all means take the bull by the horns and go for it. Just try and keep in mind that “professional badminton player for the last 10 years” might not read too well on your CV when you need that job.