If you spotted Ancient History student Liv White at the Big Cheese on a Saturday night or in the library café queue of sleep deprived students, you’d no doubt think she was an ordinary Edinburgh undergraduate, struggling through deadlines like the rest of us. In actual fact, Liv has represented GB on the international stage for swimming, and is juggling 30-hour training weeks alongside her degree, with a long term aim of reaching the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games proved that there’s many young people like Liv, who are balancing their studies and their responsibilities as elite athletes. Perhaps the most marked example was Team GB Gymnast Amy Tinkler, who at 16 years old won a bronze medal in the floor exercise, less than a month after sitting her GCSE exams.
Team USA is often at the top of the leaderboard for providing the highest number of student athletes to Olympic Games. Many US colleges offering a sports-focused environment for young athletes, with perks such as well-funded facilities and scholarship opportunities. The stats show this loud and clear, with 430 out of 550 Team USA Olympians this year being current or former college athletes, and Stanford University alone contributing 30 student athletes.
Many Olympians admit struggling to achieve the right balance of work and sport. Alistair Brownlee, the 28-year-old 2012 and 2016 triathlon gold medalist, started a Medicine degree at Girton College Cambridge before dropping out after the first 8-week term. He felt he couldn’t really focus on his sport and recently explained: “In one of my first weeks, I was in a class and I had to leave early to run a European championship race in Italy. I said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to leave 10 minutes early, I’ve got a flight to catch,’ and the guy was like: ‘Well, you’re going to have to choose between your academics and your sport one day, and you might as well do it sooner rather than later.'”
After reading about the difficulties of juggling the rigours of University work with an international sport, I decided to interview swimmer and student Liv White, to gain a real insight into the world of a University elite athlete:
Could you tell me briefly about your swimming background and current goals?
I am an international swimmer competing primarily in 200m breaststroke. I have represented Great Britain internationally, my biggest achievement being a finalist at the World University Games. We now enter a new Olympic cycle so long-term my goal is the 2020 Toyko Games, but short term is just to continue to better myself which will hopefully result in selection for British teams again.
What is your average day of training in Edinburgh?
5:45am on poolside for 15 minutes of pre-pool; 6-8am swim session of on average 6k; 8:30-10am weights session; uni; 3:45pm on poolside for 15 minutes of pre-pool again; 4-6pm swim session of again on average 6k, then 20 minutes of stretching.
How flexible has Edinburgh University been with letting you complete your degree and swim at the same time?
I’ve actually found them to be super supportive. I was able to split my year last, taking my second semester out due to not being in the country enough for uni, and I’m now finishing off 3rd year part time.
Do you ever feel a certain pressure to maintain a “sport body ideal“ for swimming?
I have to think about my body as ultimately it is my machine. So I have to maintain a certain body composition etc in order to attain peak performances. Good swimmers have broad shoulders, it’s an unavoidable reality of the sport, and that’s become my biggest insecurity. There are so many clothes that I just can’t wear, simply because I can’t fit my shoulders into the same sized dress I need to fit my body. It sounds so stupid but one of the best things is when people tell me I don’t look like a swimmer.
You competed in the Olympic Trials in Glasgow this April, what was the outcome of that?
I was hugely disappointed. I made the final, but I swam awfully and was still quite a way away from my best time. It was harder because if I had come out having done a personal best or a good swim it would have been easier, as I would have known there was nothing more I could have done on the day. But I didn’t, I felt I gave a really poor representation of myself, but that’s sport. I know have to use that feeling, to try and not be in the same position come four years time.
Adam Peaty recently said he enjoys listening to “proper ghetto music” before races. What’s your chosen jam to get you ready for a race?
At the big meets where I am pretty nervous I listen to something easy and fun – for example at Olympic Trials I listened to New Radicals – You Get What You Give. I’m also a big fan of Sean Paul before a race.
With such a focus on sport, do you ever worry that you’re missing out on internships and work experience for graduate opportunities?
Absolutely, I know so many people who have failed to get jobs because of a ‘lack of experience’. Due to the hectic schedule of swimming, I haven’t had the usual long summers of university students, so have been unable to get internships and summer jobs.
Despite missing out on experience, surely you have a lot of transferrable skills from swimming that will benefit you in the workplace?
Without a doubt! Juggling 30-hour training weeks, whilst studying for an undergraduate degree in Ancient History – my time management and organisational skills have to be impeccable. Being an elite athlete has taught me to challenge myself on a daily basis to be the best I can be, not to settle for being average, and I think this will be translated into whatever workplace I find myself in. Also sport is cruel and unpredictable at times so I have gained the ability to quickly adapt in a situation and to make the most of it, and I’ve developed a strong mental stamina.
Run me through the major perks of being a student and an elite athlete:
The perks are the huge satisfaction I get when I achieve my goals; the people I have been lucky enough to meet; and the places I have been enabled to go. The past year I have travelled to Barcelona, South Korea, Amsterdam, South Africa and Tenerife for either racing or training. I am also privileged to work with a swimwear brand that kits me out with training gear such as swimming costumes, goggles, hats, sports bras and shorts. It’s actually so great because I love all their stuff and would wear it anyway, and it helps ease the financial strain that comes with elite level sport.
Image: Tim Hipps