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Champion women

How do you combine a busy academic schedule with top-flight sporting achievement? On International Women’s Day 2021 four Trinity students explain how they’ve done it and lessons learned along the way.  

Louise Shanahan is doing a PhD in quantum physics and aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Role models were important she said.

As a kid, I remember watching Derval O’Rourke, an Irish international hurdler and World Indoor 60 m hurdles champion, compete. Derval was from the same club as me growing up and she really inspired me. I thought, if she could do it then so could I. I owe a lot to the women who inspired me and continue to inspire me both academically and athletically.

Louise, victorious. Photo: PhotographybyJonty

British Rowing describes Imogen Grant’s rise from College rower to international competitor as ‘meteoric.’ The medical student, now in her penultimate year, was part of successive victorious crews in the Boat Race and became World U23 lightweight single scull champion in 2018 and 2019, in addition to other wins. She explains:

When I joined Trinity College, I hadn’t done any sport for two years, instead focusing on my A levels. I signed up for a rowing taster session during Freshers’ Week on a whim, and loved it as soon as I stepped in a boat.

Thanks to the support of First and Third, and subsequently CUBC I was able to compete internationally while studying at Trinity. I didn’t have to compromise my athletic development or my medical studies, and now this year I hope to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I am looking forward to completing my medical degree next year.

Imogen prior to the 2017 Cancer Research UK University Boat Races Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Master of Trinity, Dame Sally Davies, who trained as a doctor and was Chief Medical Officer for nine years, said:

I am delighted and unsurprised that Trinity is home to women in STEMM who are achieving great things in both their studies and extra-curricular activities. If you are motivated, enthusiastic and hard working, studying science at university will open up a rich array of exciting careers. And you’ll find you can make time for other important things in life too.

Time management, resilience and consistency were the most important characteristics to cultivate according to women at Trinity pursuing their studies and high-level sport.

‘It is definitely a challenge to combine a full time PhD with the training and recovery requirements of an elite athlete. It takes a lot of organisation to fit everything into the day but I am determined to get it to work,’ said Louise.

For Aisha Brown, a Tennis Blue studying medicine, resilience was key.

It is a quality shared by most people who take part in competitive sport as it would be so easy to just quit after a tough loss or a string of losses. In my view, giving up should be viewed as more of a failure.

My tennis coaches loved to remind me that “you can learn more from the losses than you can from the victories” when I was feeling down after a loss. I think the key is to keep going and to learn from the losses, in other words, to be resilient.

Aisha on court in 2019. Photo: Cambridge University Lawn Tennis Club

Louise agrees. ‘Over the past few years I have learnt that consistency is extremely important if you want to achieve your goals. It is not enough to only put in the work when it is easy or when you are motivated. The important days are the hard days when you are lacking motivation or are faced with setbacks.’

And there was no substitute for recognising and rising to challenges. Aisha said:

From social media and women’s magazines, I get the sense that it is assumed that women should automatically feel ’empowered’ to overcome anything after reading a few positive quotes or inspirational stories of other successful women. However, from my own experience, I think that resilience comes from recognising one’s own struggles and taking confidence from one’s own personal history of combating them.

The hard work pays off in multiple ways. Izzy Austin, also a medical student, is a Hockey Blue and half blue in skiing. She has also captained the Women’s Ski Team.

When starting university, it is so important to keep doing the extra curricular you enjoy; don’t give them up! The best decision I made at University was to join the hockey and ski club, despite the heavy workload which comes with studying Medicine at Trinity. The enjoyment and lifelong friends that come with being a member of a team make the added time pressure to complete work well worth it.

Make the most of the fantastic opportunities at Cambridge University – you won’t regret it!

Izzy competing. Photo: Varsity Trip/Chris Williamson

Louise agreed.

My academic and sporting success has given me some wonderful opportunities, from studying for a PhD here in Cambridge to spending a year studying and training in the University of California, Berkeley. I am excited to see where my hard work and success takes me over the next few years.

Imogen said:

Being a professional sportswoman was never something I dreamed of doing when I was younger, and now I have the opportunity it has opened my eyes to so many different possibilities. The thing I am most grateful for is my interest in women’s sport, and the enjoyment I get from following women’s rowing, women’s cycling and so much more. It’s getting easier and easier to follow, and parity in coverage is coming. I am so glad to be able to add my voice to that movement.

With three of the four students featured here studying medicine, Trinity Fellows Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and Dr Catherine Aiken paid tribute to their ability to balance the demands of their academic and sporting life. Dr Catherine Aiken, Senior Treasurer of First Third Boat Club, said:

Studying medicine at Cambridge while also performing at such high levels in sport is a fantastic achievement, requiring enormous dedication, organisation, and hard work. These are exactly the attributes that we need in our doctors of the future. It is truly inspiring how our students are able to achieve so much.

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