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Life as an elite

Competing as a top athlete while succeeding academically is a tough balancing act. Bath offers facilities, support and scholarships for a winning combination.

Tom Dean holding two Olympic gold medals
Tom Dean won Olympic Gold in 200m freestyle and men's 4 x 200m relay. (Photo: Ali Durden)

“I’m training for the biggest two minutes of my life,” says Tom Dean, elite swimmer and mechanical engineering student. We’re speaking to him in the build-up to the long-awaited 2020 Olympic Games where he’ll be making his debut for Team GB. “I remember watching the Olympic trials when I was 11 and thinking ‘that’s the dream’, so it’s a real honour to be selected,” he says. “I hope I can make everyone proud.” Two months later in Tokyo, he was on the podium with two gold medals – our 200m freestyle and men’s 4 x 200m relay Olympic champion.

Covid-19 impacted every athlete’s preparations, but Tom had to deal with two bouts of the virus within six months, costing him weeks of training. That was on top of the UK lockdown restrictions in 2020, which resulted in ten weeks out of the water. “It’s an unheard-of amount of time for a swimmer and an athlete, unless they’re retired,” he says. “We’re really fortunate at Bath to have an amazing support team. The coach, physio, nutritionist and psychologist all played a part in helping me stay positive and focused during isolation and coming to terms with the fact the Olympics had been postponed.”

Tom had to dive back into training as soon as possible. By the end of a typical week he has swum over 60,000 metres; smashed three gym sessions; completed four hip and shoulder mobility workouts; as well as physiotherapy, soft tissue work, and Pilates to maintain peak physical condition. “It’s a full-on, demanding schedule, but well worth it,” he grins. His winning performance secured a new national record of 1min 44.22sec.

Competing demands

For elite athletes, physical skill alone is not enough to cope with the demands of training and competing. Psychological preparation is key to managing the stress of a big event. Dr Rachel Arnold, a sport psychologist from our Department for Health, works with athletes, teams, and organisations to create effective performance environments and cultures.

Her research ranges from examining leadership and management styles in sport, to the organisational stressors that can place strain on athletes, such as travel and accommodation logistics; injury and financial support; and coaching.

However, student-athletes have the added challenge of balancing their studies alongside their sport, and Bath’s Dual Career Programme is designed to help them excel at both. In addition to free use of the gym and facilities, there’s academic flexibility and access to both a psychologist and a lifestyle advisor. The latter provides support with health and wellbeing, as well as assistance with personal development and preparation for life after sport.

Bath was the first UK university to offer sports scholarships in the mid-1970s, and today there are 40 student-athletes benefiting from this support. As Tom, a Bill Whiteley Sports Scholar, explains:

“Doing a part-time job at the same time as studies and sports would be out of the question, so the scholarship has been invaluable."

Tom has taken two years out from his mechanical engineering degree to focus on his Tokyo dream, but has no doubt he has made the right decision by studying in Bath. “When looking at where in the UK ticks the boxes of elite sport and an excellent education, there was never any doubt in my mind it was going to be Bath,” he continues.

“I’ve always had a passion for engineering – I think the analytical side of my brain helps me with my sport as well. It will open up so many doors for my career post-swimming.”

Playing the long game

Someone who understands the value of combining studies and sport more than most is Iestyn Lewis (BSc Structural Engineering 1995). He played for Bath Rugby alongside his degree, and later became a chartered civil engineer and set up his own business.

“You don’t know how long a sporting career is going to last,” says Iestyn. “My career finished as a result of injuries – both of my shoulders and my knee were reconstructed – so getting a qualification is extremely important.”

Since hanging up his boots, Iestyn has kept close ties with the University – coaching the rugby team and supporting student-athletes through scholarships. “I was fortunate enough to be provided with that opportunity myself at Bath and I wanted to give something back,” he explains.

“My wife Nicky and I felt it was important to help someone try to achieve their sporting ambition, because you’re only young once and you don’t get a second chance.”

Iestyn’s company Rengen also sponsors Team Bath, as well as wider recreational activities at the University’s Sports Training Village (STV). He adds: “They’re facilitating a fantastic environment for everyone, from Olympic athletes and Bath Rugby Academy players, right through to children taking their first steps in sport and the general public.” The STV accommodates more than 50 sports and hosts major international competitions, such as the Invictus Games trials and Modern Pentathlon European Championships, as well as school sports days and college tournaments.

Belonging at Bath

It was a visit to Bath for a netball match that made a lasting impression on alumna and England player Imogen Allison. “As soon as I got onto campus, I knew it was where I wanted to go to university,” she recalls. “The excellent reputation for my course (sport and exercise science), as well as netball, meant it was a great opportunity for me to grow as a player while getting a degree.”

In 2021, Bath was named one of the top 10 places in the world to study sport in the QS World University Rankings, and enhanced its offering with a master’s in sport management.

Imogen was awarded a King Scholarship, which offered security beyond the financial. “I’m from Yorkshire and it was daunting moving so far from home,” she explains. “Knowing that someone wanted to support me in my dual career felt amazing.” Since graduating in 2020, Imogen is focusing fully on her netball career with both Team Bath, reaching the finals of the 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague, and as a full-time member of the England senior squad. The Roses are training towards the 2022 Commonwealth Games, where they’ll be defending the gold medal on home soil.

Playing alongside Imogen for both club and country is Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, a former Bill Whiteley Sports Scholar who graduated this summer. She made her England debut during freshers’ week in 2017, and continued to balance a stellar career on the court with her degree in integrated mechanical and electrical engineering.

She says:

“Academia is just as important to me as sport, so to be able to combine both at one of the top universities in the country was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. They complement each other, too – the discipline that you develop within sport and dealing with pressure have definitely helped with my studies.”

Like Imogen, Sophie will continue playing for Team Bath Netball as well as England. It’s been a childhood dream of hers to play in the Blue and Gold since her 10th birthday when she came to watch them in a Superleague game. To any youngsters with similar Blue, Gold and academic ambitions, she has some words of advice: “Embrace it all. It is possible to combine them both. Reach out and speak to your Director of Studies and the people involved in your sport – they are all so supportive and willing to be flexible so you can succeed in everything you want to do.”

Team Bath’s Hall of Fame can attest to that fact. Upon walking through the doors of the STV, you’re greeted by the likes of Olympic silver medallist, swimmer Michael Jamieson; double Olympic rowing champion Heather Stanning OBE; Paralympian silver and bronze medallist, sprinter Ben Rushgrove; gold medallist for skeleton Amy Williams MBE, and many more alumni who have turned studies and sports into a winning combination. We look forward to seeing our current and future student-athletes building on their success – both at Bath and on the world stage.

Bath Rugby's Anthony Watson joins the Bath EMBA

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This article was written by Jodie Tyley for BA2 Issue 29, published in September 2021.