Most youngsters take their first step into running through a PE teacher or a local athletics club and I was no different. I joined the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers as an under 13 athlete and have never looked back. Not in my wildest dreams did I believe that almost sixteen years later, athletics would now be my full-time profession. As a junior, I didn’t even grasp that sport could be a job or more importantly – I didn’t believe I would ever be good enough.
I also took for granted the effort and constant support from my parents. In local clubs across the country, there are hundreds of young children relying on their parents to drive them from one end of Scotland to the other in search of good competitions, league races or school championships. Without the backing of family and from their local club many of these athletes wouldn’t have the opportunity to reach the next level.
Around the age of 16, I remember being invited along to my first ever Scottish Athletics Training Weekend. This was a big deal. I felt important. I was given the chance to train alongside some of the top teenagers in the country with Scottish Athletics encouraging us to take our first steps towards senior athletics. It was the first time my eyes were opened to the professional side of athletics. I had no idea that top athletes would often spend months away from home or that many would have access to a physiotherapist, physiologist, nutritionist and physiologist. It felt alien to me and was far removed from my parents giving me a lift to the local track.
When I headed to university, everything changed. Firstly, I was an adult so supporting myself and secondly, my parents were going through a messy divorce and could no longer help fund my sport. I wasn’t fast enough to be supported financially by any governing body, Scotland or Great Britain, and so I found myself in limbo and floundering. A situation many athletes fine themselves in at this point. How do you bridge that gap to elite athletics when you don’t have the support? It’s an important question and a very difficult place to be.
I decided to put my athletics on the back burner. I was still training but with no real motivation. I focussed on my degree while working part time in a running shop in order to pay for my petrol to and from training. Day by day, I could see my athletics ambitions floating further away. I felt so far removed from professional athletics but the biggest part of the problem was my own mindset.
In 2011, I decided to give my all for one year– just one year – in the hope I would be fast enough to sneak onto the lowest funding tiers. I split my university degree to allocate more time to training and recovery but continued working part time to earn some money. I stopped the typical student partying and saved every penny.
I made huge improvements by the end of the year, and qualified for my first GB team. I couldn’t believe it. I had taken a chance on myself and it was finally paying off. Then disaster struck. Just before the World Championships, I broke my foot quite severely and required surgery. I felt like I was back at square one. However, my body may have let me down at the final minute but mentally I was stronger than ever.
Deep down, I believed I had the ability to make the Olympic Games so decided to keep pushing. I contacted a local business to ask for some sponsorship. I knew it would be a big ask but I turned up at the door of Mackay’s Jam in Arbroath standing on crutches with my foot in a big cast, explaining my dream of becoming an Olympian. I certainly didn’t look like the epitome of fitness but luckily they believed in me regardless and agreed to support me. This was huge and a turning point in my career. It was a small sum of money but enough to allow me to become a full-time athlete and put all of my efforts into eating, sleeping and training.
I competed in my first Olympics in 2012 and was supported by British Athletics for a few years until injury struck. Support from the governing body is huge. Not only is it a big financial help but it allows you access to altitude and warm weather training camps abroad, physiotherapy, MRI scans and medical support. These privileges do come with great pressures however. You are now a small cog within a larger wheel. One that operates only on medals. If you don’t perform to the level necessary your level of support will be cut.
Living as a professional athlete is cut throat but it’s as you would expect professional sport to be. One injury or illness can affect your entire year. And athletics is a lot harsher than team sport where you will receive a salary all year regardless of injury or ill-health. It’s individual and so if you don’t perform to the best of your ability, continuing to progress towards medal targets year on year, then you’re cut off. The added stress is sometimes what puts professional athletes off accepting a funding agreement and sourcing funds from elsewhere, such as private sponsorship or shoe contracts.
A lot of athletes will find they have a fantastic support network for a few years before it abruptly ends. Mentally it can be a knock and they don’t believe they have what it takes. But that initial, around the clock support from the governing body can be the making of a great athlete and really open your eyes to how a professional athlete should operate. However, there are many who end up retiring because they haven’t put in place their own support network.
I will always be grateful to those who have lent a helping hand along my journey. None more so than law firm, Lindsays. Throughout the last few roller-coaster years where I’ve experienced illness and numerous injuries, Lindsays have always been by my side and have never cut my line of support. They have continued to believe in me through thick and thin which I am hugely appreciative of.
It’s easy to support someone at the top of their game but to stand behind someone when they have been at their lowest, takes belief and courage. “The support you receive from others throughout life is essential. It is like the right amount of oxygen to keep the embers of a fire glowing.”
Athletics can be a very lonely sport but I know that every time I stand on the start line I have a small team of people willing me on to success. Of course, any sport has its challenges but when you have a team behind you, one you have every faith in and vice versa, the challenges feel a lot less daunting.
When I retire, I’d love to try help the athletes stuck within that limbo of how to make the leap and attempt to break into elite athletics. I’ve been there and got many a t-shirt. It’s a tough place to be but even the smallest helping hand can be the one to make all the difference. During those moments, you look for stability.
Support comes in so many forms – whether it be physical, emotional, mental or financial. My key advice to any upcoming athletes would be to find your stability rock and add to it. The larger the rock becomes the stronger you will be. There will be times when it gets chipped but the stronger the rock the harder it is to break. The size of your rock may change each year which is fine – just remember that the reason you started this journey was for the love of running. And that is something that needs no support.