I have started to interview past athletes to discover their insights on Life Beyond Elite Sport. In particular, they are being asked how they made the transitions beyond elite sport. Today, we are lucky enough to have Rachel Boardman.
Life Beyond Elite Sport Interview – Rachel Boardman
I am the host of a top 50 podcast in the UK called Beyond the Finish Line where we lift the lid on the struggles that athletes face when they leave their sport and help them take their next steps from athlete to entrepreneur. I am also a coach helping athletes through their transition out of sport and to build their gold-medal winning business. Plus for good measure and because I love it, I am also a swim teacher.
Share with us a bit about your self (i.e. your background, where you grew up and where you are now).
I am from Manchester, England which is where I’ve spent most of my life. I come from a really sporty family. My brother played Rugby League and American Football, I have a cousin who also played Rugby League and another who played football in the academy system at Bolton Football Club. I on the other hand swam. I was lucky enough to be County and Regional champion and make top 20 in my age at National championships. I have had the honour of representing my county, Lancashire, and my division, greater Manchester and Staffordshire, in the English Schools Championships.
I feel quite lucky because I am also academically inclined as well as sporty and this eventually led me to pursue and achieve a PhD in Pre-Clinical Oncology. However, halfway through I realised that this wasn’t the right path for me. After searching for other possible career paths to take following graduation and realising that none of them really excited me I followed my gut and took a one-way flight to Australia. I spent the next 2 years backpacking around there on a truly life-changing trip. It was during this trip that I got the idea for my podcast and business.
What age did you finish swimming?
I hung up my goggles just before my 19th birthday.
Did you choose to retire or not?
I ultimately made the decision to retire but my health played a huge role. When I was 14 I had pneumonia twice and consequently have some scarring on my lungs. This meant that I was never able to really reach my peak. During my last season I spent most of it getting fit, then getting ill and having to take some time out. It was incredibly frustrating and having just come off the back of 3 years of no best times and a season where I missed the national championships qualifying time by 0.06 seconds, I just couldn’t take much more disappointment.
For a long time I didn’t say that I had retired from swimming. Instead I would say that I had broken up with it because that’s how it felt. It felt like I had been betrayed by my sport and so I broke up with my first real love.
What was your best sporting performance in the pool?
My highest individual achievement was 16th at the National age group championships in England. However, I had some other great achievements as part of teams, including 11th in the 4×100 medley relay National championships and being part of the County Team Championship winning team.
What are you most proud of doing in your life up until now?
There are lots of things I’m proud of doing from sticking it out for 3 years post pneumonia before doing a best time, gaining a PhD even overcoming depression but right now the thing I’m probably most proud of, is travelling solo for 2 years through Australia. It was a trip that really helped me grow in more ways than I probably know. It helped me understand who I am, it helped me become more confident in myself and my abilities, I got to try jobs that I would never have tried at home like working on a dairy farm! I got to meet a ton of amazing people from all over the world, learn about different cultures and ways of life and deal with all the ups and downs that long-term travelling brings. Most of all it helped me find the path that I am meant to walk that since I had retired from swimming I had wandered off from.
Who are the mentors that have inspired you and what important lessons have you learnt from them?
My first coach is probably one of my biggest inspirations. She took me from this girl who loved to swim but had a screw kick, to this promising little breastroker. I still use some of her drills and teaching techniques to this day when teaching my own swimmers. She taught me the value of technique and of building a well rounded swimmer.
I’d also say that some of my teammates were big mentors. For a long time, I was the youngest on the team or in the training squad and pretty shy. I will always be grateful for those few older swimmers who looked out for me and made me feel welcome. It was then a role I took upon myself as I became one of the older swimmers in the club. I knew how much it helped me so I was always conscious of making sure those coming through next got the same help.
Has there ever been times you have questioned yourself and your purpose? If so, what got you through?
About 6 months after I had had pneumonia I was still struggling in training. I had only just started being able to swim butterfly again and I was just exhausted all the time. I felt so down. It was so hard watching all my teammates go from strength to strength and I was just there like pounding my head against the wall. Looking back, I just didn’t understand that it was going to take a long time and that actually I probably rushed back into training too soon, but neither did my coach and that probably didn’t help.
My first coach, Joyce, was still coaching at the club and she suggested talking with her son. Just a few years earlier her son, who was also a swimmer, had been seriously ill. So ill he had almost died. Yet he had come back from it and made the Athens Olympics. I didn’t really say much when we chatted because to be honest I was a little star struck. Here was this Olympian, one of my swimming idols, sitting in my living room talking to me. I can’t really remember exactly what he said but I do know he gave me the strength to play the long game. After all if he could do it why couldn’t I?
Is there a significant quote or saying by which you live your life by? If so, what is it?
I’m always picking up new quotes but there are a couple that have stuck by me and neither are from sport. They are in fact movie quotes because I love a good film!
The first one is from wise old Yoda, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” When you think about it this is so true. You either do something or you don’t. If you “try” to do something, then the chances are you won’t do it because you haven’t got the right mentality.
The second one is from another wise old character, Dumbledore. “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I never understood this back when I first read it but it definitely helped me through my depression.
What was the most important lesson you learnt from being an athlete?
Probably resilience. You go through so many ups and downs and overcome a bunch of challenges all the time so it really sets you up for life outside of sport.
What do you wish you did more of when you were competing?
This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot in the last year or so. I honestly wish that I had had a better relationship with my coach. Now don’t get me wrong its not like we had a bad coach-swimmer relationship but it definitely could have been better. I wish I had been more confident in taking charge of my training and challenging my coach when things weren’t working instead of just thinking well he’s the coach he must know best. During my last season there were things that I knew weren’t really working for me but I never said anything and maybe if we had had a better relationship I would have felt that I could.
What are your top 3 tips for making the transition to life beyond elite sport?
Whether you decide to retire or an injury forces you into retirement it’s important that you give yourself time to reflect on your career and figure out where you want to take yourself next. It can often feel like a grieving process, so it’s important to give yourself that time to heal.
One of the major things that all athletes miss when they leave their sport is their team. Even the most individual of sports still involves some form of team such as a coach and physio etc. So finding yourself a new community is a must. It doesn’t have to mean finding yourself a new sports team. It can be as simple as building a friendship group with work colleagues through doing things outside of work, or learning a new skill and finding a new group that way. Whatever it is remember that as humans, we are social creatures and need that social contact. Trust me, I shut myself away from the world for a while and all it did was take me to a dark place. I don’t want that for you.
3. Ask for help.
This is another thing I didn’t do very well. The transition out of sport can be a very challenging time, especially if you haven’t got a plan or perhaps your plan isn’t working. It can be hard to know which way to go and what the right thing to do is. However, you don’t have to go it alone. As an athlete you had a coach and perhaps even access to a bunch of other backroom staff such as physios who could all help guide you towards your goal.
The same is true for life after sport. Whether you need help with your mental health, career, business or life there are plenty of people just like me who are there to help coach and guide you through this part of your life. I thought I could do it all on my own and not only did I end up in a dark place but it took a hell of a lot longer to get through it. I know just how difficult it can be to ask for help but I also know just how rewarding getting it is.
Over to You…
I hope this has given you some insight from a past athlete who competed in sport and has made the transition process. Thanks Rachel for sharing your insights and congratulations on where you are in your life today! You can connect with Rachel here.
If you have any questions, please let me know or leave a comment below.