The Olympic modern pentathlon gold medallist tells John Garth how a poster in the porter's lodge at her college put her on track for Sydney 2000.
Why did you apply to Oxford [after your first degree at Cambridge] and what did you study?
After completing my pre-clinical years at Cambridge, I was ready for a change and decided to apply to Lincoln College for three years of clinical medicine (BM, BCh), learning through hands-on work in hospitals.
How did you become involved in modern pentathlon?
I’d played hockey and done athletics at school and also ridden with the Pony Club. At Cambridge I was a lightweight rower and I continued athletics, but it wasn’t until Oxford that I tried modern pentathlon – shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running. I saw a poster for OUMPA, the modern pentathlon club, in the porter’s lodge at Lincoln. I’d always fancied it, mainly because of the horses. I went along and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Who did you train with?
The other OUMPA members, though because I was better runner I tended to do that with the Cross Country and Athletics Clubs. I also joined Fencing Club sessions under Tomek Walicki.
How did your sporting career go at Oxford?
In my first year I tore the medial collateral ligament in my knee and had to spend three months rehabbing. I’d been training with the crosscountry team when the river had overflowed; we were skirting the water, and I stepped forward into the actual river. But I still competed in the cross-country Varsity match three times, winning it in 1996; and in both modern pentathlon and athletics Varsity matches in 1996 and 1997. My first international competition was when I was still a student – the 1997 World Cup competition in Hungary. What happened at Oxford and subsequently was beyond my wildest dreams. I did sport simply because I enjoyed it. The thought of winning an Olympic gold medal had never crossed my mind.
How did you balance sports training with academic studies?
It involved a lot of early mornings, and late nights whizzing down Headington Hill from the John Radcliffe Hospital to get to training sessions, but I did not let sport affect my studies.
Did you find time for any other extracurricular activities?
I had quite enough to do with five different sports! But sport became my social life – there was the weekly cross-country meet at the Lamb and Flag, for example. Because Oxford teaches such a cross-section of subjects, through sport I could meet people reading many varied subjects.
Did you enjoy Oxford?
I loved it. My parents were born in Oxford and my grandparents had continued to live there, so I had always visited. The University was a different world again – I’m very lucky to have gone there.
What did you take away?
Fantastic memories. They were some of the best years of my life and gave me the skills that I then took forward in both my sporting and professional careers. At Oxford I became a doctor and a sportswoman – plus I met my husband Daniel. He’s a vet and was at Cambridge, but we met through sport.
You keep coming back...
I’m now completing training as a GP in Sussex, and I’m on the Athletes’ Committee of LOCOG (the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games). After I qualified in medicine I worked for six months in Oxford at the John Radcliffe and the Churchill. I was made an honorary fellow of Lincoln, and supported the college in its development campaign. I studied a part-time MSc in evidencebased health care at Kellogg College, which I completed in 2008. I’m still very involved in OUMPA and recently helped out at the Varsity match.
How do you think of Oxford now?
When you’re there as a student you’re so immersed in your life that you don’t fully appreciate it. It’s only going back that you realise what an incredibly special experience it was. Oxford is somewhere where I learnt some things, made some lifelong friends and had a great time.