Athlete Interview: Sarah Barrow

Sarah Barrow is a former England and Great Britain diver who competed at the highest level in both the 10m individual platform and 10m synchronised platform events.

She won her first British title in 2005, and in 2010 formed a diving partnership with Tonia Couch that would reap silver and gold medals from European and Commonwealth Championships, alongside World Series and World Cup successes. Going into the London 2012 Olympic Games, both were established as key competitors on the global stage.

Sarah’s career highlights in individual events include winning gold at the 2014 European Championships in Berlin, and qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The latter, achieved while battling long term injury, was a fitting reward and testament to the winning mentality that the Plymouth diver has displayed throughout her career.

A Sports Science degree from Leeds Metropolitan University and a prospective MA in Sports Journalism from the University of St Mark and St John, are academic endeavours that magnify Sarah’s application, time management and diverse skillset.

Following her retirement from professional sport after Rio 2016, Sarah teamed up with sports career transition specialists, Athlete Career Transition (ACT), to begin an internship programme at Bauer Media. We caught up with the elite sportswoman to hear about more her days in the pool, and to find out how she’s enjoying life in a high-performance business environment.

When did you take up diving?

Tonia (Couch) introduced me to diving. I was a gymnast at first, then when I was twelve I started swimming. On my first day I told the coach that I was a gymnast, and he took me for a diving lesson. At first it was just fun, but when I won my first competition, I started to feel like it was what I wanted to do.

I was training every day. I remember in gymnastics I’d be training for four-and-a-half hours each day after school, and then on a Saturday nine-to-five and that was all I knew.

When I went into diving, my routine changed slightly but it was something I really enjoyed, and it was fun to go so I was always keen. When you do a sport full time and it’s going in the right direction, you don’t really think about doing anything else.

What did you enjoy most about being a professional sportswoman?

The social side of things was really good. I was working with people who I’d known for over 16 years. It was really nice to just go in and chat to your friends; it didn’t feel like a work environment. It was just great to enjoy what I was doing and to enjoy diving.

I really enjoyed the competitive side of it too, not so much when things didn’t come together, but when it goes right there’s just no other feeling like it.

What were some of the highlights of your first career?

Definitely winning gold in the European Championships in 2014 – I’m the first British girl to have achieved that, plus the medal came on the back of so many problems with injury.

My other highlight was the 2016 Olympic trials; I was the underdog, I had been taken off the synchro team and I had to work really hard the whole year for one competition to qualify for the Olympics, and I won. My friends and family were there and there was a really lovely atmosphere. It was an amazing feeling and I can’t imagine anything else in life that will rival.

To what extent was retirement discussed with you during your diving career?

I was friends with a lot of the older divers. They would retire and go into other things, and many of them would say that it was hard to find something else. I went to university to study sports science – it was something I was interested in and it was always in the back of my mind that my first career wouldn’t last forever.

I was putting so much work in between 2012 and 2016. By 2016 I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do after sport, but I had done a lot of groundwork had put a few strings to my bow, so at least I had an idea of which direction a second career could go in.

In diving, we were given a lifestyle manager. I talked with her quite often and it was nice to have something to think about other than diving. Retirement, in that context, gave me a good distraction rather than bad.

How did you balance elite sport with studying?

I found life quite difficult at undergrad during the sports science degree. I was involved in a lot of diving competitions at that time, and that was hard to juggle with university. When I got injured I tried to use my time as productively as possible and I put a lot into my studies which has worked out for the best.

Diving was always my priority and it was having a negative impact on my uni’ work, but using my time wisely enabled me to come out with a 2:1. There were other things I did in between my training such as courses and work experience. The undergrad work was difficult but I’m happy I did it.

My injuries were worst during my third year, but I was doing a dissertation on the psychological impact of sports injuries, so I had the benefit of authentic insight. More than that, it gave me a really good outlet to deal with my injury.

Did you receive enough help when you were considering life after sport?

In diving I think there is, we had very good lifestyle support. Edd Vahid, one of my coaches, was brilliant between 2012 and 2014 before Debbie Timberlake took over and she was great too. I used them both a lot compared to some of the other athletes.

I think it boils down to the individual athlete having a go and experiencing different things in life. There’s only so much lifestyle managers can do; they can guide you but at the end of the day, if an athlete wants to get into something else then they have to be proactive about it.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, I just explored different avenues of interest and researched ways that I could get into different things. To be honest, without Athlete Career Transition (ACT) coming in, I probably would be at a loose end or would be in a job that I don’t like. ACT approached me, but the groundwork I had put in initially probably had a lot to do with that; I set up my LinkedIn profile and tried to put myself out there, and it all paid off in the end.

One of my athlete friends told me how nothing comes to you without effort; it’s great if you’ve been to the Olympics, even better if you’ve won a medal. I hadn’t won a medal so I probably had to work that little bit harder. As an Olympic athlete, I have lots of transferable skills, but not all businesses will recognise the benefit how an Olympian can be of value to an organisation.

I set up meetings, I talked to people with the right connections and it’s turned out well. There are some athletes who have sat back and hoped something has come to them, and it just doesn’t work like that.

What was the toughest thing about professional sport for you?

Towards the end it was my injury (two stress fractures in my shins) which were a problem for about thirty months, and which went undiagnosed for about two years. It was really tough going to training and putting up with the pain. Psychologically, I was ready to retire because of that injury, but up until then I had enjoyed all aspects of my career.

Do you miss professional sport?

I do, yes, but for me it was important to end my career on my own terms. I was very close to having it ending prematurely in a way that I couldn’t control. I was happy to finish when I did, so I don’t miss the physical side too much.

I do miss the social side and the routine, also it’s all about doing something that you really enjoy; I loved the feeling of competing. It’s not as great if you don’t do well, but watching others compete at international level, I can see everyone’s having fun. That can be tough, especially if you have a bad day or week or something.

Life’s all about change and I always knew that my sport career would have to come to an end at some point. I do keep in touch with everyone who’s still competing and I keep up with what’s going on, and I’ll always be a part of it. I attended the nationals and watched everyone compete and I’m still very much in touch with my friends. I was never going to just up and leave the sport, it’s been a huge part of my life. This weekend, I’ll be in Luton doing a judging course for diving.

How has the career transition experience been for you?

I think sometimes there’s a feeling that I took for granted everything that happened before. It was such an amazing job, I got to travel the world, I could do what I loved doing and I was constantly setting and achieving goals, and that all disappears when you finish.

I decided I was going to retire after Rio 2016, then from September 2016 through to January, I had no routine, no goals, I didn’t see my friends as much because they were diving. I knew all this was going to happen, but it’s still sad when you actually experience it.

I’m still optimistic that I’ll find the things that diving gave me again, although I’m not expecting things to happen overnight. I’ve been lucky to find a role that I’m interested in, and in the field in which I want to work. To have gotten this far in four months is quite good for someone in my position.

I’m interested in reading and hearing about other people’s stories in terms of the transition from sport into a second career. Sometimes you only hear about the stories of sport’s biggest stars as they enter retirement, but I think it’s important to get other athletes’ stories out there as well.

What are you doing in your internship with Bauer Media?

My internship involves experiencing all parts of the business. My access interest was through journalism, but the internship also takes me through marketing, finance, production, advertising and a lot of other digital, online subjects.

The programme is very varied; I’m doing different things each week, moving between teams and making friends. The nine-to-five takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s pure office work. It’s a role that I want to be in but it would be nice to get out and about at some point.

Each team is different, and it’s nice finding out what each department does and how everyone fits in. It’s a great experience and will go towards what I want to do in future.

I’ve had some great feedback and worked with some lovely teams and people so far. There’s a good age range of colleagues, and this has been really good for me in terms of getting help and advice and helping me develop.

They said they were shocked at how quickly I’ve fitted in, and they’ve been very interested in me and why I’m there. As far as I’m aware, being an athlete, you just get down to what you need to do and work hard, and you achieve the goals you’ve been set to the best of your ability.

How have ACT supported you?

Really well – when I was starting the position, I didn’t realise that ACT would supply a transition psychologist, Ben Paszkowec, who’s always been available at a moment’s notice to give advice or if any problems arise, and that support has been really helpful. It has been great to have someone to talk to who understands what’s going on and who’s been through it themselves.

I would like UK sport to fund a transition psychologist to work with athletes when they retire from sport, as I’ve had a really positive experience working with Ben.

Steve Moore (ACT co-founder) has been to see me once, even activities like doing this interview all help to give me an outlet. The aftercare in this regard has been great and wasn’t something that I expected.

British Diving gave me aftercare for four months, but ACT have come in and are continuing that support to a really in-depth degree through Ben.

What personal attributes did diving develop in you?

Diving’s given me an awful lot, besides the social element from being with friends and competing around the world.

As a kid I was quite shy, so in gymnastics I was in a group of friends who were definitely louder than me, then in diving I had to come out of my shell quite a bit – my coach wouldn’t let me be shy. Also, I think you have to be a little bit crazy when you’re diving, so doing the sport really gave me more confidence, which is especially important when you’re diving off the ten-metre board.

Travelling around the world has really opened my eyes. It’s been great for eating too – I always used to be a fussy eater, but when you go to somewhere like China and you get a pigeon head put in front of you, you need to step out of your comfort zone! My taste in food definitely developed, but that expanded into knowing more about nutrition and eating healthily.

What transferable skills do you feel you are able to take into your second career?

I think I’ve got a good work ethic; with diving you have to be confident, determined and engaging with people, and that really expands your personal skillset. In sport, you’re always trying to perfect what you’re doing, so that instils a mindset in you to always produce your best when you’re given goals to achieve, whether you’re enjoying yourself or not.

Going into my current work position, I don’t really like maths and numbers, but I’ve had to deal with them and I’ve just kept on going until I’ve got things right.

I was always very organised, so that has helped. My time management has helped me get used to the 9-5 routine has been tough, though, especially when you factor in the commute.

Do you feel companies need to do more to attract athletes?

I think businesses could definitely give athletes more opportunities and trust them a bit more to do a job well, as we have so much to offer. It’s also very helpful to athletes as it is very hard to find something when you’re 28, more so than when you’re 20. If someone gives me something to do, I’ll fulfil that task. It’s just getting that opportunity to do that task in the first place which is the hard part.

I did my degree in sports science and now I’m in magazine journalism. I think doing a formal qualification does set you up, but I still believe you can learn anything you put your mind to.

How is 2017 shaping up for you?

Life’s all very different as I’ve had to move away from family and friends and move into a shared house. I’m sort of starting from the beginning again, but I think it’s good to move away.

My internship with Bauer goes on for a year so that’s my focus at the moment. Beyond my career, one of the nice things about not doing sport now is that when someone asks me if I’d like to do something, I can just say yes. I don’t say ‘Oh no, I’ve got competition or training to do’, now I can say yes to anything really. I’ve got holidays booked and breaks away, so it’s all good. That’s what’s nice about 2017 – I’ve got a lot of stuff to look forward to!

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