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From world records to patient records: Joanna Rowsell on going from the Olympics to a medical degree

Published: 26 July 2021

Joanna rowsell landscape

The year is 2012, and beneath the undulating roof of the velodrome in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, something very special is happening. After three golds in the previous two days in the track cycling arena for Team GB, it was time for the women’s pursuit team to step up and write their place in the history books. Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell wheeled their bikes to the starting line on one side of the track, while a team from the USA did the same on the opposite side. From the sounding of the klaxon, the result was barely ever in doubt, with the British trio not only taking gold in emphatic style, but setting a world record in the processa feat that was repeated in Rio in 2016 at a new, longer distance.  

In 2017, double Olympic gold medal-winner Joanna Rowsell, a key member of both those teams, retired from racing after reaching the very pinnacle of the sport.

Making the transition to full-time study, she completed a degree in human biology at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2020 and followed this up by applying for graduate entry medicine at St George’s, University of London. After being accepted onto the course last summer, she has now completed her first year and, in the run up to Tokyo 2020, spoke to us about her switch from elite sports to life as a medical student.

What inspired you to transition to medicine?

When I retired from cycling I didn’t retire with the intention of studying medicine, I retired because I felt I’d achieved everything I wanted to as a cyclist and was more motivated by achieving new challenges than repeating what I’d already done. Not that that isn’t a challenge of course, but I was inspired by different things, so I decided to retire and start a degree in human biology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

I knew the degree wouldn’t qualify me to do anything specific, but it was a stepping stone. The idea was that I would put myself in a position where I could apply for a graduate entry course. I was surprised when I got in first time because medicine is so competitive and oversubscribed, but it all seemed to go well, and I’m really excited to be here.

How have you found your first year as a medical student?

It’s been a really tough year in terms of the amount of work, but it’s also been fantastic in many ways. I’m really looking forward to placements starting next year and also to getting out a bit more.

I’ve really enjoyed the GP sessions and the variety of things they see, which really fascinates me. I like how much of it is communications-based and listening, as well as psychology.

The weekly GP training sessions really helped put everything we were learning into context. It’s easy to sit in lectures and not fully understand something, but then you have a GP session and they talk things through with you and you get to speak to an actual patient with the condition – then it all comes to life and makes sense.

What made you choose St George’s?

I loved that it was based in the hospital – I got a real buzz just from walking in. I really enjoyed the open day and far preferred the idea of studying here than to a campus-based university. I also wanted to come back to London.

People online ask me why I picked the university I did, and I always say when I walked around it felt the most “me” and I can’t really describe it much better than that.

How have you found the transition from cycling to studying?

I’ve really enjoyed it. I think a lot of people retire from elite sport and feel really lost, and I’ve definitely had points when I felt like that. You sort of lose your identity, because you’re like, “I’m a sports person, I’m a Team GB cyclist.” Suddenly when you retire it’s like, “Oh, what am I now?”

I think I foresaw that and thought I definitely want a career number two, I don’t just want to float around telling anecdotes about London 2012 for the rest of my life.

Having that identity as a medical student has really helped me transition. And also having a focus. Every day training you have targets to hit, even when you have a rest day, your aim is to rest as much as possible. When I retired, when I had a day off, I was like, “What am I achieving today? What am I working towards?” Now there’s always an exam to revise for, always work or extra reading to do. I like that there’s something to aim for and I’m building up to something rather than just floating along. Medicine as a career will involve life-long learning and that’s something that really appealed to me.

Have you noticed an overlap in state of mind between cycling and medicine?

I think I recognise that you can’t feel motivated all the time, and there are certainly days when you really don’t feel like doing work or watching the lectures. Similarly, there are days when you don’t feel like going out on your bike. You just need to understand that a) that’s normal, and b) you just have to get on with it.

Also coming up to exams, I know people get very nervous. Fortunately, I don’t really get nervous, and I think having done Olympic competitions helps with that. I quite like the feeling that you’ve got to get it right on the day and can’t mess up. Everyone thinks I’m a complete weirdo when I say that, but it’s the closest feeling I get to competing nowadays.

In sport, you also have to focus on the process and doing the training properly and getting yourself to race day as best you possibly can, and I think that transfers to exams at university. You need to put in the work, put in the revision, but also still get enough sleep, look after yourself and be in the best possible shape.

Have you been getting involved in other activities?

At the university I’ve joined the athletics club and I like going out on their runs. I joined right at the start of the academic year and went to their first session. It’s been a great way to make friends with people in different courses, year groups and also on my course that I wouldn’t have met otherwise because we’ve been mainly online.

What are your plans for Tokyo 2020?

I’m working for Discovery who are the host broadcaster of the Olympics. I’ll be working with them for the road and track cycling events – mainly commentary, but a bit of punditry as well.

I’m really looking forward to it as it’s the first games that’s happened since I retired. Lots of people have asked how I’m going to feel as I won’t be reigning champion anymore and it’s likely the world record will be broken, but honestly, I’m really excited about commentating and talking about it all.

What are your goals for the future?

In the near future, hopefully I’ll pass my exams, make it through medical school and qualify as a doctor, which will fit in quite nicely for the next Olympics in 2024. Funnily enough, my life still seems to work in four-year cycles.

Longer term, I think maybe work as a GP or psychiatrist – those are my current two favourite things. Although I’m more than open to changing that. I’m keen to see how I enjoy the different placements.

I’d also still like to be involved in the cycling world. I like the idea of trying to help people make lifestyle changes. That’s something I’m keen to explore at a wider level going forwards. I’d love to campaign for more cycle lanes and infrastructure that could make life easier for people day to day.

If you’re interested in following in Joanna’s footsteps and applying for graduate entry medicine at St George’s, you can find out more on the course webpage here.

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