Finishing school: Meet the elite sportswomen back at university

Originally published on Hijacked (21 April 2015)

Olympic rower Phoebe Stanley and champion runner Rhiannon Snipe may only now be approaching their final years of university but their sporting careers have already covered considerable ground.

For Stanley, the longest stretch of all was sitting in a boat with seven other women at the 2012 London Olympics. It had been a hard battle for her team to find themselves in that lane and an even harder struggle for Stanley herself, recovering from a heart condition and the bitter disappointment of being pulled from the women’s pair just months before.

“Being at the Games was much more than a result for me,” Stanley tells Hijacked. “I had a heart operation in October on my 27th birthday. Six weeks later, I was at the Olympic trials.”

The Geelong rower is used to fighting for her place at the top by now. At just 168 cm, Stanley’s small stature meant she was “regularly overlooked for selection into Australians teams” early on in her sporting career.

“When they did give me opportunities to race, I’d always have to race from the bottom up with five or so girls to beat before they actually put me in the boat,” Stanley says. “That was a sharp wake up call for me – coming from private school sport and a supportive family into this elite world where no one else was going to back you. It taught me how to fight for it.”

But, for Stanley, it is the “comradery” of rowing and not the competition that keeps drawing her back.

“That was a skill I acquired in my school years – getting the girls to rally around the goal and the cause and it’s probably what’s kept me in the sport for so long. People have either loved me or hated me for it. Some girls think I’m the biggest pain in the ass they’ve ever met.”

It certainly made Stanley an important asset to the women’s eight as she took her place among the “Motley Crew” – the mixed bag of athletes Rowing Australia never intended to send to the Olympics.

“It was a massive political battle just to get to London,” says Stanley. “It got to the point where two ex-rowers were going to sue Rowing Australia for sexual discrimination because they’d sent 47 men overseas for the previous three years and only seven women. We really just wanted a go.”

When the team arrived, after only three months of training and having beaten the men’s eight during time trials, Stanley says “there was absolutely nothing to lose.”

“It was kind of liberating. At the starting line, I wasn’t nervous; I was just ready to rip it apart.”

Ex-army reserve and fellow Melbournian, Rhiannon Snipe, also understands that call to race. For Snipe, sport turned from hobby to passion on the bitumen of military school, in years of training and drills and discipline.

“I got into running through the army,” Snipe tells Hijacked. “But I think it was the clubs and the social side of sport that kept me going.”

Snipe has now competed in two Ironman World Championship triathlons, coming fifth in 2012 before winning the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships Melbourne in 2013.

“Pushing myself is a natural instinct for me and I think perhaps that aspect of the military just suited my personality. It was really the challenge that drew me to the military…”

But Snipe knows better than anyone the feeling of starting line jitters.

“I don’t need to psych myself up so much as calm myself down,” Snipe laughs. “I can get a little too anxious and stressed. But, I just try to forget the pressure and remember that I’m there because I love doing it.”

Fortunately, at tournaments, Snipe doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. “I find I’m inspired more and more by the people around me – particularly the elderly competitors, the 70 and 80 year old’s. I’d love to be able to keep competing at some of the ages that they do.”

According to Stanley, it’s becoming harder and harder to stick around in elite sport.

“It’s a difficult balance, especially when you’re young,” she says. “To stay in sport for a long time you have to be tough and you have to say ‘no, I’m going to take a break and spend Easter with my family’ or ‘I’m going to continue studying because I need an outlet.’ Unfortunately, the way sport’s going now, they’re not encouraging younger generations to continue their studies. They just want all of them now.”

Apart from “feeling like a rock star” at the London Olympics, the thing Stanley cherishes most about her sporting career are the opportunities it’s given her to support other young athletes – particularly other young women.

“I think it’s tough being a female in sport,” Stanley says. “Very few women make it because there isn’t any support, there isn’t any promotion. This whole thing with the women’s eight put a big magnifying glass over Rowing Australia. Since then they’ve elected their first ever female board member so it’s slow going but they’re trying to break that down.”

Of course, sport isn’t everything and no one knows it better than Rhiannon Snipe and Phoebe Stanley. When they aren’t training – though as Snipe puts it “I’m really always training” – they spend their time pounding the campus halls.

No longer running the Ironman distance, Snipe is in her first year as a PHD candidate in Dietetics at Monash University and works as a Sports Dietician at the university clinic.

“Sports nutrition has obviously played a big role in my sporting successes so I like to be able to work with people and help them achieve their goals,” Snipe says.

And, after officially retiring from international rowing at the end of last year, Phoebe Stanley is now on track to end 2015 with a Doctorate of Optometry from The University of Melbourne.

“I never thought I’d do something after rowing that I’d be as passionate about,” she says. “But I’ve actually really fallen in love with optometry. It’s been interesting to see how the interpersonal skills I’ve learnt through sport have translated into a consulting room scenario.”

This month, the Olympian is facing yet another challenge: cycling. Stanley will be racing on a bike instead of a boat as part of Australian University Sport’s national team of student athletes competing in the Gallipoli Games, a multisport event commemorating the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign.

“I’ve never done a bike race before,” Stanley says. “So, that should be interesting.”

But, as Snipe returns from years of triathlon to her first love – running – she admits she’s excited to chase that win again.

“When you finish an event for the first time, your first marathon, your first Ironman, when you just cross that line and achieve something new, it sort of becomes addictive – that finishing feeling.”

To other addicts out there, Snipe has these words of wisdom: “Learn as much as you can about your sport and persevere with it. You’re not going to make it overnight but if you can persevere you’ll be able to get the best out of yourself.”

Stanley echoes her sentiment. “Be prepared to lose sometimes, but stick with it. If you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t get there.”

For these two sportswomen at least, “getting there” seems to have less to do with medals and championships than it does with hitting a university running track at five am every morning or sitting in a boat on a London lake and, just for a moment, forgetting there’s a finish line.

Both Rhiannon Snipe and Phoebe Stanley will compete in Australian University Sport’s Gallipoli Games this month

By Sherryn Groch

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