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Mens sana in corpore sano: there is no trade-off between physical and intellectual success – Max von Berg, Triathlon

A belief held and followed by many, especially in Europe, is that physical and intellectual activities are mutually exclusive. Intellectuals are rarely athletes and athletes tend to shy away from intellectual or academic challenge. Both are fundamentally wrong and Oxford is one place where both blend relatively well, although snobbery remains at both extremes.
Many people feel that high level sport is overly time-consuming and incompatible with academic study or intellectual scrutiny. To some, competitive sport may even seem to conflict with being successful academically or professionally. In fact, few people consider the mutually beneficial combination of both activities.

I grew up practicing many sports from swimming to track and field, from tennis to football. I was encouraged by my father and my record as a pupil at school was reasonable, although I had a tendency to disrupt class quite frequently. I was never really pushed by my family to develop intellectual scrutiny and I only saw school as a ‘passage obligé’. I had no goals in or out of the classroom. As schooling became slightly more challenging I increasingly shied away from it. I repeatedly turned away from sports too, but my father’s discourse always steered me back to it – the same could not be said for school. I went from being an average student to being in the bottom 10% by the time I reached the final year before the Baccalauréat – which I unexpectedly passed with honours, probably demonstrating how low standards in French education have fallen. In the direct aftermath of school I never considered taking up competitive sports and competitive studies concomitantly. I had the impression there lay a trade-off between one or the other. Yet, without noticing at first, I decided I was going to change that.

I picked up triathlon avidly and enrolled in the Half-Ironman of Monaco. It was a tough first taste at the long triple effort that provided many lessons for future preparation. I was the youngest competitor on the day but only 11th in my age group. I kept on training with the aim of preparing for long distance events under the Belgian national colours. I also enrolled on a business degree at university. Ten months later, I finished second in the 18-24 age group at the 2007 long distance European championships and 7th at the world championships. These were very good results considering the short preparation I had undertaken. At the same time, I fell in the trap of believing, once again, that I had to choose between academics and sports – I failed to grasp how being an athlete would structure my life and increase my focus academically. Instead, I should have used my experience in sport to structure my academic life and professional aspirations.

Recognising I did not have the ambition to be a career-sportsman, I decided to focus on university and sought to migrate to the United Kingdom. Having earned top marks in my class and being selected for the dean’s list, I convinced the Essex University’s Government Department (ranked 5th for politics in the UK) to accept me as a transfer student with direct entry into second year. This decision was crucial to helping my development as a student and as an athlete. Having no connections or relatives in the UK, I had to adapt. I joined a local cycling club, swam with the triathlon club and ran mainly on my own with occasional track sessions with the athletics club to build on the training begun in the summer of 2009. The objective was summer 2010 before which I would have a series of preparatory races in France and the UK. The European championships were to be held in Vittoria-Gasteiz, Spain, end of June (4km swim, 130km bike, 30km run).

After a gruelling day and considering quitting over a hundred times under ruthless Spanish heat I crossed the line 3rd in my age group and exhausted to the point of collapsing in tears. Yet, the moment I crossed the finish line I knew it had been all worthwhile. My performance was respectable considering I had had an intense year splitting my time between study and sports. It also made me think doing better than in 2007 would not be easy. I sought to bank this experience for the worlds less than two months later and pressed on hard in training. August was to be the moment of truth. I was at the start of the long distance world championships, in Immenstadt, in southern Bavaria. The bike course was unforgiving and it was going to be crucial to start the run with fresh legs. Unlike in Spain, I never felt like quitting, and having come out of the swim 12 minutes down on the leader, I took the lead 13km into the run. I could not believe I was leading and always thought someone would catch me. 17km later, it was hard to believe but, on that day, after 7h25 minutes of pain, I crossed the finish line having completed the course faster than anyone in the 18-24 age group could; I had won gold with an 8 minute lead on my closest rival.

The next academic year rapidly began shortly thereafter, following a short internship in Washington DC. I went on graduating with First Class honours and the second highest marks in my year , published one of my essays and was accepted for a master’s degree in politics at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations ranked 2nd in the world. The truth is that the lessons I learnt in sports are those I use the most out of sports. Being competitive about both aspects of your life helps you grow as a more organised and intelligent being, which ultimately makes you more prepared and more adaptable to every situation. Pushing your body helps you push yourself academically too. The key is to have a specific goal; a target to think of every day and to strive towards.

Since then I have picked up rowing at Oxford. I was soon accepted with my college’s men’s senior squad and later selected to race in the ‘M1’ (men’s first boat) of Wolfson College in both Torpids and Summer VIIIs 2012 (Oxford’s winter and summer rowing competitions) where we led very successful campaigns at the top of Division I. After a successful summer interning for a financial consultancy in London I joined the university squad as part of the lightweight blues (OULRC) to trial for a seat to race Cambridge in March 2013. I made it to the final 16 rowers, although I was ultimately selected for the 7-seat of the reserve boat (Nephthys) in a highly competitive year where Oxford won 6 out of 6 races against its enemy brother. It was a year with ups and downs including some injuries but never did I think I would need to abandon competitive sports whilst studying, even for an advanced degree. It was at times very challenging, but also rewarding.

Intellectual work has often times seemed in contradiction to my sports planning and vice versa. But the capacity of managing both at the same time is one we all can develop with a limited amount of drive and ambition. People think it is inhumane to train for long distance triathlon and graduate first class. People think it is not possible to row 12 times a week and yet still do well at Oxford University. But it is… I have not received exam results yet, but hopefully it is! And I do have a social life, quite an active one actually, beyond sports and academics.

Being a good athlete gives you confidence, positive attitude and determination outside the field (or off the river). The academic and professional challenges encountered are opportunities to use lessons learnt on the football pitch or the tennis court. They help you become a more accomplished person and a more useful one. Athlete-students should be confident they are getting the best out of both worlds because they can bank far more experience – they stand out. In so-doing, they echo Confucius’ old adage that ‘those who are true in my village conduct themselves differently’; for to be different is to be an opportunity.

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