The leap into business takes careful balance

Matt Symonds discovers that former Olympians are often ideal students
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The Independent Online

With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games just over nine months away, 2012 will be the high point in the sporting careers of hundreds of athletes from the UK and across the globe. For many, the past four years of their lives will have been spent with just this one event in mind. Thousands of hours spent training, with many tears and much sweat spilt in the singular pursuit of Olympic glory. But as well as being the pinnacle of a life in sport, for many it will be the final stop on their competitive journey. So what then?

Some will continue in sport, coaching the next generation. A lucky few might land contracts as television or radio commentators. But many will face the same challenge most of us had upon leaving school or university. Finding a job.

It may come as no surprise that many athletes look to big business for the next step in their careers. A proven ability to cope with stress and perform under pressure are attractive qualities to employers. But while sport may provide numerous experiential benefits, it is unlikely to provide athletes with the tools to balance a profit and loss statement, or develop an effective marketing strategy. Which is why there is a growing cadre of Olympic-level athletes looking to the world's top business schools to plug the gaps.

Keeth Smart, for example, who won a sabre fencing silver medal for the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, has since completed an MBA at the Columbia Business School in New York, and gone on to work for Bank of America. Catherine Arlove, a two-time Australian Olympian in judo, completed her part-time MBA at Melbourne Business School while still competing at the highest sporting level.

Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes (pictured) has opted for a specialist MBA at the George Washington University School of Business in the US. The special talent, access and responsibility programme is geared to the specific needs of elite athletes. Participants are assigned personal mentors to help them with the transition into the world of business, while spouses are encouraged to take part in courses to help the whole family adjust to a new lifestyle.

Closer to home, the former Olympic athlete Jonathan Devlin is currently on the full-time MBA programme at Cass Business School in London. Devlin rowed for Great Britain and Ireland between 2001 and 2008, competing in both the Athens and Beijing games before retiring. He then worked for two years as a financial adviser before choosing to do the MBA. "Having committed so much time to rowing, I actually felt a little on the back foot. I wasn't developing as quickly as I would have liked. I realised that an MBA would offer me a way to accelerate my working career after years of it playing second fiddle to my training," he says.

Gavin Meadows, a former international freestyle swimmer who represented Great Britain at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games as well as at world, European and Commonwealth championships, has also recently started at Cass, on the executive MBA course. "At the end of my swimming career, in 2005, I went to work for Johnson & Johnson as a medical devices sales rep and have progressed steadily through management and marketing roles to my current position as business development manager for the UK and Ireland. I applied to business school because I have still got that desire to keep getting better and better.

"Swimming competitively gave me enormous amounts of drive and determination, but the further I progressed in my business career, the more I realised the benefits I would get from formal business training. I felt strongly that in order to achieve my full potential in the workplace I needed to be challenged and stretched, and, most critically, guided by those who had the right knowledge and perspective."

It has only been a month since the programme began, but Meadows has already identified parallels between training for a sporting event and doing an MBA, as well as recognising the scale of the challenge ahead.

"As an athlete you try to give yourself optimum conditions to perform. The MBA classroom is an engine room for developing the skill set that you need in business to perform your best. My good fortune is that I have already had one successful career, where I achieved a number of lifetime goals by the age of 27," says Meadows. "I know that balancing the executive MBA with my job will be trying, but I made the Olympics at my third attempt, so I understand what sacrifice means and I know that the gap between success and failure can be marginal. Small steps take you where you want to go, and I think the MBA is going to be well worth all of the effort that's involved."

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