Imogen Grant and Louise Shanahan

Imogen Grant and Louise Shanahan

Cambridge to Tokyo...and back

Imogen Grant and Louise Shanahan both took time out from studies to compete at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in athletics and rowing respectively.  

University Director of Sport, Nick Brooking, talks with these two exceptional student-athletes about how they came to realise their academic and sporting ambitions, how they manage the conflicting demands on their time and what lies ahead for these most recent Cambridge University Olympians.

An excerpt from the conversation

Nick: 
Imogen and Louise, welcome. Perhaps we could start pre-Cambridge: tell us a little bit about your childhood aspirations or ambitions, either academically or sporting.  

Louise:  
I think in a way I was almost born and bred to run. I went to my first race when I was six days old. I don't think my mum was super keen about it — it was an intervarsity cross-country race. I think my dad was proud of me and wanted to bring me along. And I probably didn't find the sport myself until I was about nine years old at a school sports fun day — probably because I wasn't very good at other sports and so I kind of found one that I wasn't completely rubbish at and took off with it.   

It was probably only when I was 13-14 that I really said, “wow I like athletics!” and for long as I can remember my dream has been to go to the Olympics. I think it's been the thing in the back of my head for every training session since then. But I think you’re kind of the polar opposite, Imogen.  

Imogen:  
I think we have some similarities. I did a lot of sport growing up but I did a lot of everything else. I kind of tried a bit of everything, went to almost every single club. My parents were incredibly patient driving me to who knows what, whether it was a swimming lesson or a music lesson or an art after-school club.  

I would never commit to a sport or to one thing. As I got a little bit older I never really considered myself a sporty person. I was a person who did sports because I was quite academic and I grew up in Cambridge so I kind of knew that I wanted to go to the University from quite a young age. In my head, for some reason, I didn't think that I could do both — I was either academic or I was sporty. Especially by the time I got to secondary school, sports definitely took a back seat.   

Actually by the time I arrived at Cambridge I hadn't really done any sport for a couple of years despite the fact I’d done all sorts when I was younger and really enjoyed it.   

Nick:  
Two quite different backgrounds, but you end up in the same college. How did that come about for you as individuals?   

Louise:  
I did my undergraduate at University College Cork and started looking at PhDs. I guess without even thinking about athletics I was looking at what PhD group and what supervisor best suited me and it turned out that was in Cambridge. So I kind of decided I was coming to Cambridge and then had to work out where to live. I wasn't that familiar with the Cambridge system, so I kind of thought, what do I do here? I googled what's the best college in Cambridge and the thing that comes up is Trinity College and so I said, well that's grand — I’ll put Trinity down and didn't give it another thought until I was here.  

Imogen:  
I think because I grew up in Cambridge I had a little bit more opportunity to see the university on a different level. I looked around multiple colleges on their open days and I think the thing that really swung it for me was that I went to a taster lecture day at Trinity that they put on for sixth formers and afterwards the students who showed us around took us back to their room in Great Court, which is very splendid — beautiful grass, massive fountain, chapel and all that — and told us that Trinity gives small amounts of money to societies that you wish to form and this person and some of their friends decided to make a cheese society — so they would buy cheese with some funding and eat the cheese and hang out and I thought was that was a really lovely way to spend time at a college.   

Trinity I think has suited me really well and although I really value the academics, actually the extracurricular stuff is what really has been so valuable because I wouldn't have started rowing otherwise.

Imogen

Nick:  
You rate sport as important, but people might say, well, you would because you're very good at what you do. How do you think other people perceive it and what's the value of doing something even if it's not at your level?  

Imogen:  
I think it's so important — I’m much more organised since I started rowing — you know it's the old adage, isn't it? If you want something done give it to a busy person. And I think whether it's sport or choir or a different extracurricular like the plethora of societies you have at Cambridge, having something else forces you to actually figure out what's important and prioritize.   

Louise:  
Oh completely — I took two weeks off from running when I came back from Tokyo and I was so unproductive. I thought, oh you know, time to catch up, been out of the lab for the summer. Disaster! I got nothing done — it was only when I went back to training and had a bit more structure to my time that I actually started to really be productive.   

Imogen:  
Yeah, you make time for something that you think is valuable, and I think that's the beauty of university — Cambridge has so many options.

Being a rower and being in a high-performance environment has already made me a better doctor because I’ve got better communication skills and team working skills, and being a doctor and a medical student makes me a better rower because I understand the physiology behind it — you know it all feeds into everything.

Imogen

Nick:  
And when people talk to you about that, do they think it's normal or do they look at themselves and think, well, I could never do that, regardless of the level?  

Imogen:  
I think so. When you tell people, oh I’ve just been for a run or oh I’ve actually done a couple of sessions this morning before I came into the lectures, sometimes you're met with a bit of a wide-eyed look — but I think once you're doing it, it doesn't feel so insurmountable.   

Louise:  
I think, if you love it, you make time for it.  I definitely found when I was 14-15 going into the equivalent of A-Levels, people said it's great that you've managed to keep the running going up until now, but you know you won't be able to keep it going this year. And then I was in university, and they were saying, oh know you know A-Levels are one thing but the undergraduate experience — it's just not going to happen. And they definitely thought I wasn't going to be able to do it with the PhD — and I think PhD is probably a little easier than the undergraduate in terms of multitasking. People can be a little closed off but I think, give it a go and worst-case scenario you're a little tight on time and pull back from one or the other — but it definitely is possible.   

I think sometimes there's a bit of a stereotype at Cambridge — from the outside looking in, it can be seen as ‘academics academics academics’ and it's only once you start branching out that you realize it's so much more than that.  

Imogen

Nick:  
Who are the key influences that got you to where you are? You mentioned going to your first race at the age of six — I presume you weren't running in that but maybe somebody else was who was important?   

Louise:  
My father was an international athlete and he was actually the university coach at the time so he was bringing me along to the local cross-country races. He has been a huge inspiration for me and he's always said, you know you can do both things, just keep working at it. Since I’ve arrived in Cambridge I’m now coached by Phil O’Dell, the university cross-country coach, and I think we would say we had a rocky start — I’m a bit more of a speed athlete and he's definitely more in the endurance arena so it's kind of an interesting dynamic but I just look at what's happened in the last two years — it's worked out so well.   

I’m also really lucky that I get quite a bit of support from UCAPP, which is really helpful with strength and conditioning. They're a friendly face after a long day of work when some experiment hasn't worked. It’s really nice — I feel like they genuinely care about me.

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Nick:  
Tell us more about UCAPP, the University of Cambridge Athletic Performance Programme.   

Louise:  
It's the elite sports scholarship in Cambridge and they basically provide services to the athletes, so we're talking about strength and conditioning, lifestyle support, physiotherapy, psychology and nutrition. It’s a huge range of support and to be honest it has been the reason why I’ve been able to keep going for the last year. With Covid, it was a bit of a disaster with gyms shut and I was really lucky to have gym access, to have track access, and keep things going when the world was falling apart. So yes, 100 percent, I have UCAPP to thank for my last two years at Cambridge.   

Imogen:  
Did you know about it before you applied?   

Louise:  
No, so I actually accepted my PhD in Cambridge, accepting that that would be the end of athletics and it was only when I arrived here and Fiona Bond, one of the cross-country runners, said that you should apply for this and it’ll get you into the gym, and I thought, oh free gym membership, sure that's great.

Honestly, I thought it was the end of athletics when I came to Cambridge and little did I know it was only the start. I think I fell into the trap of seeing Cambridge as academics and that sport wouldn't work with it. 

Louise

Imogen:  
I didn't start rowing until fresher’s week of my first year — there are boatie cocktails at Trinity — the boat club's called First and Third Trinity Boat Club — and the deal was you sign up for a taster session for rowing and you get some vouchers for free drinks and in freshers week obviously this is a fantastic deal. So I put my name down with no intention of going to the session, got my two free drinks and went away. The Saturday rolled around when the time came for me to go to my taster session and I nearly didn't go but felt bad because I’ve got the two free drinks so I sort of chased them down, made my way to the boathouse, got into a four, and someone said — oh you're picking this up really quickly — and I thought — great! I signed my name for the next session and it sort of went from there.   

I’m sure I was an absolute nightmare because I kept emailing and asking for more sessions and they've probably got plenty to organize already. At Trinity, there are easily over 100 novices each year that go through learning to row so for me to keep saying — “hello please can I have some more sessions, I’m really enjoying this” — was sometimes a bit annoying. Still, First and Third is where I got my start and Neil Talbot, one of the alumni coaches, really instilled a level of enthusiasm that was just so fantastic, enabling me to do a couple of extra sessions. That paved my way to the development squad of what was the Cambridge University Women's Boat Club and is now CUBC.  

From my second year, Rob Baker has been absolutely instrumental in making me the athlete I am today, taking me from a fairly immature, very enthusiastic 19-year-old to someone who is winning under 23 worlds a few years later.   

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Nick:  
So you actually became the world under-23 champion in the lightweight single having rowed for three or four years. But that's interesting — two very different stories, both of you not really coming to Cambridge expecting what you've achieved. Let's talk a bit about actually getting to Tokyo because you again took quite different routes. Louise, you discovered you could do some athletics at Cambridge but then you actually discovered you could do quite a lot. I remember when you got here that Paris 2024 was the target — what happened to get that acceleration?  

Louise:   
For the seven years before I arrived in Cambridge I saw little to no improvement in athletics so I went from being a European youth champion to not PB-ing for nearly seven years. When I arrived in Cambridge things weren't looking great. On my application for UCAPP, it said I was aiming for Paris 2024 and I wanted that to be true but it was still probably wishful thinking. Since I’ve arrived in Cambridge everything that could have gone well, went well.   

Back in January, even I was not thinking about qualifying for the Olympics. I was really hoping I might get my first Irish senior vest; it was something I’d wanted for so long and I felt like if I could tick that box at least I’d have salvaged something for my athletics career. The way it worked out, having the training through the winter with the lockdowns, it was really consistent. In February I had a breakthrough race on the indoor season and I guess from that I kind of thought — okay well if I can make that breakthrough race at a consistent level, maybe Tokyo might be on the cards.

So I had a really good block of training coming into the outdoors but there was a new qualification system for athletics — all ranking based and to be honest none of us really knew how it worked.

I turned to my dad and Phil and I said, look it's a small shot — maybe 10-15 percent — but there is a chance I could qualify for the Olympics.

Louise

But I need to go around Europe to all these races and collect these ranking points. We sat down and talked about it and at the end of the day it was the Olympics so I kind of felt like I had to go for it.  

So fast forward 23 days later I won my first national senior title and I had far too many Covid tests and was bouncing around different countries in Europe. I somehow managed to qualify. I think three days before the ranking closed was the first time I moved into an Olympic qualification position and thankfully when it closed I was still there – it was not planned, very last minute.  

Nick:  
This rings a bell with Anna Keisenhoffer, using spreadsheets to work out what was or wasn't possible. 

Louise:  
Oh yeah, because I am a physicist and I like data, I basically had an excel spreadsheet which had all the calculations of the points of all the athletes around me — and I think that's probably why I realised that, okay, I’ve won one or two races which are kind of qualification worthy. You need five and I said, look if I can replicate this I can actually qualify. I don't think many people believed me and I think my dad said he couldn’t see how it was possible. But I did have a giant excel sheet for calculating whether I could qualify and I don't think I would have qualified without it. So, brilliant, very Cambridge.   

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