By Laura Manning
As if legal training isn’t tough enough, some aspiring lawyers complicate their lives by simultaneously pursuing Olympic glory. By Laura Manning
The goal of working hard and playing hard is not easy to achieve for any budding lawyer, so imagine adding a rigorous training schedule to your work-life balance. This is the reality for four law student Olympic and Paralympic Games hopefuls, who have each been forced to ditch university social life in favour of training to become a world-class athlete, all the while trying to achieve top grades so they can land their dream careers in the law. And with London 2012 just around the corner, they are each working hard to try to win a coveted place on the British team – something that could make the work-life juggling act even harder to pull off.
Olympic fencer Alex O’Connell jokes that his days can never be spontaneous, with every minute allocated according to a strict schedule of training, classes and studying.
O’Connell completed the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at BPP Law School this year. He believes that rigidity at school taught him the skill of time management, and by holding on to that skill he somehow survives.
“The biggest problem is that I’m away a lot and train in the evenings,” O’Connell says. “Having a three-hour gym session and knowing I have a big assignment to complete while trying to see friends at lunchtime – it’s all a bit of a slog.”
For someone who has spent a decade fencing competitively an office job may seem an unlikely career move, but O’Connell has landed a training contract at magic circle law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, although due to his fencing he has no start-date in place.
“We [fencers] all know that we’ve got the rest of our lives to look at as well – we’ve got to prepare ourselves for the future,” he explains. “After completing work experience with Ashurst and Taylor Wessing I realised a career in law was something I’d like to do – I found it really interesting.”
Three years ago O’Connell competed at the Beijing Olympics, an event he describes as unforgettable.
“Beijing was the most amazing experience,” he recalls. “There’s nothing about it I could ever forget. I don’t think any other country could create such an amazing spectacle.”
London 2012 is O’Connell’s next target and he spent at least six hours a day in the gym and fencing while studying for his GDL. He says that he and his peers see London 2012 as the final goal, the “make or break”.
“Fingers crossed I qualify,” he says. “I’ll see how next year goes and decide on my career from there.” But will he be going for gold? “Anything can happen,” he replies modestly.
Elsewhere, fellow BPP GDL student Vicki Hawkins is also gearing up to represent Team GB at London 2012. She is currently training hard to qualify in water polo for the Olympics, after failing to qualify for the Beijing Games.
“I’m incredibly excited as this is what we’ve been working towards for the past five years,” enthuses Hawkins. “You can’t go to the Olympics and aim for anything other than gold. We’ve come a long way in the past five years, including winning the European B Championships.”
Hawkins began playing water polo at 14 years old, working her way up from county teams to district and finally national level. She is currently studying the GDL part-time and has landed a training contract at Osborne Clarke.
“Doing my GDL gives me some sort of separation from water polo – it helps to break up the day,” insists Hawkins. “But it’s tough because training is so extensive. My week consists of 20 hours in the water and four hours in the gym. I also have to attend game analysis sessions.”
Hawkins, who has a PhD in chemical engineering, takes part in several competitions – including last year’s Hungarian national league. She is now training for the European A Championships.
Unlike most students she has little time to enjoy university nightlife, saying that her social life often gets ditched in favour of training.
“It’s definitely tough balancing the two,” she adds.
Being a sporty child, Hawkins competed in netball and hockey at county level as well as athletics. “I was always a better runner than a swimmer, in terms of competing,” she quips.
England ski cross team member Danielle Freeze admits she has struggled to achieve the right balance between work, life and training, and has postponed her Olympic debut until the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Currently studying law and accounting at Oxford Brookes University, Freeze has had to write off her dream of Olympic glory in Russia in 2014, due to the difficulty of travelling to training sites.
“The dry ski slope is two hours away,” she says. “And it’s difficult to train for freestyle skiing there as I can’t really do jumps on a small bit of plastic.”
Freeze was 17 years old when she started ski cross, a timed racing event that is considered part of freestyle skiing due to its inclusion of jumps and rails. She has taken part in numerous competitions, achieving fourth place this year in the Swiss Cup.
“The best part of competing is the rush you get standing at the starting gate,” she enthuses. “At first you feel like you don’t want to go down, but when you get to the finish all you want to do is go straight back up and do it again.”
Freeze believes it is important to have something to focus on other than skiing, leading her to concentrate on finishing her education before pursuing her Winter Olympics goal.
“I see people go off to be great coaches or instructors, but what if they get a big injury? They would have to go back and reassess their life,” she muses.
The skier hopes to study her LPC at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and then go on to practise company and commercial law.
“I don’t mind the idea of an office job, which may seem strange since I just love the outdoors,” she says. “But the idea that I could have enough money to pay to go out and ski a lot, or even pursue teaching one day, pushes me to continue.”
The task for a British skier to compete against the world’s best while combining study or work is a tough one, but it was a childhood dream for Freeze, who began skiing at the age of three. She certainly has no plans to give up the sport.
“It’s a big commitment, but I love it because it’s worth it,” she concludes.
Paralympic hopeful Craig McCann, who is a wheelchair fencer, says he has found it impossible to achieve a viable work-life balance since moving from competing in a domestic capacity to the international arena.
“After turning international in April the majority of my time had to be split between training and studying, which involved reading the majority of the College of Law (CoL) manuals in hotel rooms, airports and on flights,” he says.
McCann has just completed his GDL at the CoL’s York centre, but hopes to compete in London 2012 and perhaps even Rio 2016 before he goes on to do the LPC.
“I decided that with the final run-up to qualifying for and hopefully competing in London I wouldn’t be able to put in the necessary amount of work to do my best at both,” explains McCann. “Since completing the GDL I’ve begun training as close to full-time as the limited funding allows.”
Training as a fencer is expensive compared with most sports, with McCann having to purchase everything required with the help of his family and through the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS).
As a child he enjoyed athletics, rugby and cricket, but he admits music was his passion and he played drums with the Doncaster Jazz Association for many years.
“This was something I could no longer do after my illness so my passion for sport grew out of my rehabilitation in the past few years,” he explains.
McCann was talent-spotted at the Paralympic Potential event. After competing in the 2010 national championships and achieving fifth place, he began training with the Great Britain squad. His weekly training regime includes three to four gym sessions, two to three coaching and sparring sessions and daily physiotherapy.
He describes his relationship with the team as “very close-knit”, adding that “banter is rife and comments about my legal ambitions are often to be heard when I’m debating whether the last hit scored was mine or not”.
McCann’s interest in law came from a curiosity about entertainment law while studying for a BA in music business. As a lawyer he hopes to pursue his interest in contract and intellectual property (IP) law.
But for the moment his focus is to get to the London Paralympics and stand on a podium.
“Muhammad Ali once said that ‘the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out on the road, long before I dance under the lights’,” he says. “Although I don’t dance under any lights this is true for any combat-based sport, and that quote reminds me on a daily basis that it’s the hard work in training that generates the podium finishes and medals.”