8 June 2010 | Updated: 8 June 2010 4:19 pm
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Can you train to be an Olympic athlete and hold down a demanding career in law?
Can you imagine getting up every morning four hours before you are due at the office to take part in a gruelling training regime, only to then spend another three hours in the gym as soon as you finish work?
This is almost impossible to imagine at the best of times, let alone for those who work the hellish hours usually attached to the legal profession. But for some, this is a situation that has become the norm because they have pinned their hopes on competing at the London 2012 Olympic games.
One Olympic hopeful, Lucy Onyeforo, who works as a paralegal at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, explains: “It’s hard to balance your work alongside your training but if you’re dedicated you just get on with it.”
The 26-year-old is part of the firm’s dispute resolution team and is training with former Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie six days a week in the run-up to the games.
“I was chosen to go along to training sessions with him. It’s a massive honour to train with someone like Linford because he’s achieved so much in his career and really knows his stuff,” she adds.
Onyeforo, who is in training to complete the 100-metre sprint and runs for Enfield and Haringey Athletics Club, is also set to be seconded by Freshfields to work for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games for 10 months as a records manager.
“Freshfields has really got involved with the Olympics,” she says. “It’s fantastic that I’ll not only be training to compete in the event but also seeing what goes on behind the scenes.”
The Birmingham-born athlete insists that her Olympic dreams will only have a chance of being realised with the firm’s support. She explains that so far Freshfields has allowed her to have the flexible working hours of 3pm to 9pm so that she can train with Christie every weekday from 10am to 1pm.
“To train at an elite level and juggle a demanding job in the law requires a lot of hard work. I think you have to have a very genuine interest in the profession to make it work,” Onyeforo states. “I don’t have sponsorship, which means I have to support myself through my job, and nearly every single penny goes on things such as transport and training equipment.”
And, unlike other twentysomethings working in the City, Onyeforo can’t stay up all night partying.
“I rarely drink so I save a bomb on socialising,” she says. “I have to be in bed early so that I get enough sleep and I make sure I eat all the right things such as plenty of protein and fish oils.”
Fellow runner and 800-metre Olympic hopeful Edward Jackson, who is a trainee at CMS Cameron McKenna, says that if you are going to aim for something like the Olympics then you have to take it seriously.
“The thing for me is that there’s always time to fit something in if you want it enough,” he insists.
The 25-year-old has just started a corporate seat in Sofia, western Bulgaria, and is finding it hard to fit training into his daily routine as he tries to settle into his new surroundings.
“I’ve been trying to do a bit of base work as you can’t train at a high intensity for too long, but it’s quite hard being in a new seat, let alone a completely new country,” he explains. “I’ve only been in the seat for three weeks so I’m checking out the gyms and looking for running routes, but I’m sure my routine will get back to normal very soon.”
Jackson started running during his gap year before he started at the University of Nottingham.
“I’ve always played sport and was good at rugby and enjoyed cricket, but really took up running more seriously before starting university,” he explains. “Since then I’ve competed in many major global competitions and represented Great Britain and England in well over 50 grand prix and matches at home and abroad against other nations.”
When he started with Camerons last year, Jackson was managing to fit in doing what he calls “speed sessions” at the gym, as well as track work and doing the morning and evening commute by running to and from work.
“My inspiration is Roger Black, who won two silvers at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics,” enthuses Jackson. “He is a good family friend and I’ve known him since I was young. I think about him and what he’s achieved when things are getting tough.”
Elsewhere, Herbert Smith lawyer Ruth Sander is secretly hoping for a spot in the Olympic rowing team in 2012. Starting with the firm as a trainee in August 2005, after taking law with law studies in Europe at Magdalen College, Oxford, Sander now specialises in EU and competition law, but because of her gruelling training regime she works as a consultant.
“For me the working environment at Herbert Smith has been better than I ever expected in terms of the amount of support I’ve been given to train with the Great Britain [GB] lightweight women’s rowing team, as well as my Olympic training,” she says.
Sander admits that balancing training and work can sometimes be a challenge and she has to train six days a week.
“When I was doing my training contract and even as an associate I was training on the river at 5.30am in the dark,” she recalls. “I would then have to get the train into the office and then hit the gym in the evening.”
But Herbert Smith recognised that she was starting to train at a high level and Sander explains that she was supported by the firm and allowed to enjoy flexible working.
“I went to the partners and told them what I was doing and they arranged for me to work one day a week from home, but as I started to row at a higher level it became harder to hold down a full-time job so I went part-time,” she explains. “Most recently I’ve taken unpaid leave for a year to give 100 per cent to my training.”
And with the 2012 Olympics still two years away, it could all seem like too much for most people. Sander, however, is spurred on by the challenge.
“Whenever I feel down I just look at the other girls I train with and I’m filled with encouragement because I know they have to contend with the same issues each day,” she says. “We all continue to strive for our sport because we genuinely love what we do and believe we can succeed.”
Olympic rower and Oxford boat race champion Tom Solesbury knows exactly how Sander feels because he has gone through similar emotions himself. A relative latecomer to rowing, Solesbury first took up the sport at the University of Warwick in competition with his brother who had started rowing two years previously while at the University of Bath.
“I’ve always been very sporty and I played rugby all through senior school and sixth form. I was going to take it up properly at university but I decided against it: the initiations players are put through look awful. I can drink but that’s a whole other level,” he says. “My brother had taken up rowing so I thought I’d give it a go. So I started rowing and found that I really enjoyed it and, being tall, I was quite good at it.”
He continued to row at Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Rowing Club while doing his Legal Practice Course (LPC) in London and during his two-year training contract with K&L Gates. “It was hard to find a balance between rowing and work, but you make the time and manage to fit it all in,” he says.
Solesbury then began to increase his training after he was selected to race with Team GB at the Canal Cup in Germany and subsequently chosen to train with the crew on a regular basis. The 30-year-old found himself living in Mortlake, Richmond, having to travel to Henley every morning for training with Team GB and then making the trek back to the City for work.
“I talked to partners about what I was doing and they were really supportive,” he explains. “But gradually I began to do more training and it became too difficult to hold down a full-time job in the City.”
Solesbury finished his training contract, qualifying into employment, and moved to Molesey Boat Club, Surrey, where he started to really increase his training.
“Although I enjoy working in the law and want to continue when I retire after the Olympics, I had to put 100 per cent into training because I said to myself that if I didn’t do it I’d always look back and wonder ’what if?’,” he says.
One difficult decision was telling his parents, who had helped fund his law studies, putting him through university and giving him a place to live when he was doing his LPC.
“I was really nervous about telling my parents that I wanted to temporarily give up my safe, well-paid career in law to row, but thankfully they saw that it was something I really wanted to do and they’ve been a great support to me,” he claims.
Solesbury approached the partners at K&L Gates to tell them of the difficulty he was having combining his training with full-time work and they suggested that he go part-time, working three days a week.
“That was great to start with but as my training got more intense, I started to compete at a higher level and I had to hand in my notice because I had to be away on various training camps for the world championships,” he recalls.
Reluctantly, Solesbury gave up his career to focus fully on rowing. He competed in various world championships and was then picked to race in the men’s pair at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Candidly he describes his experience in Beijing as “terrible”. His pair with Robin Bourne-Taylor did not even make the last 12.
“The pair was selected late, three weeks before the actual games. We still should have probably done better but it just wasn’t to be,” he reflects.
But Solesbury has put that behind him and has raced successfully with Team GB throughout 2009. While completing a master’s in management research at Oxford University, he also gained his Blue in Oxford’s victory in the 2009 boat race.
Solesbury is now putting all his efforts into training for the 2012 Olympics and says Team GB has a “very good chance” of winning a gold medal. But he admits that money has continued to be a major issue for him during his training and he is currently looking for sponsorship.
“There are so many things you have to pay for, including the boat, and a small amount of money would make a huge difference to me,” he explains.
And after he realises his Olympic dreams in 2012, Solesbury says he wants to get back into law and continue on his original career path as an employment lawyer.
“I tell my teammates about what I want to do and they’re like ’Why? Are you crazy? It sounds incredibly boring.’ But I really enjoyed my training contract and working as an NQ,” he insists.
And Solesbury claims his time spent training with Team GB has given him lots of transferable skills.
“There are a lot of things you need to be an Olympian because you operate under a lot of pressure every day, not just when you’re sitting at the start line of the Olympics,” he argues. “You’re constantly being tested and your performance is being watched, so I think some of the skills from that transfer well into law.”