Joanna Rowsell-Shand: I haven’t “retired”

Joanna Rowsell-Shand would like to clear something up: she is not retired. She has not been booking Mediterranean cruises and coach trips to Clacton. She has not downsized her home and taken up bingo.

She is, it is correct to say, no longer a full-time professional cyclist working within the elite British Cycling Olympic programme. When Tokyo 2020 comes around, the twelfth most successful female British athlete of all time will not be increasing her gold medal tally to three. 

Those of us on the outside seldom think of professional sport as a job. Instead we see it as something all-consuming. Not merely in the amount of time that it takes up, but as a prism through which we forever view anyone who has ever competed at a high level. It was their destiny to do it, it was what they were (not just what they did), and the thing that will always define them.

Joanna Rowsell-Shand MBE doesn’t see it that way. “I try and define myself in a lot of ways, rather than just one,” she says. Early on “my happiness purely depended on my cycling ability”, but as her career went on, “the more I learned not to completely define myself by one thing, the happier I got.” 

The decision not to return to cycling, which she announced in March 2017, was hers alone and entirely voluntary. She could have continued into the next Olympic cycle if she’d wanted…

Along with issues with what she calls “the r word”, the 28-year-old takes objection to the notion that she has “quit” cycling. This, she says, “comes up a lot… How can you quit when you’ve achieved everything? It’s more that I’m finished.” 

This feels like a crucial point. There’s been no failure and, unlike some athletes, she hasn’t been forced into it by a body that no longer performs to the same level. She has a 100% record in Olympic Games entered and now she’s done that, she’s simply going to do something else.

I proffer that us ordinary Joes have a more positive term than retirement to describe what she’s done, and there’s no reason athletes shouldn’t use it as well. She beats me to it: “career change”. 

Though Rowsell-Shand agrees that no, she didn’t have a “conventional” twenties, it wasn’t as gruelling as you might imagine. She may not have been going to university at the same time as her friends, but “it was still the excitement of being away from home, doing my own food shopping, doing lots of things for myself.”

The many “fantastic experiences” that came with the job more than compensated for the strict regime and the wild nights out she wasn’t able to go on. “I was travelling the world, I was going to Australia, Colombia, things like that,” she says.

What, then, finally made her feel like she’d had enough?

“As my career went on, towards the latter stages, the last few years, sort of mid-to-late twenties, that was more when I felt I was missing out on things. Not so much the nights out… it’s more birthdays, weddings, christenings, funerals. Things that you can never rewind, that money can’t buy, you can’t ever go and do that again.”

One thing that probably made the decision to move on easier was that Rowsell-Shand never experienced what she calls “the post-Olympic blues.” A lot of athletes, having worked for four years with this one goal in mind “go and do a huge competition like the Olympic Games, [then] afterwards they feel lost, they feel down. I never felt that because after each Olympics, I was so eager to do normal things.”

Rather than feeling low,” she says, “I was just on a high. Because I was like ‘I can eat pizza and stay up late and have a glass of wine and no-one cares.’” 

Which is not to say she has found the transition a piece of cake (or a slice of pizza). “Even though deep down I knew it was the right thing to do, I still struggled,” she admits.

Though the institutional support was hard to walk away from, “the identity,” she says, was the biggest thing. “I never aspired to be a celebrity, but suddenly if you’re not a GB cyclist, if I walk away tomorrow, what am I? I had a six-month gap of not really having an answer to that question. Now I’m at uni, I can say I’m a student. Just having that little word to say gives me an identity back.”

Rowsell-Shand does rue the fact that she wasn’t able to continue studying: “Most athletes in different sports will have studied alongside their sport. In cycling, unfortunately, it’s just not the culture to do that.” 

Read: Suffer-age: Elite women who’ve improved with age

Her degree, which she started in September, is in physiology. Before joining the British Cycling Academy she had completed A Levels in maths, biology and physics, so is obviously “sciencey”. As well as being interested in the subject for its own sake, however, she has at least one eye on what it might mean for the next stage in her career.

“I think from an employment point of view, to have a degree and Olympic medals will make me quite attractive to future employers, maybe.” 

Yep, they might open a few doors.

Full Circle: My Story by Joannna Rowsell-Shand, is out now. (John Blake Books)


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