Ep.023 Athlete Story Podcast
Breaking up with your sport and staying friends - Athlete Story ft UK Swimmer Rachel Boardman
For many athletes, their first love is the sport they choose to pursue. So, when it’s time to retire, there’s a lot of complex emotions to process.
Today’s guest is Rachel Boardman, an ex-swimmer whose health stopped her from achieving her dream of becoming an Olympian. She describes feeling as if her body betrayed her, likening the emotions to that of a relationship break-up.
Rachel decided to channel this energy into creating her podcast, Beyond The Finish Line, which focuses on what athlete’s do after their sporting career comes to an end.
In this episode, Rachel talks about her physical difficulty in trying to become a professional swimmer. She also touches on the mental struggle of not knowing what to do with her life after sport, which led her on an illuminating journey halfway across the world.
and host of
«When you’re travelling and you’re meeting all these people from across the world. You have the same introduction conversation every time. One of the things that I noticed was, I would tell people almost immediately I used to be a swimmer. I wasn’t telling them I had a PhD. I would much rather talk about all the stories I had from my time swimming. It just clicked that I’ve been hiding this part of myself since my health stopped me from pursuing swimming. I shouldn’t be hiding it. I should embrace it and doing something with it.»
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
Rachel Boardman: It wasn't till a few years later when I had a break up with an actual person that I was like, "Actually, I had these exact same feelings when I left swimming." Then that was when it was like swimming was my first love-
Automated voice: You are about to be taken into a chat about sports careers and related issues between an awesome guest and your listening host, the sports insider repurposed the Olympic mogul skier and former free ride world tour athlete, Anja Bolbjerg.
INTRO with Anja Bolbjerg:
In this episode, we'll talk about breaking up with your sport and staying friends after, so stay tuned. You'll meet Rachel Boardman from the Beyond the Finish Line podcast. This is Athlete Story, your show if you want to keep a connection to your athletic identity and to other athletes while pursuing your new mission in life after sports. I'm your host, former world top 10 skier in moguls and freeride skiing. Now, way into life after sports. I invite you to join me and other former athletes here on Athlete Story for resources to help you put your former sports career to work for you in life after sports.
This image of a relationship breakup comes from former national UK swimmer, Rachel Boardman. She had to break up with swimming when her health didn't allow her to perform to the level of her technique. She found herself simply falling out of love with the sport that she used to be crazy about, but as most athletes when they retire, she had to go through some reinvention and she didn't find her new love right away and she didn't settle with swimming either. What she did was, she literally went on a walkabout in Australia, coming back with new insight about herself and a new mission, and having made peace little bit with swimming.
Today, she's hosting a successful podcast about struggles in sports and mental issues with depression and also talking to for other former athletes who are now creating their own businesses. We'll talk about all that and we'll talk about falling out of love and staying friends. Let's welcome Rachel Boardman.
Hi Rachel, welcome to the Athlete Story Podcast!
Rachel Boardman:Hi. Well, thanks for having me on the show.
Anja:Well, I'm excited to have you on this show to tell a bit about your story, especially of coming out of swimming, because I read this article about-- you talk about it like it's a breakup in a relationship and I thought that was pretty cool angle. How did that all happen? You were doing the best you were doing after a couple of years of struggle and then what?
Rachel:Yes, at 15, just before I turned 15, I had pneumonia that season, twice in the same year. Basically, from there, it took me three years from that point of being diagnosed before I did like a personal time again, which was a struggle in itself because just watching all my teammates make the progress and go hit finals and win medals, and I was just sat there still just chugging along, not seeming to get any further, but eventually, I had this one season, three seasons later, where I just seemed to be on fire. Everything was going so well. I went on a training camp in Italy and I was hitting times we were supposed--
I remember this one set that we did, and it was five 200 best average, and it was supposed to keep our times between our PB plus 10 to 12 seconds, and I was hitting PB plus four to six. [chuckles] I was like, "I shouldn't be doing this, but I am." I knew that PB was like a best time's coming, and then it did. Went to the county champs, I did a three four-second PB, which is a lot in terms of over 200. The age I was, you might only make like half a second or whatever at that age, but three or four seconds, I was just like, "This isn't real."
At that point, I was half a second off qualifying for the national champs later on in the year. Went back, did some hard training as you do, and then it got to the last few competitions before the qualification period finished. On this particular last one, there was me and there was my two of the teammates who were all competing in different age groups. I was competing in anyone one and they were in the two below.
The way that the heats were seeded and whatever, they were in the two heats before me. So, I went and watched them swim, so then get their respective qualification times for nationals and I was like, "Right, it's my turn now, ready to go." Dived in, everything was going well. You know that feeling when you're competing and you just have that feeling that it's happening, it's good?
I knew it was going to be close, because I'm coming down and out that final length, it was hard work and then really battling the time. I hit that wall, looked up at the scoreboard and my heart just sunk. I've missed that qualification time by six, one-hundredth of a second. I was just-- devastated is an understatement because of all the hard work that I put in, and I just watched my teammates going when then I'm like, "Okay, what am I going to do now?" To be honest, I didn't take the time to process that. At the time, my coach-- because where our team was sat in on poolside, there was the opposite end, where the blocks were, and he took that time to walk the whole length of the pool, right around the pool to come make sure that I was all right, which meant a lot to me, to be honest, but at that point, I was trying to hold back the tears. You probably get where I'm coming from, any kind of athlete would, because you put everything on the line. That was the end of that season for me.
Had my summer break, came back. It was my last year through my A-levels, through my college. The final year before you start university, so I had to decide what I wanted to do when I finished college, which course I wanted to do at university, and I had all these other things going on, so I never really processed that event. Well, to be fair, it's only in the last couple of months that I really pinpointed that was the start of the end for me.
Then, that whole next season, I went through these cycles where I get fit and then I'd get a cold and a chest infection and I have to take a week out of the water or whatever, and then I'd have to come back and get back fit. Just nothing was working, and I was just fed up of having to go through that process. The thoughts crept into my head like, "What's the point? Why am I doing this?" I felt like the sport that I put so much time and effort and that I loved had betrayed me almost. Then over that year, I came to the conclusion that this was the end for me, I didn't want to do it anymore, so I stepped away. I didn't just step away from swimming, I stepped away from exercise and sport completely.
I just had a complete break. It wasn't until a few years later when I had a normal relationship breakup with an actual person that I was like, "Actually, I had these exact same feelings when I left swimming." Then that was when I was like swimming was my first love, which I can guess you can relate to with skiing. Swimming was my first love and it betrayed me basically.
Anja:Is that something that really happens for swimmers a lot? I can imagine you get a cold and it's hard to beat once you've got it because you have to go back in the pool all the time.
Rachel:I'm not sure it's the particular cold thing, I think for me, I'm asthmatic, and I was diagnosed when I was two. My big trigger is the changing temperatures. Around springtime and around autumn time is when my asthma is really bad. Always, without fail, I'd get a really bad cold and then I get a chest infection, because whenever I get a cold it goes straight to my chest. Then I'll be on antibiotics and steroids just to get over it, and I'd have to have a couple of weeks to get over that. That was probably just a 'me thing' because of the way I am, but after I had pneumonia when I had the checkups, they do a chest X-ray, and they showed me that I had this scarring on my lung from the infection basically, and I think that didn't help.
Anja:After this breakup, do you go out and find a new love right away or what do you do?
Rachel:I had the next goal, I guess, which was to do my degree. From an early age, I was always told, "You go [unintelligible 00:10:09]school, and then you go to university and you get your degree and then get a good job," blah, blah, blah. When I finished swimming, it was just a case of, "Well, that's not in my life now, but I've still got this to go." Luckily for me, my coach, when I turned 16, 17, he turned around to me and he said, "Our teaching system needs some teachers, do you want to qualify and be a teacher? We'll pay for it." I was like, "Yes, sure." I found that I loved it, so I carried on and I'm still doing it to an extent now.
That helped me pay my way through Uni but also kept that connection. I also threw myself into the scouting. I've been in scouts since I was born, basically. My parents were Cub Scout leaders and I took all that free time I had now that I wasn't swimming and went, "Right, I'm just putting myself in scouting," and went that route a little bit.
Anja:What did you teach?
Rachel:I was teaching swimming to anyone from age three up to adults.
Anja:Your degree, what was that in?
Rachel:My undergraduate degree was in biomedical science. I'm a bit of a science geek. When I got to the end of that, I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and that is completely fine, although nobody told me that it was completely fine to not have your life[unintelligible 00:11:33] by then, but it is. I always had this thing where-- I remember when I was young when I was first making my decisions on what I was going to study for my GCSE, so my age 16 exams, and my mom said, "Do what you enjoy."
I was enjoying university. I did a research project and I loved that and I loved research. I still do, I still love learning and research. I decided that I was going to apply to do some PhDs. That's what I decided to do. I decided that my university career wasn't over yet. Luckily, I managed to get on one in Nottingham, studying blood vessel permeability, so the leakiness of blood vessels. That's what I went to do for the next four years.
Anja:The way that works is you have a basic pay while you do that?
Rachel:Yes. I was on a scholarship, basically. I had what they call a stipend, so I got enough money to live off. All my equipment and everything to actually do the studies and my tuition fees were all paid for as well.
Anja:It's like a doctorate, right? [crosstalk]
Anja:I should call you Dr. Rachel. Once you have that, now what?
Rachel:Yes, exactly. I think one of the reasons why I pursued the PhD was, I didn't know what to do. I thought, "An extra few years, it gives me enough time to figure out what I want to do." Within about six months of starting the PhD, I had spiraled down into one of the darkest places that I've ever been. I ended up having these mental issues, I was diagnosed with depression. A part of that was to do with all the issues that I hadn't worked out from leaving swimming and part of it was because PhD wasn't for me. I ended up going home for a week to try and decide what I wanted to do. I remember my mom said that I can stop the PhD right now if I wanted, but she basically asked me, "What are you going to do if you do that?" I didn't have an answer for her. I didn't know. So, I went back and I finished. Whether that was a good thing or not, no one can take that away from me. I have learned a lot from it.
Anja:I can call you Dr. Rachel?
Rachel:Exactly. [laughs] I knew that at that point that I wasn't going to pursue research or work in academia that way. I then started looking at all different avenues [unintelligible 00:14:07] that I could use my PhD for. I looked into working in industry, like working in the labs in pharmaceutical companies, doing medical writing. I really looked at medical writing because I was one of those weird people that really enjoyed writing their thesis up, like 50,000 words, and I really enjoyed doing that so I do know.
I had this one interview after I'd had my final exam. I'd this one interview, a medical writing company, and they rang me up. I remember sitting on the stairs having this phone call. Basically, they said to me that I did really well in this one part, but this other part, the writing exam, there was a couple of things that I didn't get that they basically needed me to get to say, "Yes, we want you." I just wasn't bothered. Immediately my mind switched and went, "All right, well, now I can go traveling," because at that point, I was toying with the idea and it was the only thing that really got me excited about life. I was looking at all these jobs and I was like, "Yes, I could do them, yes, they're good money, but I'm not really that excited about doing but going traveling. So, I booked a one-way flight to Australia. I traveled around there for about a couple of years, basically.
Anja:What did you do there?
Rachel:I did the backpacker thing, I stayed in hostels, I took the Greyhound, I went and explored. I got to see everywhere apart from Darwin in Tasmania. I got to experience different jobs that I would never have ever been able to do back home. I worked in a couple of country pubs. I worked in this one country pub in a little town called Injune in the middle of Queensland. There's like 400 people that live there and it's an hour away from the nearest town. It's like a day's drive to Brisbane. I was plunked in this pub, I was living in this pub, I was eating out of this pub. Within two days of being there, I felt like I was part of the community, which was great. I loved it there. It's one of my best experiences. One of my other best jobs I did, well, I worked on a dairy farm for three months, and that was cool. My swimming career came in to help then because I was milking cows at 4:00 AM. Those early mornings came in handy, but that would-
Anja:That's the weirdest transferable skills. I find that-
Rachel:I know, right?
Anja:Building this place here and I find myself having to maneuver all these long logs and I'm like, "Yes, I feel at home Kerry. [laughs] I think it's on my shoulder. Well, so far, I've recognized two things that come up a lot when we retire from sports. One is like this; we're so used to having feedback all the time, either from a coach, from the scores for your personal best and all that. We looked for where can we get this feedback? Are we doing all right? Are we on track? I think your PhD was giving you that for a while.
Anja:It's this belonging thing, you have to figure out, "Where do I belong now?" You're traveling probably did some [unintelligible 00:17:18]
Rachel:Yes. I don't know how much traveling you've done or whatever. Obviously, I was staying in hostels, because it's the cheapest place to stay. You're meeting all these new people from all different walks of life, different countries around the world, and you have the same conversations with these people, what I call introduction conversations. You introduce yourself, [unintelligible 00:17:39]where you're from, how long have you been traveling, where have you been, where have you not been. Tell me a little about yourself.
After a while, I noticed was one of the things that I was telling people about myself almost straightaway was, I was a swimmer. I wasn't telling them I had a PhD, because well, as soon as you tell someone you've got a PhD, they look at you and they treat you differently, because like, "You're super clever." Maybe I'm a little bit clever, but I don't count myself as clever as Einstein or someone, or any of the guys from Big Bang Theory for that matter. I was telling people about the swimming, about all the stories that I had for my time in swimming. Suddenly, I can't remember when it was, but it just clicked, I was like, "I've been hiding this part of myself for so long. Why have I been doing this? This is obviously quite a huge part of myself. I need to embrace it and do something with it."
Anja:That's actually a sad thing is, as athletes, when we come out, we still try to, "Okay, that was that, and now, we're full-on on something new." We leave that totally behind, not always on purpose and not because we want to hide it or anything. Well, sometimes we do. Just because it's like, "What's the point now? Because now I'm doing this." I think that what you come to realize is that it is a big part of you. There are some strengths in there that you can take with you in life after sports. I don't think we should just throw it all away.
Rachel:No, I agree. I think sometimes it's a little bit because you're so structured when you are an athlete and you're training, you almost compartmentalize pieces of your life. I know I did anyway, just so I could get everything. I could do my training, I could do my schoolwork, I could be with my family, those kind of things. When you finish, it's like you've closed off that compartment now that you don't need it anymore and you concentrate on these ones over here. It's just remembering that you can open that compartment up every now and again.
Anja:Like you said in that article, you could stay friends after you broke up.
Anja:I know you run a podcast like this one and it talks a lot on athletes. You're also telling their stories. What else is this about and what's the name of it?
Rachel:My podcast is called Beyond The Finish Lineand I got the idea after I had that revelation I've just talked about that I need to be in my life. I went on this 9,000 km solo road trip for the Australian outback, which was an experience in itself. It gave me a lot of time to think. I guess sometimes I refer to it as my own little wild moment or eat, pray, love moment that was unintentional. I had this-
Anja:What they call a walkabout...
Rachel:Yes. As I went through the journeys, I thought about the news articles and the social media stuff that I'd seen with top athletes that talked about their struggles after they left the sport and the mental health issues and I sat there just thinking, "Well, this happened to me." If it happens to me, this national level, someone who didn't make it pro or to the Olympics or whatever, and it's happening to people up here, then it must then happen to a huge amount of people, but nobody's talking about it. That was the initial inspiration for the podcast. That's one of the big things that I like to chat with the people I have on the show.
We chat about their background in sport and the transition out of the strugglesthat they have. I like to keep it conversational. I'm so grateful that everyone that I have on the show, just like you, is very open about the personal struggles that they've had and they're quite happy to share. I also have the other angle that, everyone I have in the show now runs their own business, because I believe that a lot of athletes, especially if you get to a high level, the options that they believe are open to them are like coaching or something to do with fitness. Whereas there's so many more options out there. You don't have to do a 9:00 to 5:00 job.
To be fair, I feel like a lot of the skills and attributes that you get from being an athlete, you also need as an entrepreneur. You don't have to learn them, you've already got them. You're at an advantage to all those people out there. I just wanted to highlight the stories of people that have been in that situation and now look what they're doing. We share the struggles, we share the highlights, and the tips, and I've had a whole range of people from many different sports. I've had basketballers, gymnasts, skiers like itself, a track and field, softball. I've even had the next NFL pro, cricketer, fencer. I like to get a good perspective from everywhere really.
Anja:Did you go about it like in the very Dr. Rachel scientific way? How did you go about starting it?
Rachel:I have been friends online with a guy called Jamie Atkinson. We started our online business journey back in 2017 together. He's killing it now. Last May, I think, he started a podcast and he seemed to figure out the way to do it. I got in contact with him and he has started teaching people how to launch a podcast. He helped me launch my podcast. While I probably could've done it on my own, it would have taken me so much longer if I hadn't had that mentor and that coach. Again, like we have back in sport, I could've gone and taught myself through swimming, but I wouldn't have gotten half as far as I did do without an actual coach.
Anja:I wanted just to hang on to this because a very important message that we often forget is, "We had a coach back in sports and he'd helped out quite a bit, maybe to do things faster and more effectively and without as many mistakes. Often later on, we forget about it, trying to figure out everything ourselves. I love this, that you did it that way. How is it going?
Rachel:It's still early days. I think I've only have been launched like two and a half months, but my launch went really, really well. Within three days, I think it was of launching, I hit the top 50 in the entrepreneur category in the UK iTunes markets, which was just ridiculous, because I don't really have an audience or an email list or anything. I hoped with the kind of strategies that Jamie taught me, that I'd get maybe into the top 200, but top 50 was just unreal.
Anja:The launch phase, is that very important?
Rachel:Yes. I mean, it's like anything. It's about creating that buzz around it. His whole program is like four or five weeks, and those last couple of weeks, once you've got all your assets and you're doing your interviews, it's about building that hype around it. I didn't tell anybody that I was going to do this podcast, even my mom and dad didn't know. I just dropped this post on my Facebook that was like, "Something big is coming on this date," and everyone was like, "What the hell?" What's going on?" I was half expecting someone to ask me, "If you're pregnant." [laughs] They were like, "What's coming? What's coming?" My mom was like, "Why can't you just tell me? I was like, "No, you've got to wait." It was just a case of creating this high, leveraging my launch guests.
The strategy that I used, which works really well is, I launched with seven episodes, rather than just going one, two, three and then each week. I launched with seven episodes. They were all really short, they were about 10 minutes long. What I'd done, I'd sat down with my guests and I'd asked them one question, the same one question to all of the guests. I think my question was, "What would be your best piece of advice for an athlete that wants to start a business?" Then we'd talk about that. Then I'd follow up with them. I had a longer interview with them, which then got released every week.
When I launched, people weren't just downloading one episode, they were downloading seven. The way that iTunes works is, the algorithm for ranking you is to do with your downloads, your ratings, and reviews. I don't really have a list or an audience, so I had to leverage my guests. I got them to promote my show as well and get them to rate and review the show and got that audience to rate and review the show along with obviously family and friends and whatnot. That seemed to work. It got me in the top 50.
Anja:I'd like to take advantage of this and encourage anybody who is listening right now to go rate and review this show. Of course, I'd love to hear what you think about it. Then I'd love for the listeners to know the name of your podcast. I don't think you-- Did you say what the name is?
Rachel:Yes, it's called Beyond The Finish Line.
Anja:You don't have a website that goes along with it?
Rachel:No, not at the minute. I just have links to all my Facebook and my Instagram.
Anja:Instagram, is that the best way for people to reach and follow you?
Rachel:Yes, definitely. I am @rechboardman, R-E-C-H B-O-A-R-D-M-A-N. To be fair, if you reach out to me on Facebook as well, then I'll-- Wherever.
Anja:Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story and your struggles and opening up so that other people can listen to podcast as well.
Rachel:No worries. Thanks for having me on. I've had a great time.
Anja:Thank you Rachel. Take care and consider yourself part of the Athlete's Story community.
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[00:28:18] [END OF AUDIO]
“I think one of the reasons why I pursued the PhD was, I didn't know what to do. I thought, "An extra few years, it gives me enough time to figure out what I want to do." Within about six months of starting the PhD, I had spiralled down into one of the darkest places that I've ever been. I ended up having these mental issues, I was diagnosed with depression. A part of that was to do with all the issues that I hadn't worked out from leaving swimming and part of it was because PhD wasn't for me.”Rachel Boardman
About our guest
Rachel Boardman is a former national level swimmer who founded the Beyond The Finish Line Podcast after a searching for her purpose completing a phd and a soul searching journey to Australia. This podcast is all about lifting the lid on the struggles and challenges that athletes face once they leave their sport. Finding out how they coped with the loss of the athlete identity while carving out their own space and giving back to the sport they love.
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