Oar inspiring: Treasury advisor Phelan Hill on why he has put his day job on hold in pursuit of Olympic dream
A seventy-hour working week, global financial meltdown and an incessantly vibrating Blackberry are not the ideal precursors to Olympic success, memories of which have prompted Great Britain coxswain Phelan Hill to clear his Whitehall desk.
During the thick of his preparations for the London 2012 Olympic Games, Hill combined his role as a senior policy advisor at HM Treasury with a demanding training schedule on the water.
A bronze medal followed at Eton Dorney as Hill coxed the men’s eight rowing team to third place after a brave challenge to the German favourites ended with Canada taking silver on the closing stretch.
But such a fraught balancing act ultimately proved unsustainable, and since 2014 Hill has been on an extended and unpaid sabbatical from the civil service ahead of this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“The last Olympiad was totally crazy. I was living such a manic lifestyle and I’ve learned the error of my ways,” Hill told City A.M.
“I would be up at the crack of dawn ready for training at 7.30am at our base in Reading and often wouldn’t be home until 10 or 11pm.
“I remember the years around the financial crisis and when we were working on the Banking Act. I would be straight off the water after training and immediately be looking at the Blackberry, checking messages and making calls.
“All the time when I was training I would have my work in the background. Sometimes I would get off the water and have 70 plus messages. I’d be thinking ‘oh my God, there is something happening here’.
“It would be the ultimate in project management. I would have my car pointing out of the gate, suit and tie and my bag packed ready for work. After a quick debrief I’d be in the car and on the phone immediately, talking to the Financial Services Authority as it was then, the Bank of England or whichever stakeholder it may be.
“Looking back it was absolutely crazy. A really extreme lifestyle is probably the best way to put it and I’ve learnt from that.”
With the rigours of fiscal administration shelved for the time being, the 36-year-old can adopt a scrupulous focus on securing selection for Brazil and pursuing gold in what is to be his Olympic swansong.
“This is my last Olympics so I don’t want to finish with any ifs, buts or maybes, or be asking myself if I could have done anything better to get an Olympic gold,” added Hill, a member of the Leander Club in Henley.
“Taking the sabbatical from work means I can fully concentrate on sport. Otherwise, you end up in a position where you do everything half and half and nothing fully to the best of your abilities.”
Not every athlete competing at the level of Bedford-born Hill, who last year coxed the men’s eight to their third successive World Championship title, can also lay claim to assuming such a lofty position in a professional capacity.
The heights scaled on and off the water, however, are not without their repercussions and Hill has been forced to adopt a philosophical mindset when considering their respective impacts.
“I’ve noticed that since having time off from work my rowing results have improved and I feel that I’m doing a better job out there,” said Hill.
“My work career definitely affected my rowing career. I also think without a shadow of a doubt that my sporting life has impacted upon me professionally. Coming off the water to find I’ve got missed phone calls, that’s a bad thing for me.
“It’s a question of reliability. It’s not good when you have a Minister’s office trying to get hold of you because you’re the most knowledgeable person but they can’t, especially given how impatient Ministers are.
“There have also been occasions when I had opportunities for some very good jobs and I had to overlook those because I knew they just weren’t feasible with my rowing lifestyle.
“When I think about my post-rowing career and about going back to work, there are colleagues who were more junior to me who will now be more senior and have moved ahead of me.
“That’s actually a hard thing to take but you always have to balance the sacrifices in life. In 20 or 30 years’ time I know I’m never going to have the opportunity to go to the London or Rio Olympics. That’s how I reflect on it.”
Such concerns over career trajectory might just be eased considerably should Hill, in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain in August, secure a golden Olympic handshake from the sport which has formed such a significant part of his life.
Phelan Hill was speaking as part of Leander Club's Row2Rio campaign supported by Invesco Perpetual. You can follow him on Twitter @PhelanHill
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