This week double Commonwealth finalist Kathryn Johnstone tells SWiS how she manages to balance life as a student and athlete.


I started swimming competitively when I was seven years old. At this age I was about half way through my primary school education. Being an athlete and a student was easy at this age as I had school between 9am and 3pm and only trained about three or four times a week, with the odd competition taking up my weekends. Growing up with an increasing training schedule and both longer hours within school and extra time needed to complete academic obligations was not easy by any means. By the time I started high school, I trained at a pool which took a little over an hour to get to by bus (we had no family car), meaning that I often ate my dinner on the bus from a plastic box on my lap. Trying to fit homework in around the travelling often meant that I had to power walk home from school so that I could have an hour or so to make a start on assignments that were due in two weeks’ time.

Unfortunately being a swimmer means that early mornings are also an essential part of training. By second year of high school, I was training 3 times a week before school at 5.30am. I was picked up by my coach at 4.50am and along with 3 other swimmers we would ride in silence to the pool munching on digestive biscuits or a jam sandwich. I never used to be able to eat much so early in the morning. Training before school also meant that I would arrive at school at about 8.15 with my hair still wet, and slowly soaking through the neck of my shirt. Some girls used to get out of the session early so they could straighten their hair and apply their make-up before school. I preferred to stay in the extra 15minutes and then just tie my hair into a bun! Everyone at school knew I was ‘the swimmer’ anyway, so there was no need to pretend I hadn’t been up training since 5am.

After finishing 6th year of high school in 2008, trying to juggle my goals of swimming at the 2010 Commonwealth Games with further study at college was extremely difficult. I had enrolled in a HND course at Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy (Fife) which was only a 25minute train journey from my house, however in January 2009, I decided that in order to achieve my sporting aspirations, I needed to make the move to a senior swimming program in Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Performance Team). With my college being in Fife and my training in Edinburgh, it meant that my days were jam packed. A typical day would start with me getting up for training at 4.05am. My mum would drive me through to Inverkeithing where I would meet a team mate, who kindly drove me through to training for a 5.15 start. Once I finished training at 7.30am, depending on my college timetable, I would either fit in a weights or circuit session before heading to the train station, or if I had a 9am class, I would catch a train straight after swimming to head through to Fife. Usually, I used the hour train journey to try and complete coursework or to go over lectures and class material. My college timetable had me in for only two and a half days a week. This meant that on 3 days of the week, I would catch a train back through to Edinburgh for our afternoon swimming session, again being pro-active and completing coursework on the train rides. Finally, at around 6pm, I would join the hundreds of commuters travelling back home and jump on a train which would get me home at 7pm. I did this routine of studying and training for 18months. A typical day would have me out the house for 15hours at a time. It was exhausting! I had to plan my days well, both with travel arrangements but also with the food I ate. I was fortunate enough that my mum always helped me with this. Making packed lunches (usually multiple) to last me the 15 hours of being out and about. Nutrition was a key factor in keeping me going throughout the day. The easy option would be to buy food from the train station or college canteens. However, I wasn’t just a daily commuter or typical student. It was always important to remember I was an athlete with goals of competing for my country.

The 18months of non-stop activity paid off however. Not only did I get my college A grade and gain entry to study a Bsc Sport and Exercise Science at Heriot Watt University starting in 2010, I also swam fast enough to qualify to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi 2010. The relief of achieving your dreams is a wonderful feeling. The sacrifices that I made (mainly sleep) to become an elite swimmer whilst maintaining a good level of academic study was hard. There were days when neither seemed like a reality. The reality is that neither aspect of my life was going to be easy. I understand that it would have been simpler to focus on one at a time. I could have swam full-time and then gone to university to get a degree once I had retired, but as being an athlete doesn’t guarantee you success (or money). I have always strived to achieve a life for myself once I finally hang up my swimming costume!

Since starting university, I have made the move through to Edinburgh as this is where my life is. I am currently finishing my second half of fourth year as a Sport and Exercise Student and I am planning to further my education in a masters in Strength and Conditioning at the University of Edinburgh. The reason for splitting my final year was to enable me to focus on qualifying for Team Scotland at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, which I did! I feel that the 18months I spent running around between college and a swimming pool helped me greatly in planning and organising how to balance life as a student athlete. University is an even greater challenge than college was. During college. My timetable was compacted into 3 days. At uni, classes are spread out all over the place! Although it is a struggle sometimes and my days can be super long, I always try to remember why I’m doing it. The key to success is not just hard work. It is being organised and planning how to get the best from yourself in the key areas of your life.


By Kathryn Johnstone (Twitter/Instagram: @Kathy_swim)

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