From nursing to the Olympics: Meet our star athletes going for gold in Tokyo

Hockeyroos goalkeeper Rachael Lynch is among the 472 Australian athletes who will compete at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Hockey Australia

Nurses Paul Adams, Georgie Rowe and Rachael Lynch balance working in the profession with elite sport. Now, they are chasing gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

“Some people [patients] are a little bit blown away,” Australian Skeet shooter and registered nurse Paul Adams says, once they realise they are being cared for by an Olympian during their hospital stay.

“They can’t understand why I’m working and think I should be out there shooting and that it should be my job and career, like some of the other sports out there. It just doesn’t work that way here in Australia.”

Adams, who took up shooting at age 10, is on target for his second Olympic Games in Tokyo this month, as the country’s sole representative in the Men’s Skeet.

In the event, shooters aim at a series of 25 criss-crossing clay targets, launched by two throwing machines set at different heights. There are 125 targets all up, with finalists shooting an additional 60. Excelling demands focus, accuracy and rapid eye-to-hand coordination.

After competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and with a silver and two bronze World Cup medals under his belt since, the 29-year-old is confident he has the ability to mix it with the best on the ultimate stage.

“It really depends on the day,” he says.

“I consider myself an equal chance with them [other competitors]. Hopefully luck swings my way with one or two lucky hits and I don’t miss. But I’m pretty confident I should be able to get to the final and, from there, hopefully one of the colours, if not the gold.”

FOCUSED: Paul Adams will line-up for his second Olympics in Tokyo in the the Men’s Skeet. Photo: Shooting Australia

When Adams isn’t competing on the shooting range, he works full-time as a theatre nurse in Brisbane, caring for patients before, during, and after surgeries.

He was originally set to become a cabinet maker but his mum Sue, a nurse for 45 years, convinced him to study nursing to have something to fall back on.

He quickly fell in love with the profession and, after undertaking his graduate program in theatres, has remained within the speciality ever since.

“It can be fast-paced and it’s high-acuity,” Adams explains.

“I feel like we [theatre nurses] are fixing a problem with a patient. You physically see an acute issue that’s wrong with them, or maybe even a chronic problem, a knee replacement or something like that, and I just feel like I’m seeing a difference straight away.”

Adams competed in Sporting Clays for much of his junior career, achieving international success, before pivoting into Olympic Skeet at the age of 19 in a bid to test himself at the level.

“I thought ‘well is this it?” he recalls, of competing in other clay target events, which aren’t recognised at the Olympics.

“I wanted to go to the ultimate stage for my sport and that’s why I chose that [to cross over] otherwise it would have been the same thing again and again.”

A decade on, Adams is gearing up for his second Olympics in Tokyo, and another shot at glory.

Intriguingly, in a switch from his past preparations, he has discovered that less is more when it comes to his training load.

After claiming selection for the team in March last year, Adams had projected an intense training schedule in the lead up to the Tokyo. Then COVID-19 hit, postponing the Games.

In the aftermath, he didn’t shoot from March until December. He didn’t even pick up his gun. Yet, when he returned to the range for the first time for a “light day of four rounds”, he didn’t miss.

The results filled Adams with confidence that he didn’t need to train as much and, instead, could fine-tune his craft, and ramp up prior to competitions as required.

“Now, for myself, it’s not about the quantity of shooting I’m doing, it’s more about the quality,” Adams says.

“I can shoot just once a week and that’s enough for me and I can get plenty of training from that, whereas back when I was at university, I had to shoot at least three to four times a week to try and get the quantity of targets and shooting under my belt to be competitive.”

Adams chose to continue nursing up until a month out from the Games, though cut down his shifts.

Paul Adams works full-time as a theatre nurse in Brisbane.

He says juggling nursing with elite sport has never proved a problem and, in fact, has been mutually beneficial. Sport provides him with an outlet away from the stress and hustle and bustle of nursing while, on the flipside, the routine and perspective nursing brings often takes his mind away when things aren’t clicking on the shooting range.

“I feel like they [my passions] work in tandem with myself and it kind of makes me a better athlete and, at the same time, hopefully a better nurse as well.”

Early this month, Adams joined Australia’s Olympic Shooting Team for a two-week training camp, which is also being used as a semi-quarantine bubble period, and will board the nine-hour flight for Tokyo on July 19.

After competing, he will fly back to Australia and undergo two-weeks of hard lockdown in hotel quarantine.

He says he feels proud to be representing the nursing profession on the global stage and will return to his day job in theatres following the Games. For now though, he remains focused on giving it his best shot, with gold firmly in his sights.

Georgie Rowe – Women’s Rowing Eight

“People ask me what my profession is and I always say I’m a registered nurse before I say I’m a rower,” says Olympic debutant Georgie Rowe proudly.

After graduating in 2013, Rowe began working in aged care at RSL Life Care in Narrabeen.

“For me, it’s the residents,” she says, when asked what she loves most about the job.

“I love spending time with them and just trying to make their day. If I can just do a little thing, whether it’s just getting them a cup of tea, or normal nursing duties, to make their lives a little bit better, and quality of life a little bit better, that definitely fills up my cup.”

Rowe grew up along Sydney’s Northern Beaches and spent her childhood tearing up the surf.

Inspired by her two-time Olympic kayaking aunt Shelley Oates-Wilding, she took up the sport at age 14 and set her sights on representing Australia. She mixed training before and after school with surf live saving at the Manly Life Saving Club.

Georgie Rowe cut her teeth on surf boats at the Collaroy Surf Club before switching to flatwater rowing. Photo: Rowing Australia

As time went on, she “fell out of love” with kayaking and became heavily involved with the surf club. A couple of mates recommended surfboat rowing, a team sport where crews race in the ocean, and she was hooked.

“I kind of knew that was the sport for me,” she says.

She first turned heads after taking part in an indoor rowing competition, a setting where she would later break world records in the half marathon and marathon.

In 2017, in a bid to realise her Olympic dream, she switched to stillwater rowing, and never looked back.

That journey began at UTS Rowing Club; under the guidance of head coach Tim McLaren, himself a 1984 Olympic silver medallist. The transition from surfboats to flatwater rowing was rapid and soon she was on the national team.

“The surf brings a lot of variables,” Rowe explains.

“You have big waves, little waves, tides, currents, rips; there’s a lot more that’s out of your control. The surf is also really dangerous. You have to be really sharp and trust the people around you.”

“I think that those foundations that I built in the surf have given me a bit of an edge in stillwater and even just developed my character and personality traits. Now that I’m racing stillwater, I find that trust is really important in our crew. I’m in the eight and we’ve got a cox and a coach so there’s 10 people in the boat. There’s a lot of moving parts and if you don’t have that trust it makes it a lot more difficult to go to that place that you’ve got to go to when you’re in the middle of racing and you’ve got to dig really deep and be in that flow and zone.”

Four years after switching to stillwater rowing, Rowe is on the cusp of representing Australia at the Olympics in the Women’s Rowing Eight.

Georgie Rowe will make her Olympic debut in the women’s eight just four years after transitioning from surf boats to flatwater rowing. Photo: Rowing Australia

“I didn’t want to get to the age of 60 or 70 and wish that I had done something,” Rowe reflects.

“Back in 2017, I just wanted to have a shot and give it [stillwater rowing] a try and if it didn’t work out, then at least I’d know that I’d given it my best. Three or four years later here we are talking about going to the Olympics.”

Australia’s women’s eight, who race over the standard 2,000-metre course, took home silver at the World Rowing Championships in Austria in 2019 to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.

An intense trainer who thrives on pushing through the pain barrier, Rowe sits in the middle of the boat, in its so-called “engine room”.

The secret to a successful crew?

“There’s many factors but I definitely think communication is a very strong characteristic of any team, whether it’s a women’s eight or in the nursing world.”

Equally important, Rowe says, is drive and ambition, having the right attitude, and the ability to listen to what teammates are saying or feeling within the boat.

Since becoming a nurse, Rowe has worked casually in aged care alongside her sporting commitments.

Prior to turning professional, she would rise at 4am and train at UTS in the mornings, before driving back to Narrabeen to do the afternoon shift at RSL Life Care.

She still works at the nursing home, but hasn’t taken on a shift for a couple of months in the lead-up to Tokyo.

Members of the Australian Olympic rowing team ready to jet to Tokyo. Photo: Rowing Australia

It was a different story during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, when Rowe worked consistently and helped the facility and its residents navigate lockdowns. Sometimes, she’d spend whole shifts facilitating face-time calls for elderly residents so that they could keep in contact with their families.

“I think aged care is a sector that needs a lot of love. You need the right people in there doing the right job,” she says.

“The older generation, they’re the reason why we’re all here and that respect and understanding for what they need is really important.”

“I’ve worked in it, and I know how understaffed they [staff] are and it breaks your heart as a worker when you know that you’re doing everything you can, but you just don’t have the support behind you to do more.”

At an Olympics where almost everything will be different, coming up with a form guide for which nation will take home gold is difficult after significant disruptions to international racing due to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Rowe says the crew remains “quietly confident” of a good showing.

“We’ve worked really hard on where we’re at right now and I think going into the Olympics, we’ll be in the best shape we can possibly be in and are hoping that our bow is in front of all the other nations.”

When she returns home from the Olympics, the 28-year-old is hoping to secure a job at the Northern Beaches Hospital, and plans to continue balancing nursing and rowing.

She says the past four years, and her whirlwind rise to the top, sunk in at recent gathering with friends and family to celebrate making the Olympic team.

“You don’t realise what you’ve done until other people are telling you and you kind of stop and get quite emotional when you think about it,” Rowe says.

“Four years ago I was rowing at the beach and on the ergo and now I’m rowing at the Olympic Games, which is the pinnacle of the sport.”

Rachael Lynch – Women’s Hockey – Hockeyroos goalkeeper

In March last year, the looming 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021 due to the escalating global COVID-19 pandemic.

Facing the prospect of imminent border closures, star Hockeyroos goalkeeper Rachael Lynch, then working on the neuro-rehab ward at Perth’s Fiona Stanley Hospital, had a tricky decision to make – return home to her family in Victoria, or stay to contribute to the frontline pandemic response.

Hockeyroo Rachael Lynch has worked as a nurse in neuro-rehab throughout her decorated international hockey career. Photo: Hockey Australia

It was an easy call.

“Choosing to stay here [Perth] was, essentially, something I felt I had to do, and wanted to do,” Lynch recalls.

“I tried to pick up as many shifts as I could at the hospital but WA did such a good job at keeping COVID out that we didn’t have the chaos that other [states] did so we were quire fortunate. It was a stressful time for many but I was glad that I could actually take an active role in helping.”

After finishing high school, Lynch began studying sports psychology. As part of the course, she did some volunteer work at a nursing home and enjoyed it so much that she switched career paths.

“I guess I just have a desire to help people and it kind of fell into place. Once I got into starting the [nursing] degree I knew that it was the profession for me,” Lynch, whose Mum is also a nurse, says.

“It’s just being able to help people and the satisfaction I get from building relationships and being able to make a difference to someone’s life. It’s more the people and care element, rather than the technical parts of it, that interest me.”

A veteran of more than 220 caps for Australia, which includes dual Commonwealth Games gold medals, Lynch took up hockey after being selected in the Victorian primary schools state team.

She played numerous sports growing up, with basketball her most-favoured. Yet she excelled at hockey and, at age 14, made the decision to focus on it.

Veteran Hockeyroo Rachael Lynch in action. Photo: Hockey Australia

Lynch suggests she was initially identified as a goalkeeping prospect because of her sharp hand-eye coordination and athleticism. Before long, she had mastered the position.

“I like the mental side of it,” Lynch explains.

“It’s high pressure, last line of defence kind of thing, and that’s a great challenge. You can help your team, prevent them from losing, but you can’t help them win, so sometimes it’s not a very glorified position.”

Much like donning PPE on the COVID-19 frontline, Lynch says the pads and protective gear she wears on the hockey field arm her with supreme confidence.

“It can be a little nerve-wracking at times but I have good protection on and that makes a difference. It gives me confidence and I suppose you feel a bit like a warrior going into battle with all your gear on.”

The 35-year-old made her international senior team debut in 2006 and represented Australian in her maiden Olympics in Rio in 2016.

Throughout her career, the Hockeyroos stalwart has managed to strike a healthy balance between nursing and the demands of elite hockey, thanks in part to flexible bosses who have allowed her to choose shifts.

She has worked in neuro-rehabilitation, helping stroke and MS patients, throughout her decorated international hockey career. Every so often, she would bring teammates in to see her workplace and meet the patients.

“It’s been a huge part of my life and my career and something that I’ve pushed very hard to include because I think I need that perspective,” Lynch says of nursing.

“I like to have other things to think about other than my sport and being in the health profession, it’s an incredible way to put everything in perspective, that what you’re doing is not necessarily the real world. I love being able to include that in my week and I honestly believe that it helps me be a better athlete, as well as a better person.”

Lynch, named the International Hockey Federation Goalkeeper of the Year in 2019, is primed for her second Olympic appearance in Tokyo.

Hockeyroos goalkeeper Rachael Lynch was last month named in the 16-player squad bound for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Hockey Australia

Yet her latest tilt, likely to be her finale, was almost over before it began.

Late last year, Lynch was sensationally dropped from the 2021 contract list by former coach Paul Gaudoin. She appealed the decision, and worked on getting in career best shape to put herself back into contention.

Earlier this year, an independent review into Hockey Australia’s program culture and governance, triggered by claims of bullying, homophobic behaviour and body shaming, found a dysfunctional culture not conducive to athlete wellbeing or sustained on-field success.

“It’s been a really challenging time, pretty dark, and mentally challenging time for me,” Lynch admits.

“During that time [the appeal process] I was working, which was very key for me. That’s what was getting me out of bed. I also kept training, knowing that if and when I did get an opportunity, I wanted to be ready. The dream of going to Tokyo remained alive that whole time.”

Olympic selectors rewarded Lynch’s resolve and form by naming her in the 16-women Hockeyroos squad, unveiled last month.

Lynch had already decided to head up north for a weekend of solitude prior to the announcement. She was filled with a range of intense emotions after opening the email to find out her Olympic dream still had a pulse.

“I jumped up and did a massive fist pump because I honestly didn’t think I was going to get picked,” Lynch says.

“It was nice [spending the weekend by myself] to sit back and, not just reflect on my career, but the last six months, which have been pretty horrific. It was nice to soak all that in and feel grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and what hockey has given me.”

Lynch says part of her motivation for sticking around after the Rio Olympics was wanting to leave the Hockeyroos team in a better place once she departs. In Tokyo, she is looking forward to providing a calm and reassuring role model for the young squad, which features eight Olympic debutants.

Ranked fourth in the world, the Hockeyroos are certain to face stiff opposition in their bid to claim a medal.

Billed as the ‘COVID Games’, the Hockeyroos and other athletes will be regularly tested for the virus during competition. Attendance by fans will be capped at up to 50% of a venue’s capacity, or a maximum of 10,000 people.

While the Hockeyroos have played fewer games and not had the international encounters of past preparations, Lynch says, for the most part, the Olympics will be business as usual.

“It can be anyone’s tournament really. The fact that we’ve had the COVID prep means we haven’t seen each other [international teams] so everyone will be going in a little by more blind than usual, which I think is a good thing. The top 10 in women’s hockey is very close, so I feel like we are in with a shot. But so is everyone.”

Lynch finished up with Fiona Stanley at the beginning of this year, and has been solely working for a mining company, managing their private COVID-19 testing program for workers.

It’s a change of pace from neuro-rehab, and looking ahead, Lynch predicts she will return to the clinical setting at some point.

As she pushes ahead to Tokyo for her second Olympics, Lynch is filled with gratitude and excitement. Getting the chance to be a global ambassador for nursing is an added bonus.

“It’s something that I really hang my hat on. I’m really lucky and proud to be a nurse,” she says.

“As much as I love my hockey, it’s the nursing work that I do that is a bit more special I feel.”
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics run from 23 July to 8 August

Find out more about the Australian Olympic Team here

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