The Balancing Act: How university and sport prioritise
University is tricky. It starts with a flick through various prospectuses, weighing up which course seems best for you until you’re three years deep, awash with deadlines and a social life that is barely recognisable to the one you had before. Luke Barry has an in-depth look at how three Motorsport hopefuls found their balance.
Finding the time to satisfy all the needs in your life is a balancing act many of us are faced with. The word ‘priority’ begins to carry far more weight than ever before, as you have to work out how best to shape yourself for your potential career.
For most of us that means resisting the temptation to go to the pub with your mates and finding a way to make money but also meet deadlines; not necessarily letting your head and heart fight it out over your pursuit of sporting greatness.
“Racing will always be there for me, university however won’t be so it has to take priority.”
Meet Jamie Thorburn, a 20-year-old racing driver and third year accounting student at the University of Dundee. Like anyone else behind the wheel, Formula 1 remains a dream, but having got into karting later than his peers, that dream was already somewhat unrealistic.
Instead Thorburn turned his attentions to Formula Ford, and took third in last year’s National championship. His programme has been somewhat limited this year however. An increased workload at uni resulted in Thorburn announcing in September that he’d be putting his dream of racing to one side.
“My mid-term exams meant I was needing to sit out the remainder of this season no matter whether I was giving up racing full time or not,” Thorburn says.
“Ever since moving up to Dundee to study there’s been discussions between me, my parents and sponsors about whether it would be best to stop racing and come back to it after I had completed my degree.
“I knew that second year would be the make or break year in terms of studying and racing, it highlighted to me just how hard it was going to be in third year and prompted the decision to stop.
“I felt that my racing was suffering for my university work as I missed test days and spent some race weekends revising instead of focusing on the upcoming session, and it had a negative effect on my university [work too] as I was missing so many days and having to squeeze in revision and assignments around my race weekends.”
Thorburn’s plan is to complete the final two years of his degree before racing “anything, anywhere for anyone” when he comes back. The decision has understandably been difficult but he knows he didn’t really have a choice.
“I consider reversing my decision to stop racing and focus on university pretty much every day but ultimately I know it’s for the best in the long run,” he explains.
“My head was telling me to stop racing and focus on my studies, however my heart was telling me to keep racing and I’d somehow find a way to do both and succeed in both. Eventually my head won and the decision came to stop racing.”
His choice has already proved to be the right one, with Thorburn already noticing an improvement in his uni work now that he’s juggling one less ball.
“I’ve already done more extra work in the five weeks I’ve been back than I did for all six of my second year exams,” he continues.
“I think it will benefit my grades a lot and I already feel more committed to my studies as I really don’t want to have stopped racing for two years only to not graduate and have ended up wasting my time.”
Thorburn’s situation is just one case study in how to compete at a high level of motorsport whilst at university.
Alex Waterman and co-driver Harry Thomas are one of a number of crews testing their mettle in the British Rally Championship, but did so half-way through their university degrees.
Waterman is now a sports management graduate from Loughborough University, and took advantage of his sandwich year in industry two years ago to begin competing in a sport he’s always loved.
“I was playing cricket semi-professionally and trying to make it as a pro cricketer, and was in a funded programme in first year of uni where effectively I was studying while trying to play professional cricket,” Waterman explains.
“[But] then I got injured. I had stress fractures in my back so I had to take a step back from cricket, and I’ve always wanted to start rallying as my dad’s rallied since I was 18, but obviously with the cricket commitments taking up my weekends I just never got the chance to actually start.
“Harry [Thomas] and I are both fresh to it. At the end of 2016 we went and did a rally at Mallory Park which was a little single venue, then we went and did the Wyedean, then Bovingdon and then we did Rockingham. After that we had our National A [license], so thought ‘let’s go and do the BRC.”
Behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta R2, Waterman went straight into the British Rally Championship in 2017, and came away with third overall in the Cadet class.
There was a lot to learn for Waterman as he “fast-tracked” his way into a seriously competitive and gruelling championship without a lot of experience. But it wasn’t just the driving that threw up a challenge.
“I had to take unpaid leave from my work and Harry had to as well, so we did have to make a few sacrifices to be able to go rallying but it was all worth it,” he says.
“Again this year we wanted to commit to a championship as well, and again it made sense to do the BRC because looking at the dates, they relatively fitted within our uni schedule.
“We planned it that we were going to do the full championship, but it got to the Border Counties Rally and it was very touch and go. In the end we did actually put our entry in but had it have run it probably wouldn’t have helped us very much at all because I had a lot of dissertation to do and exam stuff.
“Then it got to the Pirelli, [and] about a week before the rally and Harry and I had a chat and we were both like ‘well, we’re very short on our dissertations and realistically we’ve got to think that our degrees come first.’ So we pulled the entry for the Pirelli just because our work load was too much.”
Much like Thorburn, having to watch on from the sidelines was a painful experience for Waterman, but allied to this was a sense that he’d made the right decision.
“I sat there and was watching the live text feeds, was watching all the times and stuff and I was thinking ‘yeah I really want to be there,’ but I knew that it was the right decision to not go,” he reveals.
“It would’ve been foolish to go, because it would’ve been a week out of any work done and with deadlines fast approaching after it would’ve been very touch and go. That’s not what we wanted to do. Our aim is to go out there and do it right.”
After the Pirelli Rally came graduation from university, leaving Waterman free to head to Belgium for his first rally of the year. A crash in the lanes around Ypres and a new venture however meant this would be the last we’d see of Waterman and Thomas in the BRC until the season-closing Wales Rally GB.
EDSL Sport – a brand new rally team – is now taking up Waterman’s time. The 22-year-old has already headed to World Championship events in Finland before Wales, and is looking forward to hiring out Fiestas to aspiring competitors next year.
“Since operating the car has done Finland and GB and we’ve had no problems with it whatsoever throughout both events,” Waterman says.
“They’re probably two of the most gruelling and tough WRC events and for the car to finish with absolutely no problems is quite impressive on a new team, we think.
“A lot of people are worried about the R2T having reliability issues because it has a turbo, but when people say that to us we can say ‘well actually our car did Finland and GB and nothing broke, nothing went wrong.’ If it’s got to the end of both those events with a puncture being the worst thing, that’s pretty good going we think.”
Now free of the shackles of university, Waterman is able to properly enjoy and commit to his rallying whether that be behind the wheel or running the team in the service park.
“I think going forward it’s a tough decision whether or not we commit to a championship and do all the events, or we actually say ‘no we’re looking for experience right now, let’s pick the five best events to go and get the best experience on.’
“It’s all unknown yet. I could well be driving in the BRC next year, but right now the main focus is on getting customers into the BRC, and if there so happens to be a space for me so be it. If not we can work around that and try some World or European championship events.”
Alex Waterman started his motorsport progression while at uni, and although he had to miss some rallies, he has managed to come out the other side uncompromised. Jamie Thorburn was an established racer before university, but Waterman’s tale should act as proof that he has absolutely made the right decision to momentarily readjust his priorities.
“Ultimately I would love to be racing full time, I don’t have a set series or country that I would prefer to be racing in at the moment, however to move to the USA and make a career there would be very cool,” Thorburn says.
“I plan on coming back for a full year, having nothing else on apart from racing will help a lot. It’ll allow me to train properly, test regularly and spend all my energy trying to improve.
“Currently my sponsors and I are looking at a number of series and teams that we would love to get involved with but currently my main focus is on university.”
With that said, I best get back to my dissertation.