She hadn’t arranged her own doctor’s appointment in over a decade, but five years on from hanging up her badminton racquet, Susan Egelstaff is now fully into the swing of prescribing her own verdicts in Scotland’s largest broadsheet.
The transition from her habitual existence as an athlete to the ever-evolving nature of journalism hasn’t been a simple one.
Even now, after recently being made a staff writer at the Herald, the 35 year-old Midlothian is still acclimatising to her new-found independence.
“I’ve been retired for five years and I’m still not sure I’m used to it yet. It’s strange because you’re an adult, but up until you’ve retired you’ve had everything done for you.
“My life was so structured. I knew every minute of every day where I’d be and what I’d be doing three months from now. The nature of this job means that things can change at the last minute and I find it hard to cope with, as for so long everything was set in stone.”
Having received lottery funding from the age of 16, Egelstaff came to the realisation that she was in the twilight of her career and had to begin making succession plans.
The vivid memory of Sally Gunnell bounding over hurdles in Barcelona is what inspired her sporting success, but the inspiration to embark on a journalism career is less focused.
“I don’t know why that came into my head because it’s not something I’d ever done. I read a lot but I had never written anything. I wrote to the Herald asking if they would like me to write some stuff for them and the sports editor said just to send stuff in.
“So once a week I would send an article in but they would only print maybe one in three or four so it was a fairly low hit rate. I wasn’t being paid, I was doing it as it was a nice distraction and it was something different.”
She continued to write for two years after bowing out at a home Olympics in London 2012, and it was at another event close to home, Glasgow 2014, where her unique perspective came to the fore and highlighted her niche.
Having not been exposed to intense media duties during her playing days, her foray into writing was spontaneous, and one which could have been derailed before it began had she acquiesced to outdated advice form a 1970’s-like career’s advisor.
“I remember a lifestyle coordinator coming in to try and prepare us for after sport. I said I’d like to get into sportswriting and her attitude being ‘well, that’s really hard to get into, no one really does that’.
“I was under no illusions that I was easy to swagger into a job but neither did I think just accepting that it was too hard is the answer. Especially in Scotland, there are hardly any non-football athletes who have successfully integrated into the media.”
Having honed her badminton skills since the age of five to become a Commonwealth medallist, the prospect of returning to novice status when learning a new trade could have daunted Egelsatff, but there is no ego stopping her from learning.
“It’s only since I have been made staff and have started going into the office that they’ll say stuff and I won’t know what they mean as I don’t have any journalism training. I don’t mind asking for explanations but it is quite intimidating as you’re secretly wondering whether they are thinking ‘she’s an idiot, shouldn’t be here, so it’s hard not to be insecure.”
As one of only two female sportswriters in the country, representation of women is clearly still an issue in the industry, but her experience has been far from discriminatory.
“It’s extremely difficult to get a job at a newspaper nowadays but I think the advantage I had over people was that I’m a female and an ex-athlete so I think I ticked two boxes in one, which suits them.
“I’m very conscious that I’m heavily outnumbered. All my sports editors have been men but I really haven’t experienced any prejudice apart from the odd casual joke but I’m confident that I’d tell them where to go if it did happen. Sport is broadly similar as most of my coaches and training partners were guys so I’m used to being the minority in an environment.”
Once ranked 19th in the world, her choice to diversify from an individual sport – a discipline that can be a very lonely place – into another solo occupation was not a crossover that she had considered.
“As someone who played badminton, having that responsibility in a team weighs on you in a different type of way.
“The Herald deadlines are at quarter past ten so it’s quite an exciting rush because you know that if you don’t get it finished there will be a blank page in the paper next day.
“It’s the same as in badminton, I didn’t enjoy the pressure at the time but once you’ve done it there is a real sense of achievement as the finished product is like winning a medal.”
Egelstaff’s role is essentially to promote the sports usually neglected by the saturated football coverage, unless in a “very tokenistic” fashion, but she believes her unique background aids her work.
“I think it makes a difference sometimes that I have a different perspective on things from straight journalism. Occasionally an athlete will say something and I will really pick up on it and they’ll say ‘oh, I’ve never been asked that before’ because I’ve got an insight into the lifestyle.
“Sometimes I feel like they will go into more detail as they hope that I’ll ‘get it’ rather than having to dilute their answers.”
Egelstaff is a success story of how the characteristics that form elite competitors can manifest themselves in alien environments, but there are far too many cases of athletes never truly replacing what has been a way of life for them.
“I would encourage people to do more things when you’re competing so that you have a connection to the outside world as you’re very much in your own little sporting bubble. Sport was more like life and death to me as I didn’t ever fully switch off from it.”
It is that inability to consign competitive spirit to dormant status that afflicted Egelstaff’s friend, Gail Emms, who she interviewed about her battle with depression upon her struggle to find employment.
She believes that the support structures in place lead to a cliff-edge effect that can results in athletes struggling financially, as well as employment.
“You go from having a decent salary to having literally no money coming in the door which is a big shock to the system. I was 30 at the time so I had a mortgage so it is pretty daunting, especially when you haven’t had a job before.
“People are every positive that you’ve been involved in sport but at the same time they’re not going to just hand you a job when you’re up against a 22 year-old with degrees and experience.
“It’s pretty scary because I didn’t have a whole lot of things set up and if the journalism thing hadn’t worked I honestly don’t know what I’d have done.”
Egelstaff’s mental fortitude was strengthened by the sports psychology sessions she did during her career but feels that the issue of mental health post-retirement is still not openly discussed enough.
“There are people who are more susceptible to mental health issues and I don’t think there is enough help or them as it’d be up to them to ask for it.
“I felt like when I retired, I had to pretend everything was great and that I was loving not training twice a day.
“I think there is a thing in athletes that you don’t want to admit you’re struggling as it’s seen as a weakness. I don’t think that stigma is away and the conversation has to become normalised.”
By Jordan Campbell