As well as being a three-time Olympian and a world champion, Danish kayaker Henriette Engel Hansen has found time to earn a Master’s degree and forge a career in economics. Here, Hansen – who will serve as an Athlete Role Model at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 – reveals how she has managed her dual career, and why it’s something that all athletes should consider.
I always knew that I would need a second career, because in Denmark you can’t make a living from canoeing. So I knew that I had to get my education. Of course, I could just have done something else, but it was important for me to pursue both, so that the day I decided that I didn’t want to compete on an international level anymore, I could still go on with my life.
The importance of a dual career
For many athletes, it’s about finding a way to finance your sporting career. But it’s also about being ready for another life after sport. You can focus on your sport when you’re young, but as you get older you have to start thinking about what’s next.
Having something else to focus on – like work or education – is important as it can give you that mental balance. As an athlete, especially when you’re young, you need a break from sport sometimes and it can benefit you to have a life outside sport. Otherwise, you can easily get burned out before you’re even 19 years old. If it’s always about the sport and everything is about the sport, you get fed up at some point.
Making it work
I don’t think there’s any easy way. I was working 25 hours a week while I was competing and I was fortunate to have good arrangements with the different jobs I’ve had. I was still able to go away to training camps every year for four to eight weeks at a time. In between training sessions, I would be logging on to the server at home and working. But it was the same for other athletes too; most of them were studying during the breaks.
So it is possible to do both. Of course, you need to create a good schedule to be able to do everything, but if I see the young athletes in Denmark, many of them are training at 6 a.m., then school from 8 a.m. until 3.30 p.m., and then they train again in the afternoon. And it’s working for them.
I studied at university and got my Master’s degree in economics, even though I was still racing at a high level. Then I had to work part time while doing my sport, and still I was world champion and went to the Olympic Games three times. So I still think it’s possible. It’s almost an unspoken thing among some athletes, who think, “Oh, it’s not possible to work if you want to compete at a high level.” But I don’t agree with that.
Finding good support
Of course, you need good support to make it work. For instance, before the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, I got special dispensation from the university so that I didn’t have to defend my thesis; I could focus on my canoeing instead. They really supported me on my road to Beijing.
I think if you can show your commitment to everything that you are doing – in sport and in education or work – then it is easier to find people to support you.
There were times when my coach would even tell me, “Okay, for the next two weeks you’re only training once a day, so you can focus on your exam. That’s what’s most important right now – we’re not competing for a few months, so take it easy and focus on what you need to do. Relax, we have plenty of time to prepare.”
It is such a great help when your coach tells you something like that, and it comes from having a good relationship with each other. If you are open with your coach and let them know what is going on – if you have problems with school or work – then you can work something out. If you’re stressed about something then it will be reflected in your training and your performance anyway, so it’s really important to have that open relationship with your coach.
Transferring your skills
My sport has helped me a lot in my working life. I think I have quite a positive way of thinking, and I always love having fun and laughing. That’s really important in sport, but you can bring that into your work career too. I also think that being an athlete requires you to be really dedicated and know how to work to a schedule. All those things are what employers like to have. They want you to have a good mood, they want you to be dedicated, to keep to your deadlines, to always perform as best as you can and always seek to get better. All this comes from being an athlete and competing in sport. You always want to be good at what you’re doing. You hate not being the best.