Staying on piste

Competing for Greece in cross-country skiing – a sport without much financial reward, and in a country where it is not practised widely – Maria Ntanou had to self-fund her way to reach the 2010 and 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Here, she talks about how having a dual career – she also works as a digital coordinator for the International Fencing Federation (FIE) – has helped her reach her goals and improve the skills needed to balance her two worlds.

Call of the snow

When I was young, I played lots of sports, until a national ski club coach came to my school and suggested I try cross-country skiing. Although Greece is not widely known for its winter sports, there is a great local tradition of winter sports in my hometown, Naoussa, which sits in the north near two ski resorts, so I always had access to the snow and I could practise surrounded by nature, which is captivating for a child.

At university in Thessaloniki, cross-country skiing became much more than a hobby for me. I was in control of my time, and in my first year I was living alone, away from everyone I knew. I used this time to practise hard for the Junior World Championships, travelling back to my hometown to train several times a week, so I had to be on top of my schedule. It’s so important to be disciplined in what you do and to manage your time carefully, so starting this at university was really important and has helped me in my dual career.

Balancing a dual career

After moving to Lausanne to complete a master’s in sports administration and technology, I began working at the FIE, where to begin with I found it much harder to find a balance. Before, I didn’t have obligations other than passing exams, and there was no pressure to perform for anybody else. At work, I didn’t have the same amount of time to devote to cross-country skiing, and I had to find a way around that without affecting my performance.

The solution was effective time management. When I travel abroad to work now, for example, I completely change my schedule. I train in the morning, check my emails before breakfast, but do most of my work after dinner. In Switzerland, I go to the gym after 6 p.m. and work throughout the day. That’s why I always say time management is the biggest asset in my life.

All of the effort adapting to a dual career has definitely been worth it, as the strongest support I receive on my journey comes from work. Winter sports don’t get much financial backing in Greece, so working at the FIE has been a fantastic experience that has allowed me to live my dream. I used my entire salary to pay for travel, coaches, nutritionists, everything. I was completely self-funded and able to travel to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games thanks to my dual career.

Sacrifices and lessons

In a dual career, I think it’s important to understand how limited your time becomes and the sacrifices you have to make. When you have a goal, you have to do everything possible to achieve it, which can mean isolating yourself, becoming single-minded. It can be hard on your social life, and you start missing friends and family, but this is when you can really recognise an Olympic athlete.

Something that came later to me in my dual career was that it’s OK to ask for help. I was shy in the beginning, so I didn’t let anyone know if I was struggling, but I realised I had to speak to someone or it would negatively affect both my careers. I had to let my boss or a colleague know that I was trying to find a balance between my work and my career as an athlete. After we spoke, my worries disappeared. I found that people are more than willing to help, but they can do so only if you let them know something is wrong. As long as my work gets done on time, my colleagues don’t mind me shuffling my schedule to fit in training or competitions. Having an open dialogue with your boss can help you find the balance that is so important to leading a happy life and managing a dual career.