The challenges and comforts of Claire Lambe’s second life

Generations of professional athletes have struggled with the transition from a life in lycra or gaudy nylon to civvies, but a glance at Claire Lambe’s diary would suggest that the former Olympic rower has negotiated it with ease.

Still only 28, it’s a year last month since she called time on a way of life that had engrossed her for a decade-and-a-half and since she cashed in her qualifications in mechanical engineering for a job in Cork. Plus, she has already put down roots in Shandon, where she has bought a house.

The proximity of the city is exhilarating. It’s no surprise, given she spent almost four years on the far side of Ballincollig, where the National Rowing Centre was her universe.

Unable to drive at first, her idea of escape, at the time, was a scooter ride to Cork for a coffee.

The vibrancy of the place has struck a chord with the Dubliner, since her move back to the region, after a spell, post-Rio, earning her masters in Cambridge University.

Work is a graduate position with Arup, an engineering consultancy firm that employs 550 people in four offices across Ireland, but that’s just the start of it for a woman who continues to run or cycle every day and who has recently started a Pilates instructor’s course.

Tuesday evenings tend to see her on the Lee, with the Cork Dragon Boat Association, coaching their crew of cancer survivors.

Saturdays usually involve some time with the Cork Sanctuary Runners, a group set up to help asylum seekers integrate into the local community.

Oh, and there’s the odd fitness class, too.

The continued dependence on sport and on exercise is obvious and understandable. Lambe laughs about the fear that most ex-sportspeople hold that they will lose that chiselled physique and slump into a routine on the couch, but the emotional struggle is not to be taken lightly.

Starting over in your late 20s is no small thing.

“College friends, everyone, just knew me as the rower. When that finishes, you wonder, ‘what am I’? So, there is a bit of an identity crisis.

“Another aspect is the new work environment. I was part of the grad programme, still am, which is fantastic and a great learning opportunity, but you come in with guys straight out of college.

“You’re eight years older and asking the same silly questions.

“You don’t really have a clue what you are doing. It was like, ‘wow, I was really good at what I was doing and now I’ve just decided to stop doing that and do something I’m not that good at, yet’.

“I had to remind myself how long it took for me to be good at rowing and remember that it will probably take you that long to be that good at your next career.”

All of which meant she was an obvious candidate to be an ambassador for the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s new ‘Dare to Believe’ campaign, which is preparing Olympic and Paralympic athletes to visit schools and share their stories, in the hope of inspiring others. 

Designed primarily to educate children about the importance of sport and exercise, as well as imparting broader life lessons, Lambe agrees that there is plenty to be gained from it for the athletes who sometimes get lost down the rabbit hole that is elite sport.

There is an understanding that support is required here, for those still pursuing their dreams and those who have parked them, with former canoeist Eoin Rheinisch now heading up a three-person, performance-life skills unit with the Sport Ireland Institute.

Building partnerships between athletes and companies, catering for work experience, preparing people for life after an Olympics or post-retirement, are all services now being put together in much the same way that the Gaelic Players’ Association, and other bodies, are doing in other sports.

But it all starts with the athletes themselves.

“I don’t think any athlete should be in full-time training without stimulating themselves in another way,” says Lambe. “It is just way too insular and you can be way too focused on yourself. There’s a lot more to life than sport and athletes need to recognise that fact.”

As do others.

Lambe was fortunate to train under coaches who understood and encouraged her studies. She broadened her interests further by taking on a part-time job during her rowing career, but the step away from the water was nevertheless fraught with nerves.

“I was struggling with the training for a while. I had been away to the UK for a year, where I did my masters and rowed there to a high level (in the annual boat race) and then, when I came back, I was working and back part of the (Ireland) squad. It was like something was missing. I had never struggled to find the motivation, but it just wasn’t there,” Lambe says.

“I’d never had a problem getting up in the morning to go training before, but, suddenly, I just didn’t have that drive anymore. I was also quite excited about the work that I was getting involved in and other aspects of my life, like friends and a relationship. So, the writing was probably on the wall when I came back from the UK, but it probably took me about three or four months to accept that that was it.”

It’s hard to overplay what a wrench that is. Things as mundane as your clothing can change utterly. No more tracksuits 24/7, not if an office is your new abode. Friendships made in oftentimes trying and highly emotive settings find themselves tested by distance and by other new and strange circumstances.

Lambe finished sixth, alongside Sinead Jennings, in the lightweight double sculls at the 2016 Olympics.

The pair ate, trained, laugh, and cried together and shared many a room for months on end, in any number of locations, but their friendship is operating under new guidelines now.

Lambe is immersed in a new passion — sustainability engineering projects — while Jennings is now a qualified GP.

They did manage three days on a cycling trip to Girona last September, but there have been months on end when they haven’t seen each other.

All of this takes time to process.

“That’s a big thing you miss about sport, because the camaraderie is second-to-none. You don’t get that same friendship from other things in life.

“It’s great to see how she has moved on with her second career. If she was still rowing, I would probably be itching to go back rowing, as well.” Lambe jokes about getting the urge to pick up the oars again, but that race is run for now. She wouldn’t be the first rower to get bitten by the bug again in her 30s, but there is, by and large, contentment with her achievements in the Irish singlet.

A silver medallist at the World University Games in 2012, she posted a string of other top-10s in major races that included the World U23s, World Championships, European Championships and, of course, that sixth-place finish in Rio de Janeiro.

“I would say I am very proud of my final result in reaching the Olympic final. Maybe I do think a bit about how I never won the medal, but I have to say that I can hang my hat on that result and I’m happy to leave it there. But there were a lot of hiccups along way.

“My parents had to bare the brunt of a lot of those. They have seen me cry a lot more times than I have been elated, so it was great when we made that final in Rio,” Lambe says.

“It kind of eradicated all those lows and made it so worth it.”

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