From a plane crash to photography: What Karen Shinkins did next

Colm O'Connor interviews Karen Shinkins about her post-athletic career as a photographer, and her lucky escape from a plane crash in 2010
From a plane crash to photography: What Karen Shinkins did next

Karen Shinkins with husband Paul Doyle and sons Keane (left) and Cullen (right)
Karen Shinkins with husband Paul Doyle and sons Keane (left) and Cullen (right)

Kildare-born sprinter Karen Shinkins competed in four consecutive World Championships and represented Ireland at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

She won a bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships 400m final in 2002 and has personal bests of 51.07 outdoors and 51.58 indoors. The latter remains a national record.

Fourteen years after retiring, she now works as a professional photographer and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two children. Interview: Colm O’Connor

Like all good sprinters Karen Shinkins saw the finishing line quickly.

Though the legs were willing, her mind wasn’t in the mood to swallow up the ground ahead.

“I retired in 2006, halfway through the season, I hit a wall. It was more of a mental thing,” she recalled this week as she juggles our call with entertaining and homeschooling her two small boys in lockdown.

“Physically I felt I could have gone on for another season or two but once the head isn’t in it anymore it becomes a struggle.

There were good days and bad days but short and simply the hunger had just gone. I didn’t know why the drive wasn’t there anymore. But what I did know for sure was that this was the end. I just didn’t want to run anymore.

So what happens next? What do you do when the lights are switched off on your sporting career? How do you feel when the sound of the crowd fades forever when you merge back into those same masses who had once cheered your name?

What happens when you go from being an international athlete to just another commuter stuck in morning rush hour traffic, dealing with all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that a 9-5 existence brings with it?

With much of the population out of their comfort zone in the midst of a global pandemic, Shinkins understands such grappling with uncertainty and crisis is a theme that resonates with many people in the here and now.

“Imagine if you quit your job right now... that is exactly what I felt at that moment.

“There was relief in that I was saying it out loud, that I had left a job that I loved for so long but now didn’t enjoy anymore.

But then came the fear. I had no exit plan for my life after athletics. I expected that I had another year or two in me. I always felt that I would have time to figure out an answer as to what lay ahead for me. And then, boom.

"Here I was, retired as an athlete at 29 and on the job market.

"I went into a funk, then the depression hit hard. I wouldn’t lie ... it was a serious struggle.”

What made the struggle all the greater was the life that Shinkins was leaving behind.

It seemed, on reflection, that every aspect of her existence in those years had been retrofitted to support her running.

From what she ate, what she drank, how long she slept for, all were on a check sheet of do’s and don’ts that were tailored and tweaked to ensure she competed at the highest level.

Suddenly that rug, that comfort blanket of routine, was dragged away.

BORN TO RUN: Karen Shinkins representing Ireland in the Women’s 400m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
BORN TO RUN: Karen Shinkins representing Ireland in the Women’s 400m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

And Shinkins was left spinning.

“I was living in the States at the time but I was very much in a bubble of my track world.

“We trained together, we ate together, we socialised together. I really had no experience of life in the outside world. So when training started back (after I retired) all my friends were back on the track and doing the things we had done for years while I was on the outside looking in.”

Armed with a degree in Business Studies from Waterford IT, Shinkins powered ahead with the next phase of her life.

She printed off CVs and prepared for interviews.

Those interviews kept coming as she expected. Nothing though prepared her for the resultant rejection letters.

The finish line she had spent a career racing towards quickly became impossible to reach.

“In America, people had no idea who I was. People were questioning the 10-year gap between finishing college and going into the workforce.

I thought that I would dazzle them with stories of my life as a professional athlete and having run at the Olympics in Sydney. But they could not have cared less. It was crushing on the ego.

“I just didn’t know where to go and didn’t have any connections or anything like the support network that I would have had back in Ireland. I was trapped in limbo and didn’t know what my next move was going to be.

“The mental battle in the weeks and months after finishing as an athlete was tough.

"When you are living through it you have to swallow your pride and have to be prepared to come down a few rungs of the ladder to start climbing again.

"Having gone through it, I can see how some professionals, whatever their sport, had fallen into a dark hole after retiring.

“It is a very humbling experience. It was tough but you have to know you are not alone. But that is easier said than done.

"Athletes are very careful too about sharing their true feelings — they want to put on that successful side and that winning face. Very few will ever tell you how hard it all is.”

Shinkins had another fear.

She knew that the work, work, work ethic of her adopted home country was not for her. She wanted to have a work-life balance.

But now she had neither and was running out of options for advice.

Her husband (sports agent Paul Doyle) was often away on business while her core group of friends were back in the bubble training, competing and existing in that place which separated them from the outside world.

“I could feel myself getting down and fearing that I was getting into a dark place,” she admitted.

“I had no-one to turn to.”

Serendipity, or just good old fashioned luck, then intervened.

A restaurant opened up nearby and was looking for a hostess. Shinkins hummed and hawed for a while.

“A hostess? Really. Is this it? But the alternative wasn’t great. It was either sit around at home and fall deeper into a dark place or go get the job and start making friends.”

That is exactly what she did. Her charming personality made her a natural in the role.

She stayed for a year and a half before a tip from the wife of one of the managers saw her getting an office job. She remained there for three years.

Around the same time, she fell back into athletics. It was nothing serious but was a welcome diversion as she scrambled to find her feet.

I was pacemaking from 2008 to 2011, running 800m and 1500m on the circuit. I was still doing the day job but then I’d run at weekend meets like Prefontaine, Millrose, Boston Indoor Games, and so on.

"During the summer I would usually book a block of pacemaking races in Europe to align with my work vacation time.

"I ended up doing a good few Diamond League events like Rome, Brussels and Oslo.”

But back in the real world of work, Shinkins knew that she was never going to be staying around for the retirement party and the presentation of a watch and flowers.

That aversion to the hamster wheel existence of office-home-office-home-office-home was screaming constantly in the background.

When you have done a job that you were so passionate about it is so difficult when you find yourself in a role that doesn’t have the same spark. So I sat down one night and took stock of things, where my life was at, where it had come from and where it was going.

“I began to think about the other things that had interested me before athletics took control. The one thing that I came back to was photography.

I always had a curiosity about cameras and equipment along with the actual act of taking pictures. It (photography) was a course that I looked at before the Leaving Cert but it never progressed beyond that.”

It wasn't really a road to Damascus conversion.

Shinkins signed up for some local photography classes and loved it from the off.

“Instantly I could feel that it gave me the spark which I had from athletics.”

She devoured the information and insight. For two years she learned the basics of the profession and step by step made her way from theory to the practical.

She started shadowing professional photographers to learn the tips of the trade. Then she began second-shooting for them. Just over 10 years ago she went out on her own.

“I found a passion which I thought I had lost after retiring. How many people get to say that in their lives?”

Wedding photography is her primary market. And that area of specialty was not by accident.

“The pressure of weddings and all that goes with it suits me. Having that mindset of no margin for error is crucial, you have to nail the shots when they present themselves and you don’t get a second chance.

Karen Shinkins
Karen Shinkins

"Capturing that perfect moment gives that same kind of rush as you would have when producing a personal best.”

She’s also returned to her sporting roots, doing a spread for Sports Illustrated China in Jamaica while she also has been hired to produce food shoots for magazines and worked with event planners and florists around the United States.

“I also shot a bunch of images of Derval (O’Rourke) for her first cookery book,” she adds.

What is as wonderful about the job is the flexibility which it gives her to spend time with Paul and their two young boys, Cullen and Keane.

Check out the window into their lockdown life at The images of the two little boys playing in the woods perfectly illustrate that the life journey which Shinkins has taken has all worked out pretty well in the end.

We almost forgot one other chapter in the story of what Karen Shinkins did next.

It is the one entitled: The plane crash.

“So in 2010 Paul and I had flown to Virginia where I was photographing portfolio pictures of a new athlete for his agency.

"Paul was flying this little Cessna 172 and on the flight back to Atlanta we got caught up in terrible weather with fog and rain over the Virginia mountains.

I could feel the energy shifting in the plane and I could tell by his body language that we were in trouble.

"He was requesting guidance from Air Traffic Control but their advice was to stay where we were as we were in the storm’s centre and that was the safest place to be.

“I had the headset on listening to all of this and wondering if this is the day I am going to die. We are in a storm, with mountains and forests all around us, it was not looking good.

"But with visibility getting worse the ATC realised that we had to get onto the ground if at all possible. Eventually, they told us to do a spiral descent — what is also known as a corkscrew descent — where you just circle lower and lower and lower in a bid to get under the storm and onto the ground.

"The fear was that we could have crashed right into a mountain had we stayed in our earlier pattern. I was just sitting there, helpless and petrified.

“Two thoughts are running through my head. The first one is the realisation that there is no parachute on the plane. The next thought is a question: ‘Do I sit here or do I jump out and end it quickly?’

“I said that I’d stay in the plane because there was a chance that we will make it. Then I start thinking about my parents and how I could get a message to them to tell them not to be sad because I had a great life and what wonderful parents they were…

“The next thing I know Paul has managed to crash land the plane in a field.”

A report on the accident noted that the plane bounced off a hump, shot up, and clipped the top of a barbed-wire fence before sliding up a hill.

The nose and landing gear were badly damaged, but Doyle and Shinkins walked away with barely a scratch.

First Sergeant Mike Musser of the Virginia State Police told local media how lucky the pair were: “It’s mountainous terrain and with the weather conditions, he’s very fortunate he didn’t crash into the side of a mountain.”

A decade on and Shinkins can still replay the aftermath in slow motion: “I leapt out of it because I thought the plane would explode like they always do in the movies.

“Paul was still sitting in the cockpit as he was trying to contact the Air Traffic Control and let them know that we were alive.

"I was running for my life... that old athletics background wasn’t long kicking in.”

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