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'It was time to grow up and be there for my girls'... why Northern Ireland Olympic rowing hero Alan Campbell swapped his oars for a banker’s briefcase

 

Alan Campbell, the only Northern Ireland athlete to compete at four Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in London, has ended his sporting career to get 'a real job' - as a banker. The Coleraine-born rower, who is also a proud Orangeman, tells Steven Beacom about his new life and why he believes sport can bring children together.

Eight months ago Coleraine rower Alan Campbell was competing in the Rio Olympics. Four years before that this giant of a man delivered one of Northern Ireland's most heartwarming sports stories ever as he wept unashamedly on the podium after winning a bronze medal at the London 2012 Games.

That was then. The here and now is somewhat different.

Alan has swapped the Team GB tracksuit for a shirt and tie. The oars have gone, replaced by a briefcase. In a startling transformation, the 33-year-old has left international rowing behind to become a London banker.

It's quite the change in lifestyle for someone used to travelling the world, racing at the top level of the gruelling single sculls event, and creating waves in and out of the water with his performances and fun-loving personality.

Campbell, the only Northern Ireland athlete to take part in the Olympics on FOUR occasions, reveals it was an easy call to make, as he wanted to devote more time to wife Jules and two-year-old daughter Tabitha - or "my girls" - as he affectionately puts it, with a beaming smile lighting up his face.

Joking that his mum Jennifer and dad William used to wind him up about getting a "real job", Alan, towering over most at 6ft 3ins, chats openly and honestly about how during his rowing career those closest to him made sacrifices, and this is his opportunity to pay them back.

"I love being a dad and a husband," says Campbell, who lives with his wife and daughter in Richmond, a suburban district in south-west London.

"There was an element that I was doing that, but I was never able to dedicate myself to it because of the intensity of being a sportsperson competing all around the world.

"A lot of people look at the sacrifices athletes make in their careers and there are plenty of things said and written about that, but what isn't known or realised as much are the sacrifices that a sportsperson's family make and the time and effort that they put in.

"My wife has been a great support to me throughout, and since our daughter came along she has been amazing. Now it's time that I got a real job and was there for them.

"My mum and dad, who have also been massively supportive, used to joke to me about when I was getting a real job and here we are now. It's time to grow up and all that.

"I knew it was time to retire after Rio and I'm very happy with my decision and dedicating myself to my girls."

Campbell, a three-time World Championship medallist, adds: "I have had a very enjoyable and successful career. I did something that not a lot of people have had the opportunity to do and I've been to parts of the world that I would never have experienced without rowing. I worked very hard at it and gave everything to it and I'm very content with what I achieved. I feel lucky to have a medal from the Olympic Games, and to win it in London in a home Games was an incredible feeling.

"I was very emotional on the podium because it meant so much for me to win a medal for my family, Coleraine, Northern Ireland and Team GB.

"There are lots of people who have worked just as hard as I have and trained as much as I have and not necessarily received the same recognition as I have, so I'm happy to hand over the reins to others from Northern Ireland in rowing, and also to see people from home do well in other sports. For me, I am no longer sitting down, going backwards in a rowing boat. Life is taking me in a very different direction and I'm starting a new job in banking.

"I have responsibilities as a father and a husband. I'm loving spending time with my daughter Tabitha and enjoying the fruits of not having to wreck myself on the water every day.

"Being a husband and father mean everything to me and being a dad is the best job in the world. It's a new chapter for Jules, Tabitha and myself and we are really looking forward to it."

The former Coleraine Academical Institution pupil, who graduated last year with a business studies degree from the Open University, completed an internship at Citibank in London after the Olympics and has just started working for a large commercial bank.

So, why go from sport to finance?

"I had an opportunity to do a lot of stuff when I was competing, such as business coaching and working with people, talking about the mindset of an athlete and succeeding in a competitive world," explains Campbell.

"When I was younger I was studying for a degree in engineering, but I gave all that up to pursue my rowing career.

"From 2012 onwards, for four years I was determined to get a degree. I did a business degree with the Open University and I got a 2:1, which I was really pleased about.

"Working in banking, there is no doubt it is very different to what I did as a rower, but I feel I have a good mind for this and hope that I can be successful at it and provide a comfortable life for my family."

While Campbell, who is proud to be a member of the Orange Order, enjoyed the cut and thrust of competition, there is sense he won't miss the staggering physical and mental demands placed on mind and body in his particular field. Remember in his single sculls event, you are on your own in the boat with no team-mates to encourage or lift you when the going gets tough.

"The training was intense. At times, I would struggle to get out of bed because my body was aching and because you get so tired, it could affect your mood and you could become grumpy," says Campbell, a genuine soul who has always had a reputation for telling it how it is.

"I have spent a lot of years working very hard, with a lot of stress mentally and physically for, to be honest, not a lot of compensation and money, so now it will be nice to have the opportunity to work hard in another environment. I'm relishing the new challenges ahead."

Campbell, 34 next month, is also determined to continue supporting Northern Ireland sport.

To that end, he recently attended a Celebration of Sport event run by the Department for Communities, where 1,500 children from around the country visited Lisburn Leisure Park to try out a host of activities.

The four-time Olympian strongly believes that bringing children together in the name of sport should be used much more as part of education programmes in schools, insisting that it can help promote physical and mental health and act as an inspiration.

"Sport opens up a lot to children," says Campbell.

"When I was young, I did a lot of sports and was terrible at most of them. Luckily, I found rowing and had great support in Coleraine.

"Never did I imagine when I was at primary school or starting out in secondary school that I would be an Olympian, an Olympic medallist and would have the opportunity to travel the world, and that all started for me by trying out different sports.

"I was terrible at football, I was used as a tackle bag in rugby and I was the slowest cross-country runner there's ever been.

"But I enjoyed it, and the Celebration of Sport event showed the way for kids to get into sport.

"I think things like this should be in the school curriculum and that kids should be involved in events like the Celebration of Sport on a more regular basis around Northern Ireland.

"It would be great to have days like that as part of the education programme in Northern Ireland.

"You are getting to meet lots of kids, you are getting to meet lots of sports co-ordinators who children can learn from, and they are experiencing lots of different sports.

"At the Celebration of Sport, there were kids who had never tried canoeing and they got to do it on the lazy river, and kids who had never tried Gaelic sports were having a go at them.

"This is good for kids to be out and about, it helps their fitness, it helps them have new experiences, have fun and brings them together.

"Sport can be played for enjoyment and for some, it can become a career. It's fantastic seeing young athletes from Northern Ireland go on and compete at a high level as it can be inspiring for everyone.

"I love seeing our home-grown talent doing well, especially at the Olympics. In my opinion, the more chances we give them, as a country to do that, the better."

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