The life of a UELSports athletics scholar

So I guess I should start off this blog entry with a bit of an introduction. My name is Colin Leak; I am a post graduate student at UEL and am working towards obtaining my MSC in Strength and Conditioning. I am originally from the United States (to be more specific: West Chester, Pa…which is outside Philadelphia). I graduated from the College of William and Mary (named after King William III and Queen Mary II) where I studied Exercise Physiology and Religious Studies. During my time in college, I competed in Cross Country and Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field for the university. After college, I followed my college coach, the legendary Alex Gibby, to the University of Michigan and continued training post collegiately.

This past month being at UEL has been… unreal (this is the best word I can think of). And while I could write an entire book about my experiences so far, I figure I would save whoever is reading this blog from my terrible ranting and butchering of the English language and try to focus on what has had the biggest impact on my UEL journey. Quite simply, what has made this experience so “unreal” has been the relationships I have developed in the small time since arriving on this small island.

First, there are the wonderful staff within the UEL sports department; namely Matthew Tansley (Matt is the person I have the most interaction with, but as a whole I believe the UEL sports department does the job of ten high level university sports departments within the states). I actually first developed a relationship with Matt via email over the summer as I was applying for the UEL International Sports Scholarship. At first, Matt was pretty intimidating just because I knew the scholarship was very selective. Also, I was constantly running into issues with my visa and application process; and so I started to become worried during my flight into London that I would disappoint Matt. Much to my surprise and delight, Matt has been one of the most gregarious and kind hearted persons I have ever met. I came to the University pretty anxious and nervous (as I think anyone would if they move to another continent). But after meeting and talking with Matt, my worries were pacified. Matt not only got me to believe that everything was going to be alright; but he also has been able to instill confidence within myself that I can achieve some pretty cool things while at the university. This is a great feeling to have.

Secondly, the coaches and support staff within UEL are professional, hard working, and masters of their craft. Twice a week I get to work with strength and conditioning coach, Duncan Ogilvie. So far, we have only been working on basic strength and conditioning exercises to build a foundation for the more event specific work we will do in the future. But, in this short time, I am already noticing huge gains. My “old man” posture is starting to get better and I am seeing the translation in my running (feeling more powerful while seemingly working less during my runs). I am excited to see where things go from here. Once a week I get to work with a sprint coach, Andre Fernandez. We spend most of our time working on biomechanics and top flight drills, and while it is a world that I am unfamiliar with (my running mechanics are painful to watch and as a distance runner, my sprinting is pretty sub-par), it is fascinating to be a part of. In one session, Andre noticed that when I increased my leg turn over during acceleration, I was producing less force. So he instructed me to “slow down in order to run faster” (kind of a counter intuitive concept). But somehow it worked. All of a sudden running at faster speeds became possible. Once again, I still have a lot of improvement in both strength and conditioning and my biomechanics, but with Duncan and Andre’s expertise, I know I am in good hands.

On top of that, once a week I meet with Amy Smith for some much needed massage therapy and Simon Lack for physiotherapy. A couple of weeks ago my foot was giving me some trouble and I was struggling to go for a maintenance run. After one evening with Simon followed by Amy, the pain in my foot was gone and I was doing a workout the next day. Amy and Simon have a very difficult task, as an athlete you are always riding a very fine and blurry line between being on the top of your game and being sidelined with an injury. But it’s been a lot of fun working with them and seeing how much better my body feels the next day after a session.

Thirdly, I have had the pleasure to run into a remarkable training group within London. With the help of the UELSports department I have a great opportunity to work out with endurance athletes who are much better than I am. The training group is called Run-Fast and is owned by a genuinely caring man named Peter McHugh who has a passion for distance running. They are a predominately East African based training group (although there are some very talented British athletes as well). I meet with them a few times a week (for either a track, hill, tempo or long run session) and the workouts are incredible. It is a very humbling and confidence building experience (another counter intuitive concept). These athletes are world class endurance runners. Just a few weeks ago a few of the athletes finished 1-3 at the Cardiff Half Marathon, running between 1:01:51 and 1:03:28. It is a awe-inspiring group to be a part of because the athletes are humble themselves and yet run these amazing times. And yet it is confidence building because I finish a workout and realise that I am training with athletes that have run much faster times than I have. Again, I cannot wait to see the payoffs from training with Team Run-Fast.

Lastly, but most importantly are the professors at UEL. The professors here go beyond just teaching the basics and asking their students to regurgitate information. In the classroom and in the labs we are always being asked to critically scrutinise the research and formulate our own opinions that we can defend. As an undergraduate student, I always enjoyed science because it helps make sense of the world around us. It separates fact from fiction and presents us with a black and white picture. But as a graduate student, it is fascinating to see that science is also a world with black on one side, white on the other and a whole bunch of grey in the middle. That the methods and tools we use in research have their own constraints and limitations. And while science helps us to understand the world better, it usually presents more questions than it answers and never gives us a true picture of the world in which we live(My best analogy would be that science is a lot like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). And it is the professors at UEL that are helping me see the complexity and beauty of science within strength and conditioning.

In the end, I have to say it is the relationships I have built during my time at UEL that has made this experience “unreal”. I am a firm believer that in order to succeed academically or athletically, you need to be a part of something you can take pride in. I feel like I am in an environment where there are so many things to be proud to be partaking in. Which I hope means Matt might be right and that I can accomplish some pretty cool things during my short but wonderful time here as an Student and Athlete at the University of East London.

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