Duncan Mackay

Like me, many young lads don’t make it in their first choice of sports, whether that’s through being released from a club or injury. I was playing rugby for Northampton Saints and had also played for the England under-18 squad when I suffered a series of blood clots in my leg.

After spending three months off I came back but shortly after suffered again and that’s when I was told I had to retire from professional rugby, as contact sport was too high risk for me. Just two days after being told that, my manager at the Rugby Players Association recommended I go along and try out my chances at Pitch2Podium. I had nothing to lose and from my results I was soon at a further assessment day with rowing - a sport until last year I had never even considered.

I didn’t have any time to get depressed about what I was losing out on in rugby and soon enough I found rowing really therapeutic and now I’m completely hooked on it. For me, it’s the best thing I ever did and although the training isn’t easy and I’ve still got a long way to go before I get to where I want to be in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, I’m on the right track.

I picked up my first novice title in December and won the recent BUCS event in the single scull - my biggest race yet. I’m training on the Lottery-backed and Siemens-sponsored GB Rowing Team’s "Start Programme", designed for athletes like me aiming to get to the next level in the sport. I moved to Nottingham to study English Literature at Nottingham University, so I’ve been able to train at the Watersports centre at Nottingham Holme Pierrepont, and the GB Rowing coaches and support structure has been fantastic.

This year UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport have been looking for more talented academy lads from rugby and football, through their Pitch2Podium programme. As well as the Talent ID Scientists and those helping put them through their paces, programme ambassador and Olympian Darren Campbell and England Rugby’s Mathew Tait, have popped in for a couple of sessions and talked to the lads about their experiences and helped motivate them to give their best during the tests.

It’s always inspiring to hear from top athletes about their journeys and giving their support to something you’re involved in helps to put the opportunity into perspective - the chance to represent your country and make it onto the podium in 2016.

There were some really impressive athletes this year, hopefully some will go on to impress when they go through the next phase and who knows, a world champions could have been found. The next few months will involve the second phase of the programme, trying out some specific sports and even now the door isn’t shut - Pitch2Podium may target some athletes who are released who have the make-up to fit what some of the sports are looking for.

Being from rugby, it’s great to see more from a rugby background coming along this year. Last year was the first time both rugby and football academies were involved and I think it’s interesting seeing the different attributes the lads seem to be excelling in - I know from my own experience, the power and strength I had from my rugby training really helped me to transfer into rowing. 

I’m almost one year on from my first experience of rowing and I’ve had such an amazing journey so far. I hope other academy football and rugby players don’t give up on sport if their careers don’t quite turn out like they expected. I felt I had much more to give and was still capable of achieving something in sport. Many of those who came along this past couple of months to Pitch2Podium were the same - some facing a crossroads of what to do next, others still hoping to make it.

Whatever direction they go, Pitch2Podium is a second chance worth taking.

With thousands of academy football and rugby athletes being released from clubs each year, the Pitch2Podium talent initiative run by the UK Talent Team (UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport), have just completed another series of assessment days, looking for those raw attributes which could lead to success in another Olympic sport. For more information on Pitch2Podium and other Talent ID initiatives from the UK Talent Team click here.