Olympics to orthopaedics
View your social circle as an important part of your development as a doctor
In 1992, while in his second year of medical school at the University of Sheffield, 20 year old Curtis Robb from Liverpool made his breakthrough in the world of international athletics, qualifying for and subsequently finishing sixth in the 800 m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games for Great Britain. He continued combining his medical studies with a career as an Olympic athlete, competing over 800 m in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and three World Athletics Championships, before graduating in 1997.
Now a consultant orthopaedic surgeon practising in Cheshire, specialising in knee surgery, Robb has a particular interest in the preservation of both amateur and professional athletes’ knees and still enjoys running, having recently completed the Sydney half marathon in 2012.
During medical school how did you balance your running and medical commitments?
Combining athletics with medicine can be intense, but I think it’s crucial to maintain a social life to stay healthy, and to view your social circle as an important part of your development as a doctor. Trying to squeeze in training twice a day wasn’t too bad, unless I had exams, but it was tougher in major championship years, such as the Olympics. I learnt early on that trying to cram last minute didn’t help my medical studies or my running. It was therefore essential to target exams a long way off and start preparing earlier than would otherwise be necessary.
Overall, throughout the course of my five year degree I took two additional years out to facilitate my running. I didn’t undertake an intercalated degree as I thought I’d strung it out as long as I could. However, I would recommend intercalation to students in a similar position, as it can allow an extra degree of flexibility to train within the year compared with a year of clinical attachments.
Once you had graduated, how did you combine your work as a junior doctor with your athletics training?
It was a bit of a shock when I first started. As a student, you have far fewer responsibilities. However, when you’re at work, you’re not just worried about yourself and your training, but you’re also thinking about your patients. They are constantly on your mind, and I think that has an impact on your energy levels—not necessarily in a negative way, but it is more challenging.
Why did you take a step back from your career as a professional athlete?
After the Sydney Olympics I struggled with injuries. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it any more, I did and still do love running, but the injuries prevented me from training consistently.
Was there a defining moment that made you consider a career in orthopaedic surgery?
I really enjoyed anatomy and had an initial interest in general surgery. Towards the end of medical school I started thinking more about a career in surgery and gravitated towards orthopaedics because of the movement involved in running, and wanting to keep people mobile. I knew how much pleasure I’d gained from running with a group, or getting fit from point zero—you feel better about yourself.
I now have a specialist interest in young adult and sporting knees. I guess I thought knees were the most “sporting” joint, which is why I went for them, and with my history of injuries, I have some sympathy for them as well.
Have any of the skills you gained in athletics helped you in your surgical career?
One key skill of any doctor is communication; you need to be able to understand your patients. Although the competition in athletics can be singular, much of the training is in teams and groups. This provides a great social atmosphere, which is a big plus in aiding underlying communication skills.
Additionally, I think it helped to be challenged in a training session because I often thought “I can’t complete this session at this level of intensity,” and then somehow I pulled through. This made me stronger from a mental perspective and gave me belief and improved self confidence.
Do you have any advice for current medical students or junior doctors competing at a high level of sport?
When you are transitioning from school or club to county, national, European, world, and Olympic level, the steps up can be huge and you might suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of defeat. Although defeat is a hard lesson, you get a much better feel not only for the standard required, but also for your strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to further develop and refine what gives you your edge.
Additionally, your time as a top end athlete is short lived, it lasts mostly between the ages of 20 and 30 years, and you can’t rely on being better next year by doing more training—consistency is the key.
Above all, enjoy university. I wouldn’t have changed my time at university for anything. You need to enjoy your life and sometimes if things aren’t quite working out, taking a step back to holistically assess all of the medical, sporting, and social aspects of your life can be very beneficial to getting this balance right.Samuel Bennett, fourth year medical student
1University of Birmingham
Correspondence to: SRB157@student.bham.ac.uk
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Curtis Robb for his time and guidance.
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h3276