British champion balances running with medical school
Swapping skates for spikes was never part of Sarah McDonald’s long-term plan as the budding ice dancer set her sights on Winter Olympics glory.
However, persistent hip problems and the desire to stay fit saw the would-be medic discover a talent for middle distance running.
And in less than seven years the trainee doctor has gone from athletics novice to national champion.
Given her favourite childhood sport, it was perhaps no surprise to see McDonald stay ice cool down the straight and claim her first national title in February’s British Indoor Athletics Championships.
And buoyed by domestic success she has set her sights on making a mark at this summer’s World Athletics Championships in London.
“I’ve just been to the European Indoor Championships where I made the 1,500m final won by Laura Muir,” said McDonald from her high altitude training base in the US.
“London is now the target. That’s the dream. It would be fantastic to compete at the Olympic stadium. However, I’ve got plenty of time to develop. I feel as if I’m only just starting out on my journey as a middle distance athlete.
“I have so much to learn but I’m surrounded by a really talented bunch of middle distance runners in the UK right now.
“Laura Weightman is a real inspiration. When I started out she was somebody I really looked up to and I still do. She’s always there to encourage me and give me advice.”
Yet had McDonald’s hips not stood in the way of a promising ice skating career then her talent as a track athlete may have been hidden forever.
“I only started running when I reached the sixth form – before then I was dedicated to ice skating,” added the 23-year-old from Tyneside. “My hips wouldn’t let me ice skate any more. I needed surgery and I only started running to stay fit after my hip operations.
“I gave middle distance running a bit of a dabble and found out that I was ok. I ended up at Jarrow and Hebburn athletics club and five years later I’m part of the British Athletics set-up and in Arizona for altitude training!”
However, that’s only half the story where McDonald’s remarkable rise is concerned. A full-time medical student at the University of Birmingham, the 1,500m specialist must juggle a demanding degree with her ambition to win gold on the international stage.
And that’s where the ongoing support of TASS plays an increasingly vital role. As a supported athlete, McDonald has access to funding and specialist advice – allowing her to combine elite sport with a degree.
“I’m in my fourth year at Birmingham but I’ve just split the year to make things a bit easier,” she added. “Normally it’s a case of lots of early mornings and late nights. The workload for medical students is pretty heavy and there’s no getting away from that.
“Fortunately I don’t have to do a placement over the summer like the other students – that will make things much easier and help me to focus on the World Championships in London.
“Even so I don’t have much time for much else!
“I’m in my first year as a sport scholar and this is my first year on TASS. And I’m very fortunate to get the level of support that I do.
“Thanks to TASS I’m able to visit the physio regularly. It’s important that my legs and feet are monitored. I also benefit from the time I spend with my S&C coach – the overall support package is invaluable.
“I just don’t think I’d be able to combine being a medical student with middle distance running at the top level without it.”