Dr Scott Brennan is a remarkable person who has managed to compete at 3 Olympic Games in rowing (including winning a Gold Medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing) while still completing medical school and working as a Doctor. He was kind enough to share his experiences with MSO.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in Hobart, going to a small school in our suburb of Lindisfarne and then onto St Virgil’s college for grades 7-10 and then Guilford College grades 11-12, the change of schools for 11-12 being the norm for the Catholic system in Hobart. From there it was onto university of Tas for my medical degree. We lived a five minute jog away from the Lindisfarne rowing club and my parents still live in the same house, although it’s changed a lot from 35yrs ago when they first bought it.
If you can pinpoint a few a key milestones in your life – when and what were they?
My inspiration for rowing was a combination of circumstance and opportunity – in 1992 Steven Hawkins won a gold medal in the men’s double scull at the Barcelona Olympics. He grew up in Lindisfarne too and trained at the club there. I was only 9 at the time and didn’t know a thing about rowing, but I still have a memory of that race and how exciting it was (and how excited my parents were watching it). Part of that memory is a very strong thought I had at the time – ‘one day I’m going to do that too’. It was my first exposure to the olympic games and it woke something up inside me, albeit a tiny, fragile thing. As a 9 year old I had all sorts of dreams though (Fighter pilot, professional boxer, mountaineer, submarine captain, who knows that else!) so it was by no means guaranteed, but when I went to St Virgils I can still remember the day in grade 7 when one of the older boys brought around a form to put your name on if you wanted to try rowing. That was three years after my olympic moment, and I remember it felt strangely special when I wrote my name down.
My talent in rowing was not evident at first. Perhaps you could even say I had no talent, my first race results would suggest that would be accurate (last by a long way) but something felt right about being out on the water in a boat, the combination of required hard work and technical skill satisfying my energetic temperament at the time. That ‘right’ feeling would push aside any other sensations of fatigue, winter cold, blistered hands or sore muscles for years to come. It was in my blood.
As for medicine, I actually had no real intention of becoming a doctor as a youth, my interest as a teenager lying towards Engineering like my father (who as a young man qualified as a metallurgical engineer, but found a love for school teaching when doing occasional relief work as he cared for his mother in the closing stages of her battle with breast cancer. He taught for the rest of his career following this). At the age of 16, beginning to establish myself as a rower in the junior ranks of the country, I became suddenly and seriously ill, developing sepsis and being hospitalised. I lost a huge amount of weight and couldn’t walk for a month, that time was incredibly painful as the sepsis centred around an abscess that formed near the base of my spine. Movement was almost completely out of the question, even coughing, sneezing or laughing were unbearable.
Strangely though, I look back on that experience with gratitude. I would never want to go through something like that again, but for two reasons I feel it was important. Firstly, running into one of the kind nurses who looked after me at the time made me realise that they didn’t expect me to live. That was a shock, and knowing that I owed my life to the doctors who treated me I felt a compelling sense of debt and that one day I would do the same work to repay it. Engineering never featured as an option again. Secondly, it radically altered my understanding of pain, shifting my perspective about what the human body can suffer through, and forcing me to completely reassess what I thought was unpleasant. I considered that a gift and it must have done wonders for my training ethic. In the thirteen years since my illness the only thing that has come remotely close to matching it was recently competing with a back injury through the London Olympics.
When did the Olympics become a realistic goal for you?
The 2004 Olympics became realistic for me when as an 18 year old, just before starting first year univeristy, I decided I wanted to be the junior world champion in the single scull. I was trained by a man named Sam LeCompte, a gifted New Zealand coach who showed me that the way to the olympics was not through some kind of nebulous magic but through continuous intense work and relentless high standards. We didn’t quite get there on the first go – I came second in our race in Germany, but on my second attempt I took out my age group world championship title in 2003, in Serbia. The Athens olympics were the following year and Sam had shown me everything I needed to know. Even though I was relatively young for a rower at 20 years of age (the average olympic rower being closer to 30) with the training Sam had given me and my confidence as reigning world champion, I firmly believed I would make the team. That first Olympic selection process was a harrowing time, as the new kid on the block the selectors put me under tremendous repeated pressure to justify displacing one of the more senior and established athletes, but I made it through. Enduring that process remains one of my proudest achievements to date.
How do you keep the work/life balance while still having two time consuming pursuits? Are you really organised? or is there someone else who keeps you organised?I often get asked about balancing studying medicine with rowing, and when I realised I could do both together. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever did come to that realisation. I’m certainly not gifted academically. There were times when the pressure felt so great I could hardly breathe, and other times when it seemed to be perfectly under control. Sometimes I wouldn’t be starting training until 10pm, or I’d be studying through the night until the sun came up. It was an unpredictable time for me of testing limits and pushing boundaries. I think if I had to do it again I don’t know whether I’d get through it a second time, to a certain extent I can’t help but feel I was protected by my ignorance of just how difficult it would become at certain stages – by the time it got crazy I was already in the middle of it and there was nothing to do but put my head down and work my way out of it. What I do know is that looking back during this stage of my life I never once considered giving either pursuit up. My motivations for both were so deeply ingrained through my earlier lifetime experiences that they became central to my identity. Strange as it may sound deciding to give one away would have felt as absurd as deciding to give away an arm or a leg. Perhaps it was this idea of no other perceived option that helped me ‘balance’ what I was doing.
When it comes to organisational skills I’d say its a balance of order and chaos that I am mostly happy with. It seemed no serious logistical effort to me to organise myself to train twice a day around shift work, but then simple things like finding something I might need at a certain time seem to elude me and I get quite annoyed at myself. Overall I get by reasonably well, but sometimes it’s really tough remembering the day to day things when you’re exhausted, and since Beijing I tend to get asked for more favours and tasks than I ever used to, which makes it challenging because often doing those things is really fun, but there’s only so much time in a day. I’ve gotten better with this stuff in the past few years out of necessity, but it’s a constant work in progress. My parents definitely helped me over the years, but I haven’t lived at home in a long time so mostly its up to me now to sort my stuff out!
Do you still enjoy rowing as much as you first did or has it become another “work” for you?
Rowing has never felt like work to me, it has always inspired and motivated me to reach for something higher within myself. Perhaps this is why despite the ups and downs I still find myself loving everything about it. As for balancing out medicine, I have always felt strongly about the ideas of mind, body and soul. Perhaps it’s a rather arbitrary way to look at things, but medicine and sport cover two of those areas nicely, and probably somewhat surprisingly at first I realised that the combination of mind and body resulted in paying a lot of attention to the third. Challenging times forced me to pull apart my motivations and examine them closely, to ask why I did the things I did. Competition has taken me all over the world since my teenage years, exposing me to vastly different cultures and some amazing encounters. I still find that nothing stirs a philosophical tendency like travel to new lands. Work within the hospital provides endless opportunity to think about both the strength and fragility of what it is to be alive and the myriad directions our lives could turn at any moment. Yes I think they have balanced each other out well.
With two demanding pursuits, there must have been some tough times along the way. Can you tell us a little about the difficulties you faced and how you overcame them? Any regrets?
Yes there have been tough times amongst the good. In second year I underwent surgery for an injury just prior to end of year exams. Studying while so uncomfortable and seeing all the results of my hard training through the off-season dwindling away was unpleasant, and I can still remember sitting in the surgeon’s office who performed the operation (he also happened to be one of my early rowing coaches) both of us shocked by the news we’d received that day that a mutual friend of ours had been killed in the Bali bombings.
What do you do in those times when everything seems to hit you at once? I did the only thing I felt I could and I broke it all down into little pieces. I had to recover from my injury before I worried about training, so I focused on what that involved and didn’t worry about anything else. I had a certain amount of medical knowledge to learn and I had to do that before the exam date, so I studied like mad (all the distractions had set me back in my study) and pushed myself to some new limits – studying through two consecutive nights in a row at one stage to ensure I made it through that year. I have never felt as exhausted as when I walked straight out of that last exam and into the funeral of my friend, but it was also good to finally feel I could let myself grieve. I couldn’t train properly again for three months while the injury healed, but I believe this process of breaking things down under duress helped me enormously, as it was only five months later that I claimed my world championship in Serbia. Now, any time I feel like I’m facing an insurmountable task I break it down into the smallest pieces possible and set about confronting them one at a time. It hasn’t failed me yet.
When my coach Sam Lecompte died following developing asbestos-related mesothelioma in 2005, an enormouse challenge was in the feeling that I was lost with no one to guide me any more. Sam has by far been the most influential person in my life, and without him I wasn’t sure I could achieve my dream of Olympic gold, particularly after our promising campaign in Athens had ended in disappointment. The years following that were my toughest, struggling to balance an increasingly challenging medical degree my rowing performance dropped off significantly and it was the closest I came to giving in. But I think Sam, in his own way, helped me through. Luckily, during my mid year exams in 2005, I managed to be able to drive up to the Launceston hospital and catch up with Sam just days before he died, and our final conversation is burnt into my mind. At his funeral I swore I would win a gold medal for both of us. This could easily be seen as a foolish action, I had absolutely no way of guaranteeing I could ever achieve this vow, and it could haunt me for the rest of my days if I never realised it. But I believe waking up every day with the enormity of what I promised guided me to my own understanding of what it was I needed to do to achieve my goals. And besides, it gave a rabid intensity to my efforts that made the idea of anything less than gold intolerable. Would I recommend an action that extreme to anyone else? It’s hard to say. What I can say though is that if you are aspiring to the highest of pinnacles in whatever area it is you happen to choose, it helps to have a motivation as colossal and intimidating as the very mountain you’re trying to climb.
I don’t regret a single thing.
You’ve competed at 3 Olympics now – Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London (2012) – can you tell us how you structured the years between each Olympics in order to complete you medical degree/internship/residency as well as keep up the training for rowing? Any years completely away from either medicine or rowing?
In the earlier years of medicine it was easier to prioritise rowing as the actual contact-hours were less, I could train more freely and fit the required study around it as I liked. So from years 1-3, I did both. After making the olympic team in 4th year I had no choice but to relocate interstate, so I deferred my studies for a year. From this point onwards the style of study began shifting from lecture-based to more placement based. 7:30 surgical starts and more hours in the hospital started placing a lot more strain on me, so I kept my rowing competition to domestic only – competing only at the national champs during 4th and 5th year. However, I knew that the odds of an athlete winning at the olympic games after three years out of international competition were extremely thin and Beijing was creeping ever closer, and my vow to Sam LeCompte was weighing heavier and heavier each month that went by. So in my final year I committed to simultaneous international competition. That was pretty tough, often I would train in the morning before ward rounds, again in the hospital gym during my lunch break and then go straight from afternoon lectures to training again. I ceded all university holidays that year as in order to complete my rotations I had to make up for the time I missed while competing overseas, so there was never a moment’s rest. I was glad when it ended. I once again took the year off for the Olympics and put everything into achieving in Beijing. I was so emotionally exhausted after the whirlwind of those olympics that I took my first true break from the sport since I began competing – my first in 14 years. After achieving my lifetime goal I wasn’t sure whether I would ever row again and so I happily threw myself into my internship and loved the new challenge of being a junior doctor. Towards the end of 2009 though I started to get an itch to compete again, and started full time training again during 2010. Fitting this around a medical job proved to be a challenge – night shifts and extremely early starts (often getting up at 3:30am to train before surgical shifts) wore me down over the course of the year causing illness and exhaustion. It became clear that the required training load for international competition could not coexist with full time medical work, so in 2011+2012, I made the difficult choice of focussing entirely on the London Olympics.
Can you describe the feeling when you won that Gold medal in Beijing? What were you like before the event and what were your reactions after? When did it all sink in?
I was amazingly calm before the event, despite the fact I had a cyclone of emotions going through me, which sounds something of a contradiction I guess. We were in great form and were the only crew to have gone through all the qualification rounds undefeated, so I had a confidence that felt justified, and I knew we had even more to give come the final. I slept like a baby the night before, but had trouble eating my breakfast. We didn’t race until 5pm so we had the whole day to pass until then, which I spent meditating and listening to music – basically trying to expend as little energy as possible. The race itself felt perfect, it all went to plan. I do have a funny recollection at half way through the race that my body was screaming at me but my mind simply answered that we were a long way out in front so if my body would kindly just do another few minutes of work then it could have the next ten years off if it really wanted to. When we crossed the line? Relief. Pure relief. Then euphoria, like the whole universe for just the briefest of moments celebrates with you. Then the realisation that my legs wouldn’t work and I actually couldn’t stand up out of the boat.
When did it sink in? That took quite a while. One of the things nobody prepares you for is what happens once you win a gold medal. I remember waking up the first time in the olympic village to see it sitting on my bedside table and all I could think was “now what?” For as long as I could rememeber I had defined a large part of myself through my quest to become an Olympic champion. I had dreamed, toiled and sacrificed every day for more than half my life to get that point… now I was there and it was all over. The parties, the parades, the post-olympic hype, none of that felt real. For me it truly sank in the first time I ran up mount wellington again and stood looking out over the city. I had run up there through sunshine or blizzard countless times in training in the years beforehand and every time I stood at the summit I had thought ‘one day I will be’. I felt completely at peace the time I first said ‘I am’, now nowhere feels quite like home to me as much as that mountain does.
What was life like in the Olympic Village?
A strange mix of the exceptional and mundane. In one sense, you are there with a specific job to do and you stick strictly to routines – eat, train, compete, sleep. But then all of a sudden everything’s a big party and routine goes flying out the window, and you begin to notice how much stuff there is to do. You also find yourself at 5am ordering a ridiculous amount of food from a certain fast food chain because it’s free. (Even though you don’t particularly like it anyway) My experience of all three games were vastly different. Athens was an amazing party city but it was tinged with disappointment that we hadn’t gone as well as we wanted, China was much more rigid but having a gold medal turned the place completely upside down – you’d head out at night and before you knew it you were drinking shots with one of the Bond movie girls or the prince of an African country was dancing around with your medal over his head. London, unfortunately, I was in a lot of pain and I just wanted to come home and let my back heal, but I had a much more sedate time exploring the history city in a way I didn’t have a chance to do at previous games.
Do you have much down-time? and what do you do in that time? Any other hobbies?
I love mountain biking and boxing, but they can be a bit much when you’ve already trained for six hours in the day. So reading, watching a movie or hanging out with friends/loved ones during free time is really nice. It’s important to be able to switch off in some sense, otherwise the risk is that you can’t bring the same intensity to the next session and the quality drops away.
Any tips/advice for high school and university students wanting to follow a similar pathway to yourself?
In the end it doesn’t matter a damn what other people think. It doesn’t matter how many people want you to achieve, or think you can achieve, or tell you to achieve, you’re the one that walks into the exam, or out onto the stage, or up into the starting blocks… Eventually, you’ll reach a moment where it is just you alone with the magnitude of your desire – be it great or small. If you are going to put yourself (and possibly others indirectly) through the ringer to attempt something, make sure you know that by the time all that work comes to the pointy end you will still actually want to be there. If you do, great. If you don’t, be very careful – as in my opinion if you don’t truly love what you do, for your own reasons that make perfect sense to you, then you run the risk of becoming very unhappy once that brutally liberating moment of truth hits home.
The other thing is be extremely curious about what you’re attempting – I didn’t do anything magic to get where I wanted to be, I just watched, asked and studied a multitude of people who had been there before me and then I copied the bits I liked and avoided the bits I didn’t.
You’ve just finished competing in London 2012 – where are you at now? and what’s next for you from a medicine point of view and in rowing? Do you have a long-term goal as to which specialty(ies) you may like to pursue?
My main focus after London was to let my back heal and assess the damage once it was all over. The first few months after an Olympics are great, it’s downtime and freedom that doesn’t come very often. So I’ve taken the time to participate in mountain bike racing and boxing training, catch up with family and friends around the place, and generally relax until the new year comes around. The good news is my back seems to have made a full recovery. I have organised to do part time work for the forseeable future, I’m not quite ready to give away the rowing just yet… London was so close to being perfect again that I want to try once more in Rio before I retire to full time medicine. I’ve loved all things surgical in the hospital, particularly neurosurgery… but we’ll see.
There are many more mountains to climb between now and then.