As the mid-way point of my four-year French degree was rapidly approaching, my tutor sat me down and said very seriously: “You know, you need to decide if you want a 2:1 or not.”
A bit taken aback, I said something along the lines of: “of course I do” but walked away from our conversation mostly thinking his comments were a tad premature. Thankfully, we had no exams that year so I felt it was the perfect time try my hand at other stuff, including drama, organising the college ball, music, swimming, and, mostly, rowing.
In my final year I tried to decide what to do with my life. I’d ruled out teaching after my year abroad and I failed the Civil Service fast-track exam. A session at the careers office gave me another option: journalism.
Though I hadn’t done much student journalism I’d always enjoyed writing so decided to give it a go and enrolled on a postgraduate diploma. Soon afterwards, I landed myself a job as a reporter on a legal magazine. Legal journalism was not only fascinating, it also gave me a great grounding in the essentials of what you need to be a savvy reporter.
Outside work I’d kept on rowing. Swimming, drama and music all fell by the wayside of what had become an all-consuming passion. I spent (indeed, continue to spend) the vast majority of my free time rowing or socialising with my rowing friends.
In 2005 one of the three annual World Rowing Cups was being held at the recently constructed Dorney Lake, and I volunteered to help out. I was assigned to the media centre, where the guy in charge – a lovely chap named Tim – was pleased to find that I was not just a rower but also a journalist. As such, I was soon interviewing rowers and I loved it.
That World Cup was my first foray into sports journalism and I soon became hooked. I was back the following year for the World Championships, also held at Dorney. I chased Steve Redgrave around the course for an interview. It was utterly brilliant.
Cut to five years down the line, and I’d optimistically applied for a couple of roles in the Olympic News Service (ONS) for the London 2012 Olympic Games. I arrived for my interview, and there was Tim, smiling and pleased to see me. He gave me a paid job as the supervisor for the ONS team at Dorney, responsible for covering rowing and canoe sprints.
It was a baptism of fire, but we got through it. I didn’t see much sport, or even speak to many athletes (apart from Sir Steve, again), and spent most of my time in a tent listening to the Dorney Roar outside. Yet I was part of the Olympics.
I wanted more. Work gave me time off for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. But the turning point was a two-and-a-half month contract for the Rio Olympics and Paralympics in 2016. I handed in my notice and went freelance.
Since then, I’ve cut down on the legal journalism – although it still remains a key part of my income and I wouldn’t want to lose it entirely – and built up more sports gigs. I went to PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and have covered other sports including triathlon, gymnastics and short track speed skating.
I also work regularly for the European Handball Federation as an editor and have really enjoyed getting stuck into a sport that isn’t well known in the UK. There’s nothing quite like an arena full of thousands of handball fans yelling for their team.
I would never have envisaged any of this when I was at university, and if I had listened to my tutor and stopped rowing none of it would have happened. I’ve managed to make my passion pay.
If I had advice for the younger me, it would have been not to worry about what was ahead. Take any opportunities that are given and work hard when you get them. That goodwill can prove invaluable later on. Volunteering for something can also be a great way into moving your career the way you really want it to go, or testing unfamiliar waters.
Being a freelance journalist is not going to make me rich, but critically, it’s made me happy, and to me, that is the most important thing.
By Joanne Harris, freelance journalist