University undergraduate. Gymnastics coach. Athlete mentor and motivational speaker. The blank spaces in Kristian Thomas’s congested diary are few and far between but the talented 29-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way. After calling time on his gymnastics career in 2017, the popular captain of Great Britain’s Rio 2016 squad feared too much time on his hands. That the opposite is true is a source of genuine relief for an individual chasing the perfect transition from full-time athlete to future professional.
Kristian is one of the key speakers at the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) Athlete Transitions workshop in Birmingham today (20 June). The London 2012 medal winner is looking to share his wisdom and experience with current TASS beneficiaries as he tells the story of his career and the transition he is currently undertaking.
“I’m very busy but what I do still allows me to be involved with the sport I love and develop other opportunities at the same time,” said Kristian. “After I retired from gymnastics the transition was slightly easier than I thought it might be. But I was lucky enough to leave the sport on my own terms and not through injury or non-selection - that can be very rare for an athlete. Having something in place – in my case a place at the University of Wolverhampton - to take up my time has been a massive help in terms of shifting my focus.”
Kristian began to consider a career beyond gymnastics three years before he finally made public his decision to retire from full-time sport. Tentatively dipping his toes into the often murky waters of athlete transition, the Olympic medallist realised it was time to make some tough decisions.
“I had started to think about my future away from gymnastics in 2014 with the Rio 2016 Olympics the end goal,” he added. “But at that point I had a very vague idea of what my exit plan would look like. I gained a few qualifications from 2014-2016 in areas that I thought I might want to venture into after sport - such as personal training - but the biggest step was enrolling at University, which I started once I got back from Rio.
“Though my exit plan was fairly loose, it was still crucial to have some sort of plan and something in place.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2018 and Wolverhampton-born Kristian is two years into a Strength and Conditioning degree course at his hometown university’s Institute of Sport. And after a decade devoted to full-time gymnastics, the decision to return to full-time education has reminded the double European champion of the unique challenges facing dual career athletes.
“I was 14 when I first started competing internationally and I knew that if I wanted to be successful both in and out of the gym then that meant taking text books away with me to competitions, revising during the car trips to training and generally making sure I used my time wisely,” he added. “I didn’t have as much free time as most teenagers.
“By the time I was sitting my A Levels I probably focused my attention on gymnastics a little too much and neglected my studies. But I’m glad that I completed my A Levels. If I’d gone into full-time training at 16 – which I intended to do – then it might not have been possible to attend university.”
As an elite athlete in full-time education, Kristian benefited from TASS support from 2005-2007. And being part of the Sport England-backed scheme enabled a single-minded teenager to take the next step – as an ambitious gymnast and a conscientious student.
“Physiotherapy and sports massage weren’t available in gymnastics at the time due to minimum funding,” he added. “So I was very grateful to get TASS support. “My first ever sports massage was provided through TASS when I was 17-years-old. I remember the therapist telling me my body was the worst and tightest he had ever treated!
“He had worked with a Premier League football team for many years so he’d seen a few severe cases in his time! Needless to say I started to visit the therapist on a more regular basis which had a massive effect on my recovery between training and competitions.”
Kristian, who was also the recipient of SportsAid support earlier in his career, was 23 when he sealed a place in the Team GB squad to compete at the London 2012 Olympics – the showpiece event that established gymnastics as a major player in British sport. It was a life-changing experience that he will never forget.
“London 2012 will always be one of the most amazing highlights of my career,” he added. “But the 2009 World Championships was a big turning point as it gave me the confidence to compete against the best in the world.
“Captaining the British team to a World Championship silver medal in Glasgow three years ago and winning a bronze medal on the vault during the 2013 World Championships were also very special moments - I had broken my tibia and heel bone only a few months prior to that competition.”
When Kristian looks back on the myriad highlights that punctuated a storied gymnastics career, it throws into sharp focus just how difficult it can be for elite athletes to call time on the career they love.
But sport can be as unforgiving and unpredictable as it is inspirational and fulfilling. And one of the nation’s most successful gymnasts will seek to emphasise the importance of looking to the future, rather than dwelling on the past, when he addresses those attending the TASS Athlete Transitions workshop.
“I’m hoping to stress the importance of building a dual identity,” he added. “This is something that can be done while athletes are still training and competing and it can help to build experiences and connections. Those experiences and connections can make the transition out of sport a lot easier.”