Hazel Smith: Durham Engineer to Olympic medallist


From Senior Hydrologist to an Olympic silver medallist at Rio, Hazel Smith defies convention. At thirteen, the Newcastle-born Smith became the Scottish 200m breaststroke champion. From there, she studied at Durham University and coached rowing. However when Smith took part in her first triathlon in 2010, she would have never have expected to go to Rio as a Paratriathlon Guide. Smith comments ‘It was a little local triathlon here in Edinburgh. It was really my dad who inspired me to do triathlons as I’d grown up watching him competing.’ Now Smith will herself inspire many others to get involved after her success in Rio.

Smith’s early life influenced her success now; ‘I remember that breaststroke race clearly, I won by a mere 0.1 of a second. I think having that experience at a young age helps, the experience of performing under pressure is invaluable. The sooner you realise you can only control the “controllables” and not your opposition the sooner you become a better racer. These were exactly the thoughts we took into the race in Rio.’

At Durham, Smith read Environmental Geoscience. This might be what you expect from someone working for AECOM but not necessarily an Olympic athlete. However Smith was quick to point out her degree taught her the value of working hard to get to where you want to be. You would think the atmosphere and prestige of the Olympics would deter anyone from returning to work. However for Smith, this is not the case. ‘At work you are dealing with clients and technical challenges but when you are training and competing quite often, you deal with yourself, making sure you are getting the best out of yourself at every training session. Doing both gave me the opportunity to continue my career and pursue my passion for triathlon. I was lucky enough to have the support of AECOM.’

Smith also coached rowing during her time at university. She explains ‘in my second year I coached St. Cuthbert’s Society Men’s Senior rowing team to qualify for Henley Royal Regatta. My third year was spent coaching the First Year Men’s rowing squad, who went on to win the Freshers’ Boat Race.’ Interestingly, Smith continues ‘I was settled on coaching at Durham and thought my competing days were behind me. When I found triathlon I fell in love with sport again. However my experiences at Durham shaped the kind of guide I was able to be.’

The opportunity to be a Paratriathlon Guide came about when the head of Scottish Triathlon Chris Volley contacted Smith in late summer 2014. She had previously been a reserve athlete for the Commonwealth Games Triathlon Relay team and Chris spotted her potential. The Guide-to-Gold Scheme run by British Triathlon was launched in autumn of the same year. Smith attended a testing day, where swim, bike and run speeds were measured. After this rigorous process, three guides were selected, Smith included. As she concludes, ‘the rest is history.’

For Smith, the best part about the triathlon is being able to train and race in three different sports. However she points out that guiding is essentially a fourth discipline; ‘you quickly learn that communication is key and your focus has to be on your athlete all the time. I love guiding as it’s a team game and I really enjoyed supporting someone and helping them reach their potential.’ Guiding involves working very closely with her partner, Alison Patrick. ‘I’ve known Ali for two years now and we started off just riding the tandem together, a scary experience for a first timer. We were quickly training three or four times a week together including swimming and running as well as biking. We quickly formed a bond due to learning so much together. Ali had to put her complete trust in me and I had to do my best to learn new skills on the go.’

The Rio Olympics was a key moment for the team. However Smith and Patrick managed to not let the pressure get to them; ‘once we got to Rio we were so focused on the race that our Paralympic experience didn’t start till after the race.’ Smith spoke about the importance of seeing the race in a wider context, without too much expectation. As a result she concludes ‘the experience we had out on that race course was all the better for it.’ Smith goes on to describe the race, the support along the course and crossing the finish line as ‘surreal’. However her first thought after finishing is testament to the type of guide she is. ‘Honestly my first thought was relief. I was worried about Ali for most of the run, it was 36 degrees and she is albino so the conditions were less than ideal. Crossing the finishing line with her safe was a relief and to finish in a medal position was amazing.’

Coming home to everyone’s stories about how they had watched and listened to the racing was the perfect end of Smith and Patrick’s Rio experience. Now Smith is taking some time to relax at home whilst still attending the local events in Scotland and taking selfies with the local kids! She is also getting married in a few weeks to add to her already very exciting year. Whilst she and Patrick have taken a break in their training, they hope to continue their success in the future and Smith will also be taking part in her own races in the coming years.

Whilst Durham may now seem a distant memory to Smith, the advice she would give to her university self is one she continues to apply in her life now: ‘Say yes to any opportunity that comes your way and just go with the flow.’


Photograph: Hazel Smith


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