In the second of our series looking at inspirational women who combine their career and their passion, we talk to Donna Fraser, a four-time Olympian and Equality, Diversity and Engagement lead for UK Athletics Ltd.
“Prior to 1996 I worked in the tourism industry and had my heart set on going to the 2000 Olympic Games in Atlanta to compete for my country. I asked my employer at the time if I could go part-time so I could concentrate on my training, but they declined, so I made the decision to go full time as an athlete. It was a difficult decision as I really enjoyed my job, and I also had concerns about where the money was going to come from to support me while I trained – these were pre-Lottery funding days. In the end, I used my savings and my parents helped me. I did that for a year but I found that doing only athletics meant there was an imbalance in my life, as when I’d had a bad session on the track then that was the only focus I had.
I achieved getting to the 1996 Olympics and the following year, an opportunity arose - SEEBOARD, which then became EDF Energy, offered financial support to five athletes (including myself) in the south-east who aspired to go to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. We were also offered the chance to apply for a role as Health and Leisure Manager within the organisation. Those who were interested were interviewed and I was lucky enough be offered the part-time role…and remained with them for 19 years, through three further Olympic Games!
I would train in the morning for around 3-4 hours and work in the afternoons for five hours, and there were opportunities to work from home too if needed. Sometimes, I would get up at 4am, go to the office, do a couple of hours of work, then come home, nap, go to training and then go back to work. That was essentially my work-life balance and it became very normal to me to multi-skill. I focused on time management and planned my day according to deliverables, and how it could work for me. This helped me progress in my sport while gaining a career – something I could only have done with the kind of support I got at EDF Energy, which allowed me to put my sport first providing I fulfilled my responsibilities in my role. There was a great culture of trust and I knew I was incredibly lucky as not many companies would be that accommodating.
In return I brought the determination, resilience and high-performing mind set of a professional athlete to the company. Given the kind of athletics I was doing, I had a lot of transitional skills. I was used to working in a high-pressure team, and planning the training for events has similarities with project planning – with a strict adherence to deadlines and focus. However, when I started at EDF Energy I didn’t really realise I had them. It took my line manager to draw them out – I remember her saying, ‘Donna, you’re an athlete…look at all these skills you have.’
In 2009, I had a curveball thrown at me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I continued to train and compete through that period, before I retired from competitive athletics the same year. This was another life-changing experience but again, I was lucky that my manager at EDF Energy was very supportive and offered me a full-time role as a Health and Wellbeing Specialist.
I left EDF Energy in 2016 and I have been in my new role as Equality, Diversity and Engagement lead for UK Athletics for seven months, which involves embedding a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion into the organisation through our values and behaviours. I am also Vice President of UK Athletics; this involves working closely with England Athletics, Scotland Athletics, Welsh Athletics and Northern Ireland Athletics around the governance of the sport.
Because I am travelling a lot with this role I can’t do the volume of training I once did. I started playing netball after my retirement, but soon said to myself, ‘No, Donna you’re used to going in a straight line!’ It was tough on my joints, so I went back to what I knew – the gym and running – but not the track, as I knew I’d get drawn back into it.
Receiving the letter for my first Olympics to say I’d been selected was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Going to the first games was on another level, it was amazing to be in the Olympic Village sitting in the canteen next to other sports stars you’d only seen on TV – it felt surreal to be representing your country alongside them at the games.
It was incredibly positive that I could train and put everything into my athletics without any additional pressures, but I also really liked being able to do something else at the same time. It gave me a fresh outlook when it came to my passion and I’d totally advocate that kind of experience.”