Balancing study, professional sport and the unexpected
Amber Halliday Studying psychology and joining the University of Adelaide Boat Club proved the perfect combination for Olympian Amber Halliday in her pursuit of sporting success at the elite level. Amber’s initial interest in psychology was triggered by a fascination with people and what motivates them – but she also wanted to better understand her own thought processes to help her become a better rower.
She took up rowing in year seven at Pembroke School and by year 12 was training with the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI). It was a good grounding because opportunities to compete at a higher level did not come easy.
“I really struggled – but in hindsight that was the best thing that could have happened,” says Amber.
It was in 1998, during her second year of her social sciences degree majoring in psychology, that she joined the Adelaide University Boat Club. This was the move that provided the transition she was desperately seeking into elite rowing.
“It was the perfect transition – the Adelaide University Boat Club and the University Games were exactly the level that I needed to compete at for a few years, and I was lucky enough to go to the World University Games in 1998, representing Australia and also the Adelaide University Boat Club,” says Amber.
In 1999, Amber made her first Australian team – the under 23’s – but it was only in 2002 when she was in a winning boat at the Senior World Championships that the Olympics seemed a possibility. It was the same year that she returned to the University to commence a second degree, a Bachelor in Media.
While for some, taking on a media degree at the same time as trying to make an Olympic team would seem unmanageable, Amber was accustomed to setting big workloads and this became a trademark of her success.
“Looking back on it the key was to do something really hard and difficult and use that as your reference point, so that you can always refer back and say, ‘oh look, I did year 12 and I was training every morning down at West Lakes and I still got to school on time every morning, so surely I can do XYZ now because I’ve done this really hard thing in the past and been successful’,” she says.
Amber became a regular on the Australian team, representing her country at the 2004 Athens Olympics – the same year she completed her media degree – and also Beijing in 2008 before retiring. It was after the bitter disappointment of not winning a medal at Beijing that she decided to set aside her rowing oars and took up another sport – cycling.
“We always did cycling as cross training as rowers, and rowing makes you strong for pretty much anything, so it just wasn’t that hard for ‘my rowing engine’ to transfer to cycling,” she says. “The hardest thing was picking up the skills and the tactical knowledge.”
Amber enjoyed quick success. In 2009 she won the Tour of New Zealand followed by an Australian National Championship in the time trial event. Then in January 2011 her professional cycling career was cut short when she came off her bike in a life-changing accident in a support race at the Tour Down Under.
Amber has no memory of the race. She was told that she rubbed wheels with someone, fell awkwardly and landed on her temple, just below where the helmet protected her head. The impact resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury which put her in hospital for two months followed by six months of out-patient rehabilitation.
It took some time for Amber to come to the realisation that going back to sport at an elite level would not be possible. She likens this period to waking up in heavy fog where you don’t have much perspective on how things really are.
While recovering in hospital Amber was brought back to her interest in human psychology. She spoke to Carmen Rayner in the University’s School of Psychology, and found out about the Graduate Diploma Psychological Science. Amber was also keen to get into Honours; however the first test would be whether her brain could handle the Graduate Diploma.
“When you do a Graduate Diploma Psychological Sciences you basically do a three-year undergraduate degree in one year, a heavy load for anyone never mind someone who is in recovery from a severe traumatic brain injury,” she says.
“It was like jumping in the deep end of a pool. You would either sink or learn to swim and luckily I learned to swim. I worked incredibly hard that year and made Honours – and that was a new point of reference for me.”
The research component of her Honours whet her appetite for research, and Amber is now completing a PhD in Psychology under the Supervision of Professor Deborah Turnbull in the University’s School of Psychology.
“Yes, it was a bit funny actually. I just like exceeding expectations – you know pretty average school rowers aren’t ever meant to get to the Olympic Games and similarly people with brain injuries aren’t meant to do a PhD, so of course that’s what I wanted to do,” Amber says.
In her PhD she is investigating how positive education can be done better so that it is more accessible for young people. Positive education is a scientifically-based way of teaching the skills of psychological health, resiliency and adaptive functioning to young people, and it shows promise as a way to counter mental illness.
Amber has also had a baby, adding another major role to her responsibilities. But with lots of experience in balancing big workloads, combined with great support from the people around her, including the University, she continues to succeed.
Story by Kelly Brown