Kristina Clonan is no stranger to learning new things.
Not even three years ago, the Queenslander was on the well-trodden path of a young Aussie endurance cyclist.
She’d won the junior Oceania title on the road, claimed a Madison national title with Macey Stewart, and beaten Ruby Roseman-Gannon to gold in the RoadNats under-23 criterium. She rode the Santos Women’s Tour with Lucy Kennedy and Rebecca Wiasak; joined the Australian Cycling Team endurance squad; and did the classic Europe trip, racing Belgian kermesses.
But in the blink of an eye, the 24-year-old has transformed into a world-class track sprinter. She’s trimmed down the kilometres, stacked more plates on the leg press, and now she’s pumping out sub-33 second time trials.
Talk about reinventing yourself!
Clonan’s been working hard off the bike, too.
At one point, the Sunshine Coast native was studying at university, working at her local bike shop, and somehow still taking on a full training load.
She describes it as an “intense” time of life, but Clonan says athletes should invest in their career development through study and things like internships, and part-time work – what the industry calls ‘employability enhancing experiences’ – if they can manage the load.
For National Careers Week, AusCycling asked Clonan what she’s learned from her stint in the workforce, and why sportspeople should get a job.
Clonan thought she was a pretty good communicator, until she started working in sales at an e-bike shop.
“I thought it would be quite easy: I was like, I can sell a bike. I ride a bike!” she said. “It was a lot harder than I thought, being able to communicate and connect with people and understand why they want to ride a bike.
“Is it something with their appearance? Do they want to get more active? Understanding why they want to ride is so important, and developing a relationship with people is a lot harder than I thought.”
She says working in a customer-facing role gave her skills she’ll keep for life: people skills.
“I think whenever you have the opportunity to talk to people, you’re going to learn stuff from it,” Clonan said, “because you learn stuff from people in general.
“The main thing I learnt that would help me in life is that connection. It is difficult to connect with people.”
It’s easy to see how that kind of work experience can help an athlete. For an elite cyclist, communicating is part and parcel of the job: chatting with teammates, speaking to the media, and negotiating a contract renewal.
Even those who, like Clonan, consider themselves strong communicators, can benefit from on-the-job experience.
“What I thought would be quite an easy job – because I find it quite easy to talk to people – was a lot harder in practice.”
Every student knows balancing academics with part-time work is challenging at best. Put an elite training schedule on top of that, and it seems impossible.
Clonan hopes to graduate this year from a Bachelor of Business, majoring in property development and real estate management. She takes it as an in-person degree at Griffith University in Queensland. That’s a long commute when you’re training with the Australian Cycling Team in Adelaide!
“It was a pretty big load,” she said about juggling work, uni and cycling at the same time. “It was intense.”
But Clonan said it forced her to get on top of life admin. Here’s how she handled it:
“Having clear communication” – (there’s that word again) – “with the coaches: the way that I saw it, sport was my number-one priority. Making sure I have my training down pat, that I know what’s happening during the week. Being organised and having a clear schedule.
“That was then relayed to my boss who could figure out my shifts. Being proactive, getting onto things early, is so important and it just means you can manage all those relationships in your life.”
She says AusCycling supported her development off the bike.
“Being able to change locations of exams, or change the exam date so that when I’m back in Queensland I can do it; logistics – Cycling Australia (now AusCycling) have helped with that.”
She makes no bones about it: it wasn’t easy, doing that much at once. But if an athlete sees the value of upskilling and making themselves more employable, she believes they should do it.
“When I came into the program (with Australian Cycling Team), there were not many people studying. There’s definitely a lot more now. That’s been quite a big push over my time in Cycling Australia,” she said.
“I think there needs to be a really big intrinsic motivation to do anything. Without the athlete wanting to do it, the support staff can’t help that much.
“It is a fine balance between having too much going on, which I definitely learned the hard way. But I definitely would encourage people to either study or work, and if they’re doing both, to very carefully manage it.”
For even the best athletes, the clock is always ticking on their careers. Realistically, no-one expects to remain at the top of their game into their 40s, 50s and 60s. At some point, they have to think about life – and work – after sport.
Clonan thinks being a world-class athlete can help you stand out to a prospective employer, but at the end of the day, obviously, you need to be able to do the job.
“If you want to get a job in, you know, accounting and you show up, and you’re like, ‘I’m an elite athlete, I’ve done all these great things, I’ve gone to the Olympics, I’ve gone to Commies, I’ve won all these medals,’ if you don’t have the ability to be an accountant, they won’t care.”
From Clonan’s perspective, athletes need to get the basics right. First, acquire skills and knowledge through study and on-the-job experience, then those special qualities that come from a high-level sports career can add extra sparkle to your CV.
“I think sport gives you a lot of good attributes. We have to be resilient, we have to be persistent, we have to be determined, we have to be all these great things which an employer likes,” she said.
“But ultimately, sport at a high level is the icing on the cake – it’s not the cake.”
National Careers Week runs from May 16–22. Follow AusCycling’s Instagram Stories, where on May 19, Kristina Clonan will answer your questions about making yourself more employable while being an elite athlete.