Huw Richards meets two FE professionals who have their sights set on international sporting stardom
FOR Abi Ekoku, this winter has brought a fresh twist in a remarkably versatile sporting career.
After retiring from professional rugby league at the end of last season, he is now training to compete in the discus throwing event at the Olympic Games in Sydney next year.
Meanwhile, he will continue to chair the Rugby League Players Association, representing around 1000 members in the 13-a-side game.
"I'll be doing two full-time jobs, so I'll have to allocate my time extremely well," says Ekoku, 32. It isn't the first time he's had to do this. His switch to rugby league from athletics in 1992 coincided with his starting work as a lecturer at Westminster College. He kept both careers until 1995 when he was transferred from London Broncos to Halifax and took on a full-time league contract.
Sport may provide acclaim and glamour, but Ekoku says: "I enjoyed lecturing enormously. It provides some forms of satisfaction that you don't get from sport and I can easily imagine going back to work in further or higher education."
Lecturing also launched his rugby league career. After the pectoral injury that ruled him out of the Barcelona Olympics he had intended to play football - a talent which runs in his family as younger brother Efan is a Premiership professional with Wimbledon. But a colleague suggested he might like to try rugby league with her husband's amateur team: "He saw me play and said I should try to play as a professional."
His involvement in the players' union came because of his experience in education: "Training and preparation for life outside rugby has become a priority for the union," he says, pointing to the transition over the past three years from a semi-professional game in which most players had outside jobs to one where players with the 12 Super League clubs are normally full-timers: "It has become more like football, with the difference that top rugby league players aren't paid nearly as much."
Clubs are not unsympathetic, but training is not always their highest priority: "Like any employers, they tend to cut education and training when they run into cashflow problems." One of his aims as union chair is to develop a closer relationship with colleges, and research has been commissioned on players' experience of end-of-career transition.
His own transition takes him back to the discus, with unfulfilled ambitions on his mind: "In 1992 I was the UK champion and expected to go to Barcelona. I got injured and didn't make the qualifying distance of 62 metres. My best was 60 metres and 8 centimetres - only two centimetres less than the distance that got people into the final at Barcelona.
"I've got no doubt I can throw further than that.
"The discus is an event in which people peak in their 30s - competitors at Sydney will on average be about 32, my age at the moment. Anyone who throws 65 metres has a good chance of a medal, and I think I'm capable of that."