From Interns and Athletes to Professionals

Life at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) begins differently for everyone, but the high-performance atmosphere and the wealth of opportunities it provides often leave an indelible mark on those who walk through its doors.

By Yuxuan Du 

The VIS is home to over 450 athletes and 50 sports.

Sylvie Withers, who began her journey as an aspiring rower, was introduced to the VIS via a work placement in the rowing department. Exposure to the sports science internship program at the VIS prompted her to apply, setting the stage for her transition from athlete to sports scientist.

Today, Withers is the VIS Innovation and Research Project Manager.

"I was lucky enough to get into the sports science internship," says Withers, who used the opportunity to conduct her honours research into the impact of heat acclimation on rowing performance.

Image: Sylvie Withers (back) facilitating heat acclimation training with rowing athletes as part of her Honours research; 'investigating the impact of heat acclimation on simulated rowing performance'.

Curiosity, high performance and the 'Win in Sport and Life' mantra being integral to the culture of the VIS meant that doors kept opening for Withers. She secured a part-time laboratory assistant position with the VIS and so her professional career was born.

"That first foot in the door was really great and gave me the opportunity to start building my career from there," she says.

"My current role is a shift from the daily training environment to influencing the level of innovation and guiding creativity in projects,"

"It's an exciting time to be able to just say, 'yes', to some of the obscure ideas that people might have or trial new technology or strategies.

Similarly, Will Morgan's journey from a Physical Preparation Coach to his current position as VIS Physical Preparation Manager began with an internship in 2007. Progressing from a casual role to part-time, then full-time, Morgan kept building his professional capabilities and understanding of life in high performance.

After a stint elsewhere in the industry Morgan was drawn back to the VIS, bringing with him an array of experiences and skills.

"I always had fond memories of working at the VIS and was pretty keen to come back. I think it's the best place to work in elite sport in Melbourne," he says.

Sian Whittaker and Alice Neill, both former athletes, have chosen to stay in elite sport as Performance Coordinators at the VIS. They credit their experiences as athletes and the connections they built within the VIS as crucial factors in their career progression.

"Bring an athlete at the VIS honed my dedication and perseverance but also revealed those traits to others, which eventually led to my role as a performance coordinator," says Whittaker, who was a world junior swimming championship silver medallist.

Image: VIS Performance Coordinator and swimmer, Sian Whittaker.

A VIS Performance Lifestyle Advisor, encouraged Neill, an aerial skier, to think beyond the slopes and jumps.

"She helped me do some career testing and some career planning which I had not experienced before. That was a major factor in identifying what I was good at and pointing me in the direction of where I wanted to go," Neill says.

If they could go back to when they were starting as interns or athletes at the VIS, what advice would Withers, Morgan, Whittaker and Neill give to their younger selves?

Withers, with 16 years of experience in sports science, recognises how important it was for her to venture beyond the familiarity of what she was most comfortable with. She knows that to stay within the confines of rowing, her area of expertise, would have been the easy choice.

Now, change and the challenges of unfamiliarity are the favourite parts of her mission to innovate.

"Working with programmes and sports that I had no history with, keeps it really exciting," she says.

As a home to 50 Olympic and Paralympic sports and athletes in various stages of development - raw to podium ready - the VIS is something of a hot=house of ambition, performance, medical and sporting research, success, failure, injury, recovery and so much more.

For Morgan, the VIS is an endlessly fascinating environment. 

"At the VIS, you can give yourself a variety of environments and experiences to learn from," he says.

Reflecting on her journey, Whittaker believes that the power of authenticity and self-belief cannot be overstated.

"Trust yourself and just be yourself, a lot of the time it will tell you where you're supposed to be heading in life," she says.

Morgan speaks of his mentor, VIS General Manager of High Performance, Harry Brennan, and snowboarder, Scotty James, to explain how the VIS has developed his professional path.

"Harry, as a mentor, has been invaluable," Morgan says.

"He taught me a lot early on in my career about coaching and the importance of coaching and fundamentals,"

It has been the professionalism of James, a multiple world champion and Olympic medallist who he has worked closely with for many years, that has offered Morgan lessons he can use with other athletes.

"Athlete wise, Scotty's approach to his career and his professionalism sets him apart. He is a really good example for any aspiring athletes."

Neill says her sporting education was helped immeasurably by being in the presence of so many other elite athletes at the VIS< especially the senior aerial skiers, and her VIS nutritionist Kylie Andrew.

"I was here a lot for training and seeing so many successful athletes around, it was so amazing to think I was in the same place. I remember I trained at the same time as Scotty James and thought, "wow, this is really cool," she says.

The sustained commitment to a sport, the driven passion, and the warm welcome she received when she returned as a colleague to the VIS remain deeply moving experiences for Neill. 

As for Whittaker, it is her now colleagues Withers and VIS physiologist Kristal Hammond whom she offers particular credit and influence. 

Withers' advocacy for women's health and professional development, along with Kristal's support when Whittaker was diagnosed and dealing with endometriosis, opened Whittaker's mind to possibilities outside of the pool.

"One of the really amazing things about working at the VIS is you are surrounded by the most highly motivated people all the time," she says.

Image: Will Morgan (left) and Sylvie Withers (back right) as VIS interns in 2007.

Cover Image: Former athletes now VIS staff, left to right: Stephanie Moorhouse (Gymnastics/Performance Lifestyle Adviser), Caroline Anderson (nee Bartasek, Taekwondo/Sports Psychologist), Andrew Cameron (Swimming/Physiotherapist), Alice Neill (Aerial Skiing/Performance Coordinator), Jacquie Gurr (Sailing/Physiotherapist), Bill Tait (Rowing/former General Manager High Performance), Stacia Strain (Hockey/Hockey Coach) and Rachael Lynch (Hockey/Performance Lifestyle Adviser).

This story is presented by Open Universities Australia, a valued partner of the Victorian Institute of Sport. For further information about courses designed for careers in high performance sport, explore degrees and subjects available through OUA here

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