Careers Week | Beyond the stage with Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson's journey from ballet to high-performance sports offers a unique perspective on athlete welfare. As a former ballerina turned Performance Lifestyle Adviser at the Victorian Institute of Sport, Thompson's experience navigating the demands of professional dance informs her approach to supporting VIS athletes.

When Sarah Thompson discusses with her athletes the vagaries of life in high performance sport, she brings to the conversations an unusual perspective.

Before becoming a Performance Lifestyle Adviser at the Victorian Institute of Sport, where she is immersed in the welfare of VIS divers, gymnasts, rowers and aerial skiers, Thompson was a ballerina.

For 11 years the Toowoomba native danced professionally as a company artist with the Australian Ballet, performing 200-odd shows a year, working six days a week and travelling constantly to bring ballet’s theatrical creativity and graceful physical expression to stages overseas and interstate.

Thompson left Queensland at 16 to accept a place with the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, an opportunity her parents declined the previous year fearing that their daughter was too young to live alone, in a sprawling city 1500km away.

As it was, Thompson and another aspiring dancer from Queensland shifted to Melbourne together the next year and took an apartment near the school.

“Our parents would loop or coordinate visits to us as much as they could, especially in the first year,” Thompson recalls.

“Neither of us could drive. We walked everywhere. Basically, we were looking after ourselves in every way.

“I went from ballet after school in Toowoomba to full-time training in Melbourne. It was a huge transition for me. There was a lot of tears….so much adjustment….and it was very much sink or swim. And we were in the deep end. It was, and is to an extent, very much what the Russians and the Europeans are used to.

“I learned so much. Certainly, about myself.”

Thompson spent four years at the school and upon graduation was one of only two female dancers in her cohort offered a contract with the Australian Ballet.

“Suddenly, I was a professional dancer. I received a contract at the end of the year, went home for Christmas, and came back to start performing. I was 20.”

Thompson enjoyed the life of a dancer, if not always the insularity of it.

“The company very much becomes your family because you are away from family and friends an awful lot. You live in a world within the world.”

Thompson had been an enthusiastic and capable learner throughout her school years. It was to the classroom, or the lecture theatre, that she turned for intellectual nourishment in the latter years of her dancing career and an identity independent of her prestigious but consuming existence.

Thompson studied part-time and online while dancing and then used her long service leave from Australian Ballet to further her health science studies. Instead of a deserved holiday on a tropical island, Thompson used the time to enrol full-time for a semester and headed on to campus.

“It was the best thing I did. I met people outside of my environment, I gained confidence in myself and it helped me take the next step. I knew then that I was ready for change and capable of it.

“I got more passionate about what I was studying because I was fully immersed in it. It was unrelated to work and it gave me a sense of achievement.

“I went back to dance, did some more shows, and we were doing Alice In Wonderland in Brisbane when I thought ‘This is it. This is the end’.

“I can perform in front of my family in Queensland, I wasn’t injured and I was ready.”

That was in 2019.

A degree in health sciences, principally nutrition, was followed by a post-graduate diploma in public health and a part-time job as a member of Australian Ballet’s Artistic Health team.

Thompson joined the eight strong Performance Lifestyle Team at the VIS in 2021, seeing numerous similarities between ballet and high-performance sport.

“Athletes, like dancers, start young. They are most often identified early, travel a lot to compete and train, they juggle multiple demands such as school, their sport and other interests, they need to look after their physical and mental health and be disciplined with their time,” Thompson says.

“They also exist in high pressure environments and commonly have high expectations of themselves and are the subject of high expectations from others.”

Thompson understands how intoxicating dreams of success can be to a teenager. The memory of her parents refusing, for one year, to allow her to accept her place at the Australian Ballet School is vivid.

There is a challenge to establish and retain a healthy life-sport balance when chasing those dreams.

Thompson’s advice? Make the world as big as possible.

“We are people before we are athletes, or dancers, and to feel or be valued for who you are, not just what you do in the gym or on the track, is vital for health and wellbeing which, of course, has an effect on performance,” Thompson says.

“Being a more complete and fulfilled person…it’s also about identity. About having an identity and a store of self-worth that exists outside of your sport. So that when you finish you don’t fall off a cliff.

“It will always be hard to finish up, for athletes or performers of any kind, but if you have things that you value and enjoy doing they will carry you through.”

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