Ever wondered what it is really like at the Olympics? UniSA alumna, Kellie Wilkie, shares what happens behind the scenes
Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) Hons
Managing Director, Bodysystem Physio
Lead Physiotherapist for Rowing Australia
Kellie Wilkie’s career as a physiotherapist has taken her all over the world supporting elite athletes at the top of their game. Most recently, she travelled to Rio, Brazil, with the Australian Rowing Team as the Lead Physiotherapist for Rowing Australia at the 2016 Olympics.
Kellie supports the athletes during the peak of their professional sporting careers, and works with the coaches to ensure they are the best they can possibly be. In her ‘spare’ time she owns and operates a successful Physiotherapy business in Tasmania.
We interviewed Kellie while she was in Rio right in the middle of the Olympic Games. She shared her insight into what it is like being a part of the Australian Olympic Team, how the athletes cope with the enormous pressures, and how she worked her way to Rio.
What is it like being a part of the Australian Olympic team?
It is an honour to be able to support such amazing athletes and coaches trying to get the very best out of themselves. Knowing the journeys of the individual athletes and seeing them striving to reach their goals on the world stage is a pleasure. It is quite inspirational and has helped me get the best out of myself as a team member and a person. I am really proud to be part of the Australian Rowing Team.
Is the Rowing Team confident in winning medals?
After the minor rounds we have five medal chances left from eight boats competing. We are hopeful of at least four medals.
How do the athletes deal with the enormous pressure of the Olympics?
Athletes and coaches try to treat the Olympic Games just as they would a world championship that they have completed in for the three years previously. There are other pressures they need to deal with at the Olympics including media, increased interest from family and friend and increased security. We try our best to stay flexible and keep all daily activities of training and arriving at the boat park as familiar as possible to reduce this stress. Increased stress can not only impact negatively on performance, but can also influence pain states if someone is carrying an injury into competition. The Rowing team is calm and confident. We are not trying to get overexcited as that is likely to impact on performance.
What is the one thing that the viewers might not necessarily learn about the Olympics?
Very small mistakes can be the difference between progressing to a final and having a chance to win a gold medal and missing a final. The margins are so small at the top level that any mistake is costly. You can prepare so well for four years but you have to perform at every round of racing to have success - there are no room for mistakes. It is cut throat at this level!
What is Rio like?
Rio is a vibrant city full of happy, friendly people. It is winter and it is warm and humid, it is light early in the morning and dark at 5.30pm so it reminds me of holidaying in northern Queensland.
The most difficult aspect of being in Rio is having your wits about you all of the time. There are Australian Olympic Committee security requirements that need to be followed so all down time needs to be planned. You cannot just go out for a walk by yourself during down time.
Have you travelled to the Olympics in previous years? If so, what is the difference?
Yes, I travelled to London. The London Games were very different. The team stayed in the Village and was dependant on Village transport, food and accommodation. In Rio, we are staying in an Australian Olympic Committee sub-site with our own dietitian, control of our transport and we are accommodated with other Australians - this limits our exposure to germs from all areas of the globe.
Do you require different types of physio skills for elite athletes, and what is the most intense injury you have treated?
Absolutely. Travelling with elite athletes requires you to call on all of your skills to be an efficient and effective team member, a positive influence and an ability to form relationships with athletes and coaches where they do not depend on you but they have your full support whenever needed.
The other area I have become involved in is performance optimisation. I have spent many hours in the coach boat with coaches working collaboratively to get athletes to move as efficiently and effectively as they can. It is not all about injury management.
We have been managing a rower with low back pain and it can be very hard when you know that the timing of the injury will impact on performance and that particular athlete may not achieve what they are truly capable of after four years of preparation. It is devastating for them and we need to provide the best possible support as a team around an athlete with an injury just prior to competition.
What is the training like for the athletes in the lead up to the Olympic Games?
The athletes were based in Italy for three months prior to the games. They competed in two world cups during that time. We had changes in medical staff supporting the athletes throughout this time. I spent the last three weeks with the team in Italy and have come into Rio with the team for two weeks. There is a second Physio and a Doctor travelling with the team.
How did you start working Rowing Australia?
I am the Lead Physiotherapist for Rowing Australia and have been for this Olympiad. I was first asked to look after a Rowing Crew Preparing for the Athens Olympics in 2004. At the time I was working with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport Swimming Program and they were happy with the work I was doing so they asked me to start supporting another sporting program. Since then I worked with National crews training in Tasmania and in 2008 I was asked to travel with my first National Team. I travelled with the Junior Team in 2008, Under 23 Team in 2009, Senior Team in 2010 and 2011 and I was the one of two Physiotherapists that supported the Australian Rowers at the London 2012 Olympics. The Lead Physiotherapist was leaving this position at this stage and I was asked if I would like to take it on. It was the first time that a Physiotherapist has held this position outside of the Australian Institute of Sport. It has been challenging doing this from Hobart and has required significant travel, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the four years. I have travelled with the Senior Team internationally for four years this Olympiad and this has culminated in the supporting the Australian Rowers at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Please describe your journey from studying at UniSA to owning your successful private physio practice, including any advice for recent graduates:
I graduated from the UniSA with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Physiotherapy with first class honours and the University Gold Medal for academic achievement at the end of 1998. I started work in private practice in early 1999 in a busy sports practice in Tasmania (my home state). I loved the sporting clientele and I created opportunities to support local athletes, so I had the ability to treat acute injuries and affect performance at a development level. However, after almost two years I felt burnt out. The practice I worked in had a high turnover of clients and I had added to my work load with the extra sporting opportunities I had taken on. I decided to have some time out and work in my father's small business while I looked for opportunities. Just two years after graduating and with some exposure to small business, I started my own business out of a need to create an employment opportunity for myself that ensured my health and happiness was prioritised.
Sticking to the principles of why you started your business is of the utmost importance. My aim was to enjoy work, not work seeing clients more than 38 hours per week and ensure I stayed healthy in doing so. There have been several occasions where I could have extended opening hours or shortened treatment times for greater profit, but this would have only landed me back in the same position that I was as a new graduate. Building a profitable business whilst respecting the mission statement you first set yourself has been challenging at times but well worth persisting with.
When I started my business I needed to leave significant earnings in the business to re-invest in systems and equipment. In the early stages it is always difficult to ensure you are paying yourself enough whilst balancing growth. Having a very good appreciation of your cash flow on a daily basis and a thorough budget that is updated with actuals on a monthly basis is imperative to this.
I am now moving on from my Lead Physio role with Rowing Australia. I have juggled family commitments, my Rowing Australia role and running a private practice for four years - this has been a challenge that can only be sustained for a certain duration of time. I have twin boys who have just turned 10 and I need to travel less to be able to stay at home and support them through their late primary and early high school years.