When the London 2012 Olympics came to a close, Alex van Holk – a 32-year-old vice president in Morgan Stanley’s investment bank – had yet to step foot into a rowing boat. Four years later and he’s set to represent the Netherlands in the Men’s single sculls at the Rio Paralympics.
Not only has Alex trained to an elite level while holding down a role that likely takes up around 70 hours a week of his time, but he also started from scratch. The challenge appealed to his competitive nature, he says – before a car accident at 16, which left him paralysed from the waist down, he had played hockey at a national level.
“After London, I got into a boat for the first time and, in 2014, I enrolled in the Dutch national training programme,” he said. “But, even then the technical director thought Tokyo 2020 was a more realistic target. However, I’ve pushed so hard in the last three years that I managed to qualify, and I’m going to give it my best shot in Rio.”
The Rio Olympics kick off in Saturday, while the Paralympics start on 7 September. Not surprisingly, Alex has not been spending a lot of time in the office over the past few months.
“It took me a little while to work out how best to combine my training with an investment banking job that tends to make a lot of demands on my time,” he says. “During the winter, I’m working and mostly training on the ergometer in the gym. In 2015, I took four months unpaid leave to prepare for the World Championships where I could qualify for Rio. This summer I’ve taken five months unpaid leave to dedicate myself fully to preparing for Rio.”
Sophie Christiansen is a five-time gold medallist within Para-Equestrian Dressage, and represented GB at three Paralympic games before joining Goldman Sachs’ technology division in London. She works two days a week to combine work with the necessary training. She was born premature with cerebral palsy.
“I got started in Dressage for physical therapy to help my disability, to help with my balance and coordination. I immediately fell in love with horses and riding because it gave me a sense of freedom,” she says.
“I work at Goldman Sachs two days a week and then I ride about three to four times a week,” she says. “I also go to the gym about three times a week because I find being fit enough to ride almost makes me more able-bodied. I can get the best out of my body and my horse.”
“I’m training 11 times a week, for about 16-17 hours, the majority of which is time in the boat working to improve my aerobic capacity,” says Alex. “But warming down, ice baths, and taking time to relax and decompress mentally is equally as important.”
There are plenty of people in investment banking playing sport to an elite level. Annie Panter, who was part of the bronze medal-winning GB hockey team at London 2012 but has since retired, also works at Goldman Sachs. Andrew Mills, who is a CDS trader at Citi, was also a Finn sailor for the UK and former Giants linebacker, Brandon Short, worked at Goldman Sachs in Dubai but is now a real estate consultant at private equity firm Cerberus European Capital Advisors in London.
"I had always wanted to work in the financial sector, and realised that many of the skills that I developed from competing at the highest level of sport were transferable to the business world,” says Sophie.
Alex joined Morgan Stanley in 2008 after interning the previous summer and has found it difficult to switch off from the fast pace of Canary Wharf since dedicating himself fully to training this summer.
“The biggest challenge has been escaping the London work ethic,” he says. “In banking you sometimes work long hours under the pressure of deadlines in a city which never stops. I’m currently based in Amsterdam, which is a slower pace, but I still really need to force myself to take time to fully recover and relax after performance training.”
While Alex is focusing purely on Rio, and maybe Tokyo, Sophie has the luxury of competing in an event where age isn’t a huge impediment. So, what next?
“To be honest I never think beyond about 4 years,” she says. “But there will come a time where I will have achieved all I want to achieve in the sport, or my priorities may change. It is difficult staying at the top, particularly in a sport which is so expensive - we'll have to see when that happens."