Despite not even playing sport five years ago Sarah Thompson, the new Athletic Union president, is among the most ardent of its supporters. Over the course of a long chat in which anything and everything to do with sport came up, it became clear that she will do all she can to get more people involved in both University and non-University sporting activities.
As someone who picked up rugby in her second year in St Andrews and didn’t play anything beforehand, she is better placed than most to talk of the benefits of sport. She initially took it up because she needed something to “get [her] out of the flat” and never looked back once she caught the competitive bug.
That interest led to her increased involvement within the club and she took up the presidency towards the end of her university career. Leadership came naturally to her and as the AU president she now hopes to inspire more people to follow her lead and take up new sports.
The successes of many clubs last season in various BUCS leagues, cup competitions and even regional and national tournaments led to Ms Thompson dubbing the year the “most successful we’ve ever had”. She has already put plans in place to facilitate the clubs’ further improvement.
There is going to be more specialised coaching across the University. At the same time the number of hours the relevant facilities are open to the clubs will increase. For those of you less keen on early morning strength and conditioning, however, chances are you won’t be thanking her for allowing more gym time.
The new president cannot be accused of a lack of desire. There are not just hopes of a year of similar highs; there is a structure in place to allow it.
The facilities themselves have also been improved and renovated recently. In particular there is a new, modern playing surface in the sports centre, which has been greeted very positively by all who use it.
This is just the beginning, however. In the £14 million redevelopment there will be a new eight-court sport centre, more improvements to the already state-of-the-art gym, and an all-round modernisation of the sports centre facilities.
When it will be completed Ms Thompson does not yet know, but building work has already begun.
On a more individual level she is also planning changes to improve the student sporting experience and the relationship between club members and the Athletic Union. Her volunteer recognition scheme, launched in conjunction with the Students’ Association, aims to be more “proactive” in recognising the outstanding achievements of many of our own. She doesn’t see fit that “the onus is on the student to come forward” when the University should be trying to sing the praises of as many of its students as possible.
The alumni relationship is one Ms Thompson is keen to radicalise as well. As a huge believer in the social benefits of sport she wants to keep the alumni connected not just with their own club but the AU as a whole.
Although only at the embryonic stage, an alumni weekend is in the pipeline where people will be able meet not just the great and the good of their club, but of all sports clubs and societies as well. It would also provide an excuse for yet another black-tie ball, the key to any good St Andrean’s heart.
The AU will also be working very closely with ‘Healthy body healthy mind’, a Scottish Student Sport initiative aimed at raising the awareness of the importance of both mental and physical well-being. It is when Ms Thompson is talking about plans such as this that you see what sport really means to her. Fundamentally, sport is a way of being healthy whilst having fun. Everything else adds to it but do not make sport what it is.
That is why she has organised events such as the Colour Run which is due to take place on 20 September. In a completely relaxed setting people can reap the benefits of physical exertion and fresh air, whilst being under no pressure to perform at a particular standard. She wants people to get involved for their own good.
She is a fierce believer in the benefits of sport and as the conversation drifts away from the specifics of the AU this is made crystal clear.
“There are opportunities within clubs” that you won’t get anywhere else. On one level there is the opportunity for travel; just ask the rugby boys, who have come back from South Africa, or the cricketers gearing up for their tour of Sri Lanka.
Then there is also room for “personal development” as a member of committee or on-field captain.
At times it may seem false, but sport is not always about the correct result. As this is her second stint as the president of a sporting institution I asked her what makes a good leader, both on and off the field.
In her typically calm and measured fashion she says that a good leader has to “get stuck in… do the right things and not have double standards.” The respect of the people you are leading is imperative, and the best way to earn the respect is to “lead by example”, she believes.
If that is the case then the AU is in safe hands. Ms Thompson is a thoroughly selfless and determined woman who wants to do what she can to improve the sporting experience of all students, athletes and non-athletes alike, and with her plans in place there is no reason that cannot happen.
Our new AU president is most certainly leading by example.