Complicated calculations aren’t usually part of an elite international athlete’s training plan but for Zoey Clark it proved to be the perfect formula as she powered her way to her first Olympics.
Lacing up her running spikes, the pressure was on as Zoey stepped out on to the Tokyo athletics track for the biggest moment of her sporting career.
But instead of feeling overwhelmed, the 26-year-old was more focused than ever, exploding round the track at a blistering pace, making history as the first Aberdeen woman to compete in a track event at the Olympic Games for 69 years.
And the secret to Zoey’s powerful performance in the heats of the 4 x 400m mixed relay and women’s relay may come as a bit of a surprise.
For it wasn’t just the intense physical training sessions that helped Zoey to prepare, it was also her role as a graduate process engineer at Wood Group that she says gave her the resilience to rise to the enormity of the world’s biggest sports event.
“I think if you’ve only got one thing going on in your life it can consume you,” said the Aberdeen AAC sprint star.
“So the fact that I was working in the build-up to the Olympics was really important as it was a very stressful time for my athletics, especially with Covid.
“You’re full of a lot of worry, but by working from 8am till 4pm, I could switch that worry off because I was engrossed in work and the tasks that I was doing, so I wasn’t wasting all my energy worrying about it, I was actually doing something that I enjoy.”
As a self-confessed “nerd” with a love of maths, science and all things sporty, Zoey unwittingly started engineering her pathway to success at an early age thanks to her guidance teacher at Aberdeen Grammar School.
“I’d always been really into sports, I’d done so many of them over the years,” said Zoey.
“It was my guidance teacher who spotted my speed on the rugby field at school and he suggested I take up athletics, so I started when I was 15 which is actually quite late.
“At the time, I also really enjoyed maths, chemistry and physics.
“Incidentally, the same guidance teacher who encouraged me to start athletics also said I should consider a career in chemical engineering and I thought it sounded great.”
After leaving school, Zoey continued to excel both academically and athletically as she juggled intensive training as a 400m runner with the demands of her Masters degree in chemical engineering course at Aberdeen University.
“There’s something obviously a little bit wrong in my head, a loose screw or something, because yes the 400m is brutal but I somehow enjoy it,” said Zoey.
“There’s something really satisfying, especially in the winter, when it’s dark, cold and raining and you’re doing a really hard session, I don’t know why but it’s just very satisfying as you’re working hard.”
Road to Tokyo
Sport and science proved to be a winning combination for Zoey as she left university with a first class Honours degree and in the same year became a world silver medallist after a fine performance in the 4 x 400m relay.
And with the Tokyo Olympics firmly in her sights, Zoey decided to focus solely on her athletics.
But after three years of blood, sweat and tears, everything suddenly changed when the pandemic brought the world to a standstill.
“They didn’t actually delay the Olympics for a long time so all the athletes were panicking as we wondered how we could be in peak fitness if we haven’t even got access to facilities,” said Zoey.
“Once they put the Olympics back a year it took the pressure off a bit.
“So I had to get a bit creative with training and I converted my garage into a gym.”
Work and training
With the Olympics delayed, and keen to put her engineering degree to good use, last September Zoey took up a position as a graduate process engineer at Wood Group.
And she is convinced that the move gave her the mental strength to compete at the highest level in sport.
“As much as I enjoyed focusing full-time on athletics, it reminded me that I really do need that mental stimulus to be at my best,” said Zoey.
“I actually think that having athletics and an academic outlet really complements each other.
“I was a wee bit worried as I’d been out of engineering for a while, but it all came back to me.
“It sounds so nerdy, but during the first few months I got really excited as I was getting to do calculations again.”
Thanks to the support of her work colleagues, Zoey’s dreams came true when she made the start line at Tokyo.
“It’s really difficult to put it into words and explain it,” said Zoey when asked to sum up her Olympic experience.
“It’s such a bizarre feeling to spend five years preparing for one moment and then it just comes all of a sudden and it happens so quickly, but it was fantastic.
“Obviously it was different, but the fact that that we somehow managed to get through it all made it extremely special.”
Paris 2024 Olympics
Since returning home, Zoey has enjoyed a well-earned break while watching the Paralympics.
“It’s so good, I love it,” said Zoey.
“The Paralympics is always extra inspirational.”
Zoey’s love of science and sport will continue to be her training plan of choice as she prepares for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Together with the Olympics, Zoey also has the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and European Championships firmly in her sights next summer.
“I think about what I can achieve and I just want to go for it,” said Zoey.
“I want to grasp all the opportunities that I can which is probably why I work full-time and do international sport full-time, because why not.”
She also hopes to inspire more girls and women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
“I think it would be exciting to see more women in science and engineering in general. I hope we’re moving in the right direction, I think we are.”