Dame Kelly Holmes is one sportswoman lucky enough not to have to worry too much about her future employment. Since retiring from athletics in 2004, after her sensational victories in the 800 and 1,500 metres at the Athens Olympics (the first Briton to win twice at a Games since 1920), she has been in hot demand as a TV commentator, guest of honour and public speaker.
But for every elite sportsperson who carves out a successful post-retirement career there are thousands of unknown, yet just as committed, GB representatives from less high-profile sports who retire each year facing hardship. Even Neil Webb, an ex-England midfielder, was reported to be struggling to make a living as a postman.
This, though, is a situation Holmes says she is unwilling to allow to continue. She believes sportspeople have the dedication, drive, passion and talent to make them attractive to a much wider range of employers. Such is her belief that she has launched a charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust.
"Athletes can be forced into retirement from the age of 25 upwards," she told HR magazine. "That's a long time to be in a marketplace that often ignores them. The trust exists to inform HR directors of the sorts of skills athletes have, and how they can be of benefit to them. It also aims to create a pathway for imminently retiring athletes about areas they could use their skills to go into."
Holmes wants to break the expectation that elite sportspeople can only be useful as motivational speakers and to prove to them and employers that they have a much broader range of skills. "We want to demonstrate to business that the attributes sportspeople have - drive, dedication, pursuit of excellence and single-minded passion - is just as useful to businesses as qualifications. We want athletes to be able to secure credible jobs, not token ones."
Search and Selection company Odgers has already become a partner of the trust and will identify the roles sportspeople can take on. Holmes is inviting other corporates to become supporters/sponsors and consider seriously how ex-athletes can add value to their business. BT has become one of the first large companies to get involved.
"We're working with about 50 athletes right now, including cyclist Brian Steel, gymnast Craig Heap and GB international sailor Ed Barbey," says Holmes. "We're starting small at first because we want to make sure it is done in the right way, but we hope it will grow quickly. Playing on their skills is what we're trying to say can be done. We don't want employers to think there is not much to these people. We're saying sportspeople are talented employees in virtually any walk of life. They just need the right encouragement."
Want to hire talented former GB athletes? Go to www.dkhlegacytrust.org
A REAL TEAM PLAYER
Rachel Woolf retired from international rowing in 1999 and now works as a client director for the Centre for High Performance Development, a specialist leadership development consultancy. She says finding work was a mixture of luck and having an employer that understands how sports skills fit her role. "When I realised I was on my way out, I was 27, with no house, no car, and no professional qualifications. But I'd done a module of a business development course and I knew I liked the area of team development," says Woolf.
"I was lucky, though; a fellow athlete friend had already joined CHPD and I was introduced to the company through her." Woolf took some persuading to realise that she had transferable skills. "CHPD specialises in finding leadership and I realised that success is a mixture of innate qualities and things you can learn. The beauty about athletes is that they have these innate qualities but they are also used to being coached and learning how to be better."