Managing school and the pool: meet Elena Wassen

21 June 2019

Today, hundreds of thousands of young elite athletes throughout the world strive to be successful both in their sport and in the classroom. It can be quite challenging for teenagers and young adults to find the right balance between education, personal life and sports. Even the most dedicated young person will eventually have to make a choice between getting a paycheck or trophies. In the meantime, they need to adapt to a fast-paced, intense and competitive lifestyle.

Berlin, 6:15 am: 18-year-old Olympic diver Elena Wassen wakes up before digging into her large bowl of Muesli as usual. She is going to need all the energy she can get for the day: practice at 8 am, class at 11:30 am, training at 2:30 pm followed by a physiotherapy appointment and a study session. She will most likely eat a quick snack on her way to school and won’t get to sit down and relax for another 12 hours. But Elena is used to the rush, her life has been that way ever since she started diving at 4 years old.. Armed with a strong sense of purpose and determination, from Aachen, the town where she grew up, to a sporting school in Berlin, she was able to overcome the many challenges presented to her to become a role model for divers in Germany and across the world.

Just like Lionel Messi has in soccer, 6-foot tall Elena broke the stereotype of physiological predisposition to be successful in her sport. The Baesweiler born diver’s record speaks for itself: semi-finalist in the 2016 Olympics as the youngest member of the German delegation at the age of 15, 2016 Youth World Champion, runner up in the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympic games in mixed synchro and many more wins and trophies and medals on her shelf. But being the flag bearer for Germany at the Youth Olympics at 17 years old comes at a cost, with a successfully executed preparation plan having its drawbacks: “ It is not always easy being away from my family, I am not able to spend as much time with friends as I wish and managing my time can be tricky sometimes – but again, it has been that way all my life so I am used to it”, says Elena.

Platform diving is a very physically and mentally challenging sport, with many hours spent at the pool but also on the road. With a lot of travelling involved, school sometimes falls behind: “I miss quite a lot of school and I have to study and catch up on a lot when I am back from a competition. We always have our notebooks with us in competitions and even have to take exams while on a trip sometimes!”

Elena’s plans for the future are quite clear: “Even with 24 hours of training a week, I still want to pursue my education, studying at University; and if everything works out well, my goal is to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.“ But how does such an ambitious, yet young athlete manage to untangle the layers of complexity in elite student-athlete preparation? Elena explains: “ I always make sure to be very efficient, I don’t postpone. The key is to get everything done straight away, that way I can have clarity of mind and focus when I need to. Thankfully, I have had the same coach since I was 4 and she is very understanding: on a few occasions when I have had a lot on my mind she was able to guide me and ensure that I was doing less physically and mentally demanding dives at practice. “Being a student-athlete is both rewarding and challenging. Competing in sports from a young age teaches independence, perseverance and self-discipline and even more so when performing at the highest level. The lessons young athletes learn throughout the years will be anchored inside of them for the future, whether they decide to become a banker, a doctor, a computer programmer or a goalkeeper in the future. Elite athletes need to take pride in their achievements and use them to build confidence in their future performance, but they also have to accept that with competitive sports comes sacrifices.

Elena Wassen was willing to make these sacrifices from early on: “ I am not able to go on vacation very often, I really don’t have much free time and because I am a student-athlete, school was stretched by 2 additional years for me. But it has paid off so far, I am used to it and to be honest they no longer feel like sacrifices.”

There is no age to be a champion: with different generations of elite athletes come different challenges, yet those challenges experienced by Elena and her student-athlete peers should not be undermined. The amount of preparation it takes to reach the top of the performance pyramid, where stand the world’s most determined leaders of youth sports, is tremendous. In addition to the stress factors these young athletes experience on a daily basis in their respective sports, school takes up a lot of their time and energy, forcing them to be very methodical and efficient in all parts of their lives. As Elena Wassen steps onto the diving platform on competition day, she is ready to perform. At this moment, there is no chaos in her mind, no disruptive thoughts, no doubt: just absolute clarity for her next dive.