Surgical research and carrying the Olympic flag

Elena Gailabovitch

Dr Elena Galiabovitch, Master of Surgery student competing on the Australian Shooting Team in Toyko 2020.

The selections for the Shooting Team that would represent Australia at the Tokyo2020 Olympics finished the weekend before our first nationwide lockdown.

With my surgical research having commenced and the quiet comfort of knowing I was to be named on this team, my life as well as everyone else’s worldwide was soon turned upside down. Overnight the space inside my four walls became my new training facility, gymnasium, study, ‘work from home’ space and ‘wind-down’ area. The initial cancellation and then postponement of the games left me questioning my purpose and wondering what this meant for me in sport and professionally. I am sure many people would have shared in my experience of feeling lost with such uncertainty.

As weeks went by, I realised my values and goals at this time had not changed, but the way I was going to get there looked different. Research was new to me, but with time, patience and support of my supervisors, I made progress. Having to train completely at home was foreign but with the help of my coach and support staff we created appropriate training programs. With time, I found meaningful work some of which was COVID-related. I was constantly looking for avenues to improve my candidature for the Urology training program.

Preparing for an Olympic Games as a full-time researcher during a pandemic was exceptionally challenging largely due to isolation from the team environment, constant changes and little access to competition, both domestic and international in the lead-up. There was pressure to make the most of the extra time. Managing this with my research, professional and work needs was a constant juggling act, ever changing with many balls dropped. I needed to sit in the discomfort and uncertainty but persevere anyway. There were many ups and downs and underlying level of stress due to the COVID pandemic but when I boarded that plane to Tokyo, before I even competed, I knew it was all worth it.

The journey, carrying the Olympic flag, and the competition were all an incredible life experience and opportunity for personal growth. I learned to be more present, enjoy the journey and appreciate where I am on that journey in any given moment; the destination is ever-changing. That also included enjoying and embracing the struggle. I learned to treat myself and not only others with compassion. We are often our own worst critics but a compassionate response is liberating. I learned that values can change, and that’s okay, but if you truly stick to what they are in the present then you will never go wrong. I learned when I came home from Tokyo 2020 that burnout is real, I am not impervious to it, and that we all have to stop and smell the roses.

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to how important our teams and support networks are and how much I am grateful to and value all of mine. There is always a team behind the athlete, a team behind the doctor, a team behind the patient and a team behind the researcher. I would like to extend my thanks here specifically to my graduate research team in the Urology Department, and those who support me at the Austin Health Department of Surgery. I am not a typical student and my path is different, we all have different journeys and that is ok!