In the first part of my interview with the President of Durham University’s sporting body, I asked about the allure of being an elite athlete and what makes Team Durham so successful.
Luke Alsford: I want to start by asking: why did you want to become President of Team Durham?
Alex Zimaras: I was Captain of football in my third year. And then doing that on a day-to-day basis, I was like, “Oh, I want to do something and get paid to do this.” I really liked what I was doing in the football club and I thought I wanted to expand it across the whole of the Uni.
LA: What appeals to you about playing for Team Durham? Why elite-level sport?
AZ: The competitive edge. The fact that you just want to win. Getting fit, I think. As in, all the training you have to do. Whether it be outside or in the gym, to get fit to play. That’s a big part of why I wanted to do it. Yeah, I mean, I’ve played football for the last fourteen years of my life. It has always been, “I’m playing football this weekend.” If I’m not, then I’m watching football or doing some kind of sport. It has been a massive part of my life. I am also very competitive, so, that helps.
LA: Do you think that the need to balance university life and their commitments to a sport is a particular stress on many of the elite athletes In the Team DU programme?
AZ: I’m not sure I because think a lot of the athletes would have done a similar kind of thing for the last five or six years at school. You’ve got GCSEs and you’ve got your A-Levels. So about five or six years prior to joining uni, there will be a lot of going to school for six hours, you come home and you might only have had half an hour and then you’re straight in the gym or you’re straight in the training session for your club. You’ve also got to travel further as well. In Durham, everything is close together, so you save a little bit of travelling time. For some of them, it would be something they think about a lot. But the only way to manage that is to just be organized and know exactly what’s happening when. It is a case of, on a Sunday night you look ahead to the week, knowing, “Right, Monday night I’ve got training, Tuesday night I might be going for a team meal before the Wednesday fixture. Wednesday is a write-off because I know I’m going to be playing so I don’t want to have any distractions.” So that’s a bit of a downtime, on a Wednesday morning. So I’d say, it’s just about finding the right time and actually sticking to a timetable and schedule so that you can have some downtime because I mean that’s more important than everything else – to make sure you’re fine and doing alright.
LA: I’m curious, do these athletes in the Team DU programme think of themselves as athlete first, student second or student first?
AZ: Depends on the individual and on the level as well. If you’ve got someone who’s playing volleyball, who is in the England set-up at the moment and is going to be playing professionally, then they might think of themselves as an athlete first. But then if you’ve got someone in the third team, and he trains twice a week, then they’re going to think this is just a little bit on the side that I can just distract myself with from my degree. So, I think it’s all very dependent on what team people are in and what they think as well. Someone might be in the first team and think, “Oh, this is just something on the side.”
LA: I saw the other week, that a PureGym report said that Durham University produces the most sports stars and that we are the Times Sport University of the Year for 2023. What does Team Durham do so well that we are achieving so much?
AZ: I mean, the award speaks for itself. We are the best at sports on a participation level, we have the most participants of any uni. At a percentage level, it is unreal. There are about 20,000 students, less than that, at Durham Uni and about 12,000 do sport. So that, first of all, screams, “Wow, that’s incredible.” And then on the higher end, you’ve got 2000/3000 of those who are in the Team Durham programme doing higher performance stuff. When you think of Durham, you think of, “Right, great Uni,” first of all academically, well known to be one of the best in the country. But you also think about sport as well. I know obviously you’ve got Loughborough, whose students being the best sporting Uni and all of the facilities. But when you actually break it down, there’s a reason why we won Best Sport Uni of the Year this year and they didn’t.
LA: You mentioned that our participation is so high, why do you think that is? Is it just something integral to the people who apply to Durham or part of the culture when you get here?
AZ: I think part of the culture, because straight away when you get here, you’ve got freshers’ fair two days later and in your own college as well. You’ll get people saying, “Come down to this for a taster session.” You go down for a taster session and realize you love it and you end up doing it for the year. The good thing about the college programme is that you can do that for ten different sports. You could do it for every single sport if you wanted to and you would have the time to do it. And that’s why it’s great because there is something there for everyone. Whereas at most universities they don’t offer that.
LA: How do you see the interaction between college sport and Team Durham, and is it important for you to cultivate college sport?
AZ: Definitely, because I think first of all you want to find the best people to be playing for Team Durham because you want to win everything. That only works if you go into the college programme, because there are thousands of people. So, there’s obviously going be some people in there who are good enough. That’s something that I’m working on with a load of clubs, is to try and find someone who can go in that position as a role on the exec as a college sport co-ordinator, for that sport. So, netball has a really good relationship between their university programme and the college programme. There is someone who sits there and bridges the gap. So you know, if you play college, you could then one day play for the Uni. I think a lot of people cherish that and think, “Oh great, if I put in a really good shift today, then I might get picked, or maybe I’ll be invited down to a training session.”
Featured image: Eve McMullan