Francisca Laia, a determined young girl born in 1994 and at only 24 years old has been canoeing for 18 years. This story is about an athlete and young girls that has the power to inspire us all to be the best we can in both sports and education. So young healthy Francisca has already competed in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and already achieved her degree in medicine. She is currently completing a Masters degree in Medicine at the University of Coimbra whilst keeping her eye set on her Olympic goal of Tokyo 2020. Read more to find out her secrets of simultaneously becoming a doctor whilst being an Olympian!

Francisca, what made you start canoeing?
I started canoeing with my father who has also practiced the sport since he was a little boy and successively started competing at 8 years old.

What were your major triumphs and how did you manage with your studies?
In 2011 I held my 1st international competition, having been 3rd in K1 200m in the Junior category and thus obtained my first international medal. In 2012 I returned to be medal in the same category and in the same bronze. In 2012 I also entered the college in the Integrated Masters in Medicine. From that time I reconciled my studies with canoeing, in a different city, in Coimbra, but with the same will. In 2014 I won another bronze medal in K2 500m in the sub23 category. In 2015 I became vice World Champion of 200m sub-23m. In August 2015 I failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in K4 500m by 18 thousandths of a second. A difficult result to deal with but giving up was never part of me. All of this whilst studying as I knew that one day my canoeing career would come to an end and I would need to fall back on a proper working career. In 2016, my first year at Sporting Clube de Portugal, I dedicated myself to K1 200m and qualified for the Olympic Games in May. This was a dream come true and a great milestone in my sports career.

Did your sports career ever interfere with your University career?
Not really, after the 2016 Games I decided it was time to make a different year and I signed up for Erasmus in Palermo, Italy. I lived in Italy for four months and I believe that I live from the richest experiences of my life. Erasmus was an academic challenge for the new language, and on a personal level as I had never been away from home for so long. I was still able to train and reach my objectives whilst studying abroad and in 2017 I reached the 2nd place in the K2 200m in the European Championships.

When did you finish your degree and what are your objectives for the future?
In 2018 I was able to finish the medical course. It was 6 years moving between Coimbra, Montemor-o-Velho and Abrantes to reconcile academic and sporting aspects, but looking back I could not be happier about the course I had and I would do it all again. At the moment, in 2019 I managed to win the Portuguese Cup in K1 200m and continue to train to achieve the qualification in K4 500m for the Olympic Games gave Tokyo 2020. Despite having paused what would be the normal course of a medical student, I decided to dedicate myself more to kayaking but without stopping my studies altogether. I am doing my Master’s Degree in Sports Medicine at the University of Coimbra in order to maintain medical thinking and complement my curriculum.

Interview to Celine Cepa, Sporting Foundation Psychologist.

Who was Francisca to you?
Francisca is a brilliant young woman, with an incredible character and strength. She is modest, humble and very brave.

What were the traits that you admired most in her?
She fights very hard to follow her passion and never gives up, keeping her head up and being herself a very unique person.

In your opinion, what are the major difficulties that athletes face when they retire from their sport careers?
Athletes should start planning their life after sports while they still athletes.
We think that the major difficulties are psychological. It cannot be easy to accept that your career will end someday and you will have another life after sports – and your sport glory days as an athlete will not last forever – wich mean that at some point you will stop doing exclusively what you love (at least in the way you know so far), and need to find a different passion or adapt it to a different lifestyle.

What do you think society could do to facilitate the reintegration of athletes?
We believe that for now is important to continue promoting the Dual Career, as well as their sports clubs and national sport committees should provide social, psychological and vocational support to their athletes.

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