It’s a real pleasure to get a first interview with a female athlete on Endgame.
Georgie Gulliver is someone I’ve known for years, famed in the greater Bath area for her skills and tenacity on the rugby field.
She’s played international rugby and is respected around the game for her ability on the field, her commitment to the sport and her propensity for a party.
Women’s rugby is a tough sport - there are now some full time professional contracts to be had but previously, the players were expected to manage a solid training load around however they could play the bills. People like Georgie have a different perspective on the game due to having to make some serious sacrifices in their work and personal lives in order to compete.
Have a read!
How did you end your career?
I've struggled with a couple of injuries over the past couple of years and although the club have been brilliant in modifying my training and allowing me to be off my feet as much as possible, I found that I wasn’t able to train or play the way that I wanted to and it was frustrating me.
I also found that my recovery time after games on a Saturday was taking longer and longer. I’d still be sore for team run on the Thursday before doing it all again...
It felt like the right time for me - I'm not sure I could have managed another pre season to be honest.
I suppose it is slightly different for a female player - age plays a more significant part in your decision if you want to start a family. I’ve been married for 7 years now and I always thought I wanted to have a baby before I was 30. I realised I still had unfinished business on the rugby field after being dropped from the World Cup squad in 2014 and nearly walking away from the sport.
I'm so glad I didn't because I'm not sure I would have ever gotten over that disappointment if I hadn't kept playing.
Were you happy to end your career when you did? Why?
Yeah it felt like the right time. I’ve achieved a lot in my career and I chose to announce my retirement a week before the Premiership final where we were looking to become back to back champions in the new look Tyrells Premier 15s tournament.
This was obviously pretty risky as if we’d lost it would have felt 10 times worse. As luck would have it we won so it was a great game to finish on and a great way to go out! The commentators said some really nice things about me and I got a standing ovation from the crowd at Franklin's Gardens which was totally unexpected but made the occasion for me.
Rugby for me has been full of highs and lows and it was important that I stopped playing on my terms; not because I had been dropped or fallen out of favour or got injured like so many of my friends, but because I have decided that I'm ready to stop.
To be able to do that in the starting 9 shirt for the best team in the country and getting the win in front of all my friends and family was really special. I feel incredibly lucky.
How did you prepare for retirement while you were playing?
It’s been something I have been thinking about for a while, chatting to my husband Ben who’s not long retired himself made me feel at ease and that it was something that we were both going to go through together. With both of us playing it's been tough but knowing what the other one is going through in the rough times is invaluable really; knowing that you’ve got that mutual support for each other makes things easier. I spoke to my close friends who were supportive and then lastly, spoke to my coach at Saracens who knew it was on the cards and wanted to give me the send off I deserved.
I studied sport science down in Plymouth back in 2007 and went back and did another 2 years on top in 2015 whilst living in Bedford. I was given a job straight away at Bedford Hospital who were always extremely supportive of me playing rugby and helped plan my shift pattern around games and training.
Are you still involved in rugby in any capacity?
At the moment no. The Premiership final was in April but when I had a call inviting me to play for the Barbarians against England at Twickenham for the first ever men and women's double header, that was one game I could warrant postponing my retirement plans for.
That was at the beginning of June so I said I was going to give myself the summer off to get my body fixed and enjoy myself.
Then I might look at doing some coaching which is something I have always enjoyed doing. I did my Level 2 Coaching while I played and am in the process of starting my Level 3.
Do you compete in another way now?
For now I'm still enjoying the rest but seeing teams beginning pre season is getting me thinking about what else I can do.
When people ask what I will miss from sport it sounds crazy but it's winning...that feeling of working hard with all your mates and winning at the end of it… I don't think you can ever replicate that in life.
I'm sure there will be other incredible things that will happen; job promotions or starting a family; but that specific winning feeling will be tough to match.
What did you do immediately for work?
I am quite lucky in a way to have never been "professional" in my sport. I hate saying that because a lot of female athletes, rugby players in particular, are professional in every other sense of the word; in the way they train, the way they inspire others and how they play the sport. I have always worked full time throughout the majority of my rugby career in the NHS as an anaesthetic practitioner.
At times it was a ridiculous balancing act, training early in the morning doing weights or conditioning sessions, then doing a 10 hour shift before driving straight to London for Sarries training and getting home late in the evening. Doing this day after day felt like I had two full time jobs!
My work colleagues often said I don't know how you do it, but weirdly, I think your body gets used to it and you just get on with it really. Other people manage it.
What are you doing now?
I have recently had a slight change; I’m doing the same job but not for the NHS. I have moved to the private sector working for Nuffield health and I’m really enjoying it. They offered a better package and to be honest, it was a lifestyle decision for me and my husband as they offered both of us free private health care and gym membership.
This might not seem like a lot to some but for two people that have been playing rugby, training for a long time and have always been used to having things like health insurance and gym membership organised by the club to suddenly have that stop is really hard.
Realising that you no longer have that support structure around you with medical and S&C teams that you trust to advise you is a bit scary. To be offered a job that supports me and Ben in this was way a weight off the shoulders.
Is this something you see yourself doing long term?
I now have 5 years experience in my job and am really looking forward to progressing in my career, knowing I can now give it my full attention without worrying about having to leave on time so I can get to training, or being tired from all the driving.
It will be nice to just have one job to focus on for a while and I can see myself getting properly stuck into it for the foreseeable future.
What does it provide for you apart from money?
I love the fact that working in the theatre environment allows me to be a part of a team and shares lots of similarities to sport in that respect. It's not your standard 9-5, keeps you on your toes and it challenges me in ways sport doesn't as well.
I also like the fact that when patients come into the anaesthetic room before an operation, many of them are so far out of their comfort zones and they put a lot of trust in me to look after them. That responsibility is extremely rewarding.
What support did you receive with your transition?
I really struggled to answer this question because I haven't received any support. I would say I haven't really needed any yet as I’ve stopped playing and thrown myself straight into my career which I have steadily been building myself over the last 5 years.
I guess for me, when everything calms down and it sets in that I won't be the rugby player anymore, something I’ve loved and that’s been a huge part of my identity for so long, you instantly become a bit of a has been. People will stop asking how the game went at the weekend or who you've got coming up next or how your season has gone.
I guess it's that fear of being forgotten that I will find hard.
Did you experience any mental health issues as a result of retiring?
Retiring on my terms has been really important to me; I’m happy with the decision I’ve made and don’t retire with any regret. At the moment I am happy, looking forward to starting the next chapter of my life and am grateful for the way that it ended because I know that others have not been so lucky.
What has sport given you?
Sport has given the most incredible life experiences; I met my husband, travelled the world and made some of the best friends anyone could ask for.
You don't realise it at the time but the hard work, dedication and discipline you give to your sport sets you up for life; the highs and lows you experience will inevitably help you deal with tough times to come.
At Saracens we always spoke about making memories and I guess you don't really think about your experiences as memories until you stop playing, but it's these memories that shape your whole life.
What’s your best memory from your career?
I have a few! Firstly, quite early on in my England career, I was a part of the team that beat New Zealand for the first time in a very long time at Twickenham in front of a big crowd, before the men played in the autumn internationals. It was the first time I faced the haka and to come away with a win was truly special.
Winning back to back Tyrells Premierships when everyone was backing Quins to win this year was amazing.
The week of "training" leading up to the Baabaas game was the craziest week of my life and getting to share it with legends of the game from around the world was an honour.
If you had one piece of advice for retiring athletes, what would it be?
I would say to think about the reasons why you are retiring and give yourself the time off you need afterwards to recover physically and mentally; just because you stop playing doesn't mean your body will just reset and all your aches and pains will go a way. Find yourself a good physio or therapist you can trust that will sort you out and get you ready for whatever you choose to do next.
Make time and catch up with all the friends and family that you've been to busy to see when previously sport has got in the way.
Give yourself a focus and make a plan because you've got the rest of your life to start living.