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An interview with international canoeist Stuart Bristow

Stuart Bristow completed the GDL with a commendation at our London Moorgate Campus and returned in September to start the i-LLM LPC. Not only is Stuart on his way to a successful career in law, but he’s also a professional canoeist with dreams of qualifying for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. We caught up with Stuart to ask how he balances studying and training, and how ULaw has helped him on his journey.

By Cara Fielder. Published 4 November 2020. Last updated 8 March 2022.

I’ve always been interested in how our societies function and what goes on behind the scenes in everyday life. Law fascinated me because of its need to be precise while at the same time allowing for the inevitable changes in society and relative unpredictability of human nature. I also enjoy helping people solve complex issues that face them, and the legal profession, I hope, will furnish me with the knowledge and skills to do so.

After completing my undergrad in South Africa I moved to the UK to pursue my sporting career. After a few months, I realised that I needed something that would challenge me mentally, so I considered a CFA or possibly an MBA before coming across the GDL. I went to an open day at The University of Law and was impressed with the high calibre lecturers and tutors. One of the main pull factors was also the employability and career services which I intend to make much use of during the LPC.

I really enjoyed the opportunities we got to prepare for mock trials and interviews in workshops. As informal as some of them may have been I was fond of working through a legal issue from beginning to end and getting a higher resolution understanding of whichever concept we were focusing on at the time.

My favourite lecturer (and fortunately my tutor) at ULaw would have to Stephen Turner, who taught Equity and Trusts. Anyone who has attended his lectures or workshops will know what I mean when I say that it was nearly impossible to keep up but, once prepared (usually with a Redbull in hand), I was in awe of his enthusiasm for the law, meticulous preparation and his seemingly endless knowledge of the syllabus.

I started canoeing in 2012 at the suggestion of my coach at my lifesaving club. I began to compete and soon realised that Canoe Sprint was at the Summer Olympic Games. From early on in my career I knew I wanted to compete at the highest level possible. as I had always enjoyed competitive sports but a defining moment was when I had the privilege of training with Tim Brabants MBE (who won gold for Great Britain in Beijing) when he was on a training camp in South Africa in the build up to the London Games. I made my first national team as a junior for South Africa in 2014 and competed for the senior team from 2016 at the World Championships. In March 2018 I moved to London and unfortunately had to take the year off before I could compete for Britain. 2019 was my first year back to international competition and I managed to get selected for the national team and I’m currently preparing for the World Championship in Romania at the beginning of August. Although I’m happy with where I am at this stage in my career I feel that I still have a long way to go before reaching my Olympic dream.

A normal day usually starts at around 6 am. I’ll wake up (no snooze) and have some breakfast, usually a whole food shake and a coffee. I’ll watch some news and then cycle to training at the Royal Canoe Club in Teddington. The first session starts at 8 am and it’s on the water. Mornings are normally technique or endurance sessions lasting around 70-90 minutes. After training, I’ll have a second breakfast and then write down a to-do list of things I’d like to complete during the day. I aim to start working at home by 11 am since that gives me enough time to get through some reading and one or two i-Tutorials before my next practice along with another meal and a snack. I spend Monday/Tuesday reading and understanding the week’s topics and then Wednesday doing prep activities as I get the afternoon off training. At 3 pm I’ll head back down to the canoe club for another water-based session, this is normally a bit shorter and at a higher intensity. After that, I’ll take a 45min break to have something to eat before the gym at 5.30 pm. I’m normally rather fatigued when I get home so I usually plan for the next day, eat and relax or go to bed. Occasionally I’ll use the time to watch i-tutorials or listen to a podcast while I’m cooking if I feel I’ll run out of time in the week. On Varsity days (Thursday/Friday for me) I’m up at 5am, training at 6am (often on the paddling machine in winter) and on the train to ULaw at 9.30 am. If I have a long break I’ll spend it doing some catch-up or consolidation in the library, and I spend most of my time on the train reading or listening to my module podcasts. When I get home I only have time for one more session so it’s normally gym at 7pm and then home to eat and sleep.

Balancing law and canoeing is tough and I’ve had to forgo many of the luxuries of student life. It’s not for everyone but I have loved every minute of it and I value the discipline it has taught me. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is really important to me and preparing food in advance definitely helps. Being a full-time athlete is as much about eating and sleeping as it is about training. The jobs I have done over the years have always been quite periodic, so I don’t always know when I’ll be able to focus on university work in the week. I’ve found that it’s best to do what I can when I have time and not leave anything till tomorrow if I can do it today.

My medium-term goal is to successfully finish my LLM LPC and qualify for the Paris Olympic Games. After the LPC I intend to find work that allows me to train and gain legal experience until 2024. It’s tough to find high level work that can accommodate my training but I value being challenged outside of training and racing so I would like to find a reasonably stable role. I also manage a small investment firm so growing that is also an ambition of mine. Every athlete says they want to win gold and this is, of course, the ultimate goal for me too but in order to get remotely near that goal I need to focus on smaller objectives and keep upward momentum., Right now my intention is to optimise each step along the way and hope that it all comes together. After 2024 I’ll likely call it a day and focus on my legal career, I don’t want to try to do both and end up a master of neither. Training will take precedence while I’m young and able and after that, I intend to throw myself into being the best solicitor I can be and make my career in law my life as I have with canoeing.

The toughest choice I’ve had to make would no doubt be the choice between applying for training contracts or continuing as a full-time athlete. I love the idea of committing to a career in law, but I just couldn’t give up the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. I hope my experience (sporting and otherwise) will aid me in securing a good contract when the time does come to apply and that my choice will ultimately pay off.

My number one piece of advice for students considering law is to be disciplined. So many of my friends and fellow students see university as an opportunity to take a few years off from adulthood. They spend far more time ‘being a student’ than they do actually learning. There is no doubt a need to enjoy the freedom of university and I am far from the most academic person you will meet but I think it is necessary to find a balance. I understand most law students are already highly responsible and disciplined but university should be seen as a time to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible before entering the working world. In the words of Jocko Willink - ‘discipline equals freedom’.


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