With five kids and an Olympic medal to her name Zali Steggall says the transition from athlete to barrister was never going to be easy, but that both careers share some unlikely similarities.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly recently, Steggall said that her former career as an alpine skier offers her some advantages in her work as a barrister, especially all the preparation for skiing races, which she now finds can be similar to preparing for a hearing.
"The more prepared you are, the better the outcome," she said. "Then you've got to think on your feet and be prepared to handle the pressure and be on the firing line and be there to perform on the day when it counts. In that way I find appearing in court to be quite similar to competing and it's a challenge, but a nice challenge to have."
Steggall is Australia's most successful alpine skier, having won a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in slalom and a gold medal at the world championships in 1999. Upon retiring from the sport in 2002, she set the pace running on her career as a lawyer, working initially as a paralegal and then, once admitted, as a solicitor. And while she admits that her career as a skier never really opened doors into the world of law, she never lost sight of her intentions to eventually become a barrister.
"It is quite a different world and most athletes choose to go for a career which is more in the same path as what they are finishing, whereas I decided to completely start from scratch and go somewhere else - which was obviously reasonably hard to do."
Steggall believes that retirement from sport can have a profound effect on elite athletes and can leave them feeling a little lost in the transition from sport to a more regimented lifestyle. "It is quite hard to know where exactly to go back and fit, and it's hard to take a step back," she said. "Everybody likes their 15 minutes of fame. To enable success in another career, it's important to go back to basics. That's why I did four years as a paralegal and worked my way up."
But, says Steggall, as with most athletes who get to the Olympic level, public speaking and media work comes naturally, and she believes that has assisted her in getting to the bar and successfully running her own business.
For Steggall, the fact that skiing was hardly a mainstream sport in Australia meant that she had to organise her Olympic career herself. "I had to employ coaches, plan the program, plan the team, train on my own, do the budget. I was a director on the board of the Olympic Winter Institute for eight years," she said. "For me as a barrister, running my own business is nothing new. The motivation you need to have to stay focused on the job - well, obviously, I've had many years of training and practice at doing that as an athlete.
"For me I found that all the experience I had from doing all the public speaking, the motivational speaking and the appearance and being on boards - all that preparation in being an athlete was all very helpful and instrumental in getting where I needed to go," Steggall said.
These days, as a mother working fulltime as a barrister, Steggall still managers to find time for the odd skiing holiday, but notes that getting the entire family together can be quite a challenge. "I have five kids, so it can be an ordeal going skiing," she said.
- Angela Priestley
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