With a PhD in geography, Olympic medal-winning rower Zoe Lee has long had to mix arduous training schedules with intellectual aims.
But the past 12 months have seen the 31-year-old become a master of a new subject through a pain-staking period in her career; herself.
Fresh off the back of stroking Team GB’s women’s eight to a historic silver medal at the Rio Olympics, Lee’s career somewhat capsized this time last year.
The Oxford University graduate, from Northallerton, was left watching her team-mates begin preparations for Tokyo as a long-standing knee injury forced her into a year of medical appointments and rehab exercises.
“I had to have my hamstring reattached,” explained Lee.
“It was a very old injury. I had twisted my knee when playing netball at Oxford before I started rowing and it had not healed very well. There was a lot of scar tissue that had knitted to the ligaments.
I’m an outsider now... rather than being the one with the shiny medal. I could see that as pressure, I could see it as being an outsider but instead, I’m looking at it that I have had a weird season but I’m back, I’m fighting and I’m stronger than ever.Zoe Lee
“It was really hard, especially because I had been in good shape.
“There are a lot of reasons why I wanted to keep going and not retire, but part of it was after getting sick in Olympic year of balancing my PhD with training, I wanted to prove to myself that I was still as fit and as fast as I had been, if not more.
“It was only two or three months into the season and my expectations had already been achieved. I was faster and I was getting stronger and thinking it could get really exciting.
“To have it stop dead was pretty devastating.”
Twelve frustrating months later, Lee has rebooted and returned to the water with renewed vigour.
She finally marked her return last Saturday as she competed at the first stage of British trials for the first time in four years.
There was no sense of time lost, either. Racing in the women’s single sculls, Lee crossed the line first, five seconds ahead of the nearest boat.
Sculling has been an unfamiliar discipline for a woman used to racing with seven women behind her and a cox in front.
But the Olympian has got used to new scenarios on the water during her year of rehabilitation. As well as solo sessions at Team GB’s Caversham base, she also worked alongside North Yorkshire Paralympian Laurence Whiteley in his specially designed boat that relies on upper-body strength.
Lee said: “I have definitely turned the injury into a positive.
“As much as the injury came out of the blue and it was a significant injury, the whole mantra has been Zoe.2.0.
“I’ve looked at what my weaknesses were and along the way, I have tried to address those. My rehab isn’t over but I’m happy with how it’s gone.
“It was interesting to see how the Paralympic guys work and how they get to make their boats really fast with such a small biomechanical movement.
“That can only help as I still have to add my legs into it. Yes, it’s a slightly different process but it helped me understand how I move and how the boat moves.”
Such a long-term injury can put top level athletes into a lonely situation. But for Lee, she was fortunate to remain close to her British team-mates and on funding.
“I can see why people have a year out after the Olympics,” she added. “It’s really intense and hard. It’s emotionally draining.
“In some respects, I feel I’ve had all the advantages of having a year out but without the disadvantages of not being with the new squad and being around the team. The girls were fantastic. I felt part of the team every day even though I couldn’t train with them.”
The British trials process continues throughout the winter before squads are announced in the spring ahead of the summer regattas. Lee’s early success will have been a welcome reminder to selectors of her strength ahead of next year’s world championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Having stroked the eight in recent years, Lee admitted she was open to a change moving towards Tokyo, as long as it enhanced her medal hopes.
She added: “I’m willing to get into any crew, any option, whatever gives me the best chance of getting a medal.
“I’m an outsider now... rather than being the one with the shiny medal. I could see that as pressure, I could see it as being an outsider but instead, I’m looking at it that I have had a weird season but I’m back, I’m fighting and I’m stronger than ever.”