The life of an elite professional athlete looks glamorous from the outside.
They get paid to play something most people participate in for fun, they get lots of perks from their organisation and sponsors, travel the world, get hit on by all and sundry, are idolised by youngsters, have most of their meals cooked for them most days and in general, live in fantasy land for a number of years.
Living the dream.
And while there is a general acceptance that the price of professional sport can be quite high – such as the time away from home, friends and family, not being allowed to “chuck a sicky” ever, being told what to eat and when to eat it, the physical and mental exertion and exhaustion, an endless succession of planes, trains and automobiles, to name but a few – these are often overlooked in any great depth by the average punter with very little exposure to the real lifestyle. Somehow they always return to the notion of, “Shut up and get on with it as you’re being paid to entertain and have fun.”
And this is where those close to the athlete – particularly partners – are often caught between a rock (standing firmly behind their loved one) and a hard place (expecting more from the relationship than is possible). It’s a tough trade-off, and it is not easily understood. Where things get even more complicated is when athletes pair up and enter into a relationship, thereby potentially amplifying the situation.
And so it was yesterday when I had to reschedule a chat with Waratahs halfback Matt Lucas due to a medical-related appointment of my own. He had just got back home from the hospital on his day off, where he had been tending to his Olympic gold medallist rugby sevens girlfriend, Alicia Quirk, who had been stung by a bee and it had got infected! Not quite the day off he had expected, I would bet.
Passing ships in the night: the time trap
Having met properly just before the Sevens World Cup in 2013, the two only officially started dating a couple of years ago due to being based in different locations. Then Matt spent the first 6 months of their relationship playing in Italy. So time apart has been a frequent challenge for Matt and Alicia.
It is, therefore, understandable that they both recognise that it can be the single biggest challenge to a relationship with an athlete. “The obvious one is time apart, which is enormous, especially recently with Alicia in the Olympics. We both recognise that we both have a lot of goals and rugby is the priority, but the challenges arise in the time we spend away from each other.
On the Sevens circuit, they do have so much travel. “Recently she went from the Rio Olympics – luckily I got over there to watch that and got to see her for a few days – and then she got home and went off for a physiotherapy practical for 5 weeks Monday to Friday in Parramatta. Then my annual leave came up and so I was away! Then she had the Fiji and Dubai trips. So from August to now, we’ve seen each other for probably a quarter of that time.”
While he knows that the trips are fun, it’s certainly no holiday! “I understand that it’s what she has to do and I know she understands when I have to travel. I reckon that would be the most challenging bit (for a non-athlete partner), where you seemingly have to pack up and go on holiday for 2-4 weeks and leave your partner at home. What a lot of people don’t understand is that while rugby is not a 9-to-5 job, you don’t just have RDOs when you like and so you will have to miss commitments or events.”
With their particular sport being a team sport, it also means that each person involved needs every other person at training, which further drives home the level of commitment required. “You can’t just have your halfback and flyhalf not turn up for work! It’s not like a normal job, where you’re perhaps just missing a Marketing Manager for a day.”
Holidays as a couple? What are those?
One of the main differences between an athlete-to-athlete relationship and any other type of relationship is the calendar. “The ability to take holidays together is out of our control. She doesn’t get to select her 4 weeks of annual leave a year and I can’t either.
So sometimes trying to book a holiday together is a nightmare. “We haven’t really had a holiday together for any length of time because we don’t have the ability for one of us to go to our boss and say we’ll take our leave in June when it suits my partner. You get allocated every year the same time and at the moment my leave is different to when the Sevens gets their annual leave.”
It’s certainly made him more aware of the challenges facing partners of athletes. “My days off are different to her days off. I might have had a day off, and had a fairly cruisy day, got a few things done, feeling pretty pumped, and she gets home and she’s exhausted and just wants a bit of downtime, whereas I’m a bit chirpy! And I have to say, ‘Hang on, she’s buggered!’
“You also understand what goes into a day’s work; while we don’t necessarily do the hours and in the office 9 to 5 (we might only be out on the field for 3 hours and in the gym for 2 hours) it might be perceived as only a 5 hour day and that we’re carrying on about it.”
The Rollercoaster of Love (and Sport)
As rugby was so new to Alicia when they first met, she loved talking about it all the time, whereas Matt didn’t. He’d grown up with it; his elder brother Ben had played for the Reds for a number of years and he has 2 younger brothers – Tom and Isaac – who are players.
As the two have meandered along their relationship pathway in parallel with their sporting careers, it has become apparent that the two have ebbed and flowed at different speeds and sometimes directions. “What I would like to make reference to is the emotional rollercoaster of professional sport. We’ve done a lot of work recently with RUPA about comparing rugby players’ emotions to someone in a 9 to 5 job. From being selected to not being selected. Having a good game to having a horrendous game and being punished by the media.
“We can, in a matter of 24-hours, go from starting the biggest game and being on the highest of highs, to potentially having a terrible game or getting injured and then hitting rock bottom, all while the other partner is experiencing the opposite!” And that is where being together long-term as an all-athlete couple has had its perks. “A lot of couples who have been together for a long time would have developed these skills to know how to speak to one another. Alicia and I have an understanding of what we’re going through, so that when she is not happy, I would like to think I know how to speak to her and interact with her.
“If you’re not of the understanding of what a player has been through, you can sometimes feel helpless to that person. And because you don’t understand the rollercoaster, you might think you’re helping but you’re not helping in the right way. They might not want to talk about the shocker they had. So for us, it’s quite beneficial to know what the other is going through.”
I then wondered if there was relationship advice or support available for athletes. “Interesting question. I’m sure there is, whether it’s effectively utilised, I don’t know. Also, whether the boys know about it or feel comfortable using it is another story.”
Life after sport as an athlete couple
With their seemingly high public profiles, I wondered if they had spoken about the fame and recognition, especially in terms of setting themselves up for their life after sport as no doubt retirement from sport won’t happen at the same time for them. “I’m not even sure people are aware we are dating! They probably know Alicia more, especially following the Olympics.
“We’ve had little chats. It’s something we’ve probably got to look at more seriously. It’s something that I find hard to talk about as ultimately you don’t want it to impact on the here and now. We’re enjoying what you’re doing and we’re lucky as we’re doing it in the same city at the moment, and so talking about that stuff can turn it into a downer.
That is certainly understandable for many professional athletes, and it is indeed something we recognise at The Final Whistle. And while they are certainly focusing on their plan A at the moment, they have definitely put some plan Bs in place, despite Matt’s response earlier.
“Alicia has just finished her physio degree and that has been inspirational to me in terms of trying to get my study done. I’m halfway through a business degree and watching her and what she’s done has triggered me to say that I can go a bit harder and get more stuff done and be more efficient with my time.”
2016 has been a big year for the ‘Quircas’, as I affectionately call them. Let’s hope that 2017 elevates them to even loftier heights as one of Australia’s prominent – and incredibly down-to-earth likeable – athlete couples.
To listen to the full interview, you can hear it on SoundCloud: