To study and play top-level sport you need careful preparation and perseverance

Reconciling studies at Masaryk University’s (MU) Faculty of Science with top-level training requires good planning and continuous preparation. Anežka Hlaváčová is in her second year of studying Experimental and Molecular Biology and represents the Czech Republic in ski orienteering, also known as Ski-O. She won a bronze in the Junior World Championships in Estonia, and at the beginning of February she won two silvers and a bronze in the World Cup under 23 women’s category in Austria. She finished 11th overall in the World Championships, and 4th in the U23 World Championships.

13 Mar 2023 Leoš Verner Kevin Francis Roche

Anežka in this year's U23 world championship race in Norway. Photo archive of Anežka Hlaváčová.

What did you want to be when you were younger, in elementary school say?

Natural science has always interested me, but what I actually wanted to be was a doctor or another well-recognised profession, such as an actress or a baker.

How and when did you decide to study science at MU?

I knew that I enjoyed biology, along with chemistry and geography, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do next. I attended science seminars at high school, and I entered a number of biology olympiads. I hesitated for a long time between the medical and natural sciences faculties, but I finally decided on science in the fourth grade.

What ultimately influenced your decision?

It was a long process. While trying to make up my mind, I gradually eliminated the items I didn’t want, and then I chose from the subjects that interested me. I was partly influenced by the biology and chemistry teachers, and through participation in a field trip to the biology institute, which I really enjoyed. I also had friends at the faculty who studied biochemistry, so I had information from them as well. I was also at the Gaudeam education fair, and I found everything I needed to make my decision on their website, which was really clear. In the end, I decided to study Experimental and Molecular Biology.

Why did you choose the program you are studying?

I considered other schools for a while, but Masaryk won. I’m closer to home and the quality of the courses is definitely excellent. I knew the others wouldn’t come close. Molecular and experimental biology was the only specialisation I applied for at MU. It is a specific field, and I was attracted to the study of human biology, which also includes the study of anatomy.

Anežka at the Academic World Cup in Jáchymov 2022. Photo archive of Anežka Hlaváčová.

What was it like adapting to the new university environment?

I missed the first week of school due to sports training, and the rest of the first semester was also not ideal. At times, it was a bit rough. I caught covid, and I missed around a month of the semester. The teachers understood, but the problem was that I was at home, I was not well, and I could not concentrate properly. I also missed the credit week due to covid and had to catch up, it was quite rough. From the second semester it was significantly better, and I learnt how to prepare better during the semester.

You represent the country in winter sports, specifically ski orienteering, and the peak of the season is usually in January and February. How much did sport affect this year’s exam period?

It was definitely not easy. I missed three weeks out of the six weeks of the exam, so it required a lot of preparation during the semester. I knew the dates of the competitions in advance and that, if I was there, I would not be able to prepare properly for the exams because there was simply no time for it. Therefore, I had to prepare throughout the semester and, as much as possible, make up for absences during the preparation period through prior agreement with the course leaders. I took one exam early and “crammed” five exams into the remaining three weeks.

How did you reward yourself for your best results this year?

After the best race, we went to a cafe and had a good lunch. We didn’t have time for anything else. The next day was another race and then we immediately returned to the Czech Republic, where I had exams.

What does sport mean to you?

When I was a child, sport was a natural part of my life as both my parents did orienteering, so there was really no alternative. Later, I realised that I mainly wanted to do winter orienteering, so I focused on that. I really enjoy it, even if it does come with responsibilities like regular training and, especially, participation in races. But I do it voluntarily, I basically have no income from it, even at the highest level, so for me it is mainly a form of relaxation and fun (mostly :-D).

How much time do you devote to training in the preparatory period and how does it affect your schooling?

I basically train every work day and on weekends. I try not to let it interfere too much with school because school is always a priority.

Photo: Leoš Verner

What are your next sports plans?

This year’s results were good and a bit unexpected, so we'll see if it can be repeated and improved next season. In a year, there will be an academic world championships in Switzerland and a world championship race in Ramsau, Austria, where you can also go to train. I must hone both my physical preparation and map skills, which is significantly more demanding under local conditions; nothing can match actual map work and training in the snow and forest.

Do you think your sports discipline has anything in common with the study of biology?

A difficult question - it would probably be persistence. You can prepare for something for a long time and it can seem like they you not improving at all, with results only coming after a long time. I’m still at the beginning, learning and gaining experience, and I’ll be doing both for a long time yet.

Does the knowledge gained during your studies help you in any way in sports?

So far, probably not much, but some subjects have definitely broadened my horizons. For example, when I completed courses in biochemistry or physiology, and actually the anatomy course as well, which looked at the whole movement system. I have a better idea now of how the human body works. It is significantly more complex than I thought, and I know that I still have a lot to learn.

How do you eat as an athlete?

Most of the week I cook my own lunches and bring them to school. Also, because of the nutritional value, it is easier for me to have something that I like and that I have prepared at home - I know that I will find some nutritional quality there. But sometimes I still go to the canteen for lunch.

How do you rest?

I read books, but I don’t have much time for it, only a little at the beginning of the semester. Sometimes I watch a series or a movie.

Which subject impressed you the most during your studies and why?

I really enjoyed anatomy, with biochemistry and physiology. Right now, I am finding molecular biology very interesting.

Are you considering some involvement in practical research during your studies?

I haven’t looked at these options yet, but I know about them. I already have a really busy schedule and there is not much time. I would probably like to try it in the third semester, depending on the topic of my Bachelor’s thesis.

What about studying or taking a work placement abroad?

I would definitely like to go; my dream is Finland. I almost had a motivation letter written, but in the end, the fact that I didn’t want to extend my Bachelor’s studies won out. So I plan to do it during my Master’s studies instead, when I know more and have more experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is a top athlete but wants to study science?

I like the environment here and the attitude of the teachers; you can compromise on a lot of things, which I appreciate a lot. But preparation is the most important factor. Find out everything in advance so that you are not surprised at the last minute and find out too late that you are missing something. It is also important to plan your schedule well, so that school does not interfere with your training, trips to training camps or competitions.

Thank you for the interview.
Leoš Verner

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