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Georgia Winkcup was part of the Australian women’s team that made steeplechase a household sport when she raced her heat in Tokyo.

There are a handful of Olympic events that mash seemingly incongruous challenges into a single sport. Modern Pentathlon, with its demanding hodgepodge of fencing, swimming, horse riding, running and pistol shooting is one example. Steeplechase – the endurance race run around a quasi-obstacle course over hurdles and through puddles of water on an athletics track – is another.

Australian steeplechase athlete, Olympian and law graduate Georgia Winkcup says the most common reaction for first-time viewers to her sport is one of utter bewilderment.

“No one even really knows what it is. They hear steeplechase and they’re like, ‘Oh is that the one with the horses?’” Winkcup tells LSJ.

There are no horses in the modern event; but the unusual combination of running, hurdling, and splashing through water in steeplechase seems a fitting analogy to the parallel career paths Winkcup is forging in law and elite sport.

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To the uninitiated, steeplechase is a 3000-metre foot race, run on the 400m athletics track, with competitors navigating fixed hurdles and small pools of water on each lap. The sport captured national attention in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics, as Winkcup and two other Australian women qualifiers held their own among the world’s best.

Winkcup’s teammate Genevieve Gregson, a veteran of the sport and the national record holder for the green and gold, dominated headlines as she qualified in her second Olympic final to race on her 32nd birthday. The excitement unfortunately turned to national heartbreak when she stumbled on a water jump and crashed out of the race, tearing her Achilles tendon.

But Sydney’s legal community had its eyes on rookie Georgia Winkcup, who made her Olympic debut in Tokyo and ran in the heats days prior. Winkcup is a paralegal at Corrs Chambers Westgarth in Sydney who graduated from UNSW Law this year, and has earned a coveted place in the graduate program at Corrs starting next year. Classmates and fellow commuters recognise her as the grinning athlete hurriedly bashing out law school assignments and readings on buses and trains across Sydney, in the miniscule gaps between training, university, work and (a little) sleep.

“It’s always been a matter of using every minute of every day to get all these things done, you kind of get into a grind and somehow make it all fit,” Winkcup says.

She is speaking to LSJ via Zoom back in Sydney, two months on from the Games. With the city still in lockdown when we chat, training sessions at the track and gym have been solo. However, the lockdown does have one upside for athletes: Winkcup says working from home and being able to sleep in a little longer while still attending early-morning training sessions has been a luxury.

The athlete-come-lawyer had a tough couple of years in the lead up to the Games in which she tore her plantar fascia (the ligament on the base on your foot – a very painful one to repture) but still managed to qualify with a time just two seconds from her personal best of 9:37. She admits she was disappointed when she placed 13th in her Tokyo heat and missed out on the final.

“Thirteenth in the heat was definitely not the performance I wanted timewise,” she says. “I knew I would have had to run a big PB [personal best] to make the final … I was kind of hoping to get there and before I was injured, I was really hoping to run a 9:30 and qualify for the next World Championships. 

“I think with all the lead in and with COVID and the lockdowns, I got stuck in Sydney and unfortunately couldn’t get up north to the training camp in Queensland to acclimatise. It was a bumpy road. But yeah, a bit of a hard one to take performance-wise.”

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In athletics, you really have to push yourself to train and to grit your teeth through the sessions that are not all that pretty, and I think that when you then go into the workforce it’s a similar experience

Winkcup wasn’t the only high-achieving NSW legal eagle on the track in Tokyo. Rohan Browning, the University of Sydney law student with a flying mullet haircut that sent social media into meltdown, also narrowly missed out on qualifying for the men’s 100m final. Nevertheless, he recorded the fastest time by an Australian in the 100m race at an Olympics. Is it coincidence that two soon-to-be lawyers are achieving at such a high level in sport?

“I think there’s something in the high achieving standards required by both elite sport and law,” Winkcup says. “It comes back to time management, skills, perseverance and getting on with things that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with.

“In athletics, you really have to push yourself to train and to grit your teeth through the sessions that are not all that pretty, and I think that when you then go into the workforce it’s a similar experience. With athletics, it’s an individual sport, but you also have your squad and all your coaches and friends that support you. However, you have to be confident enough in yourself to believe you can win a race. I think that’s similar in the law – where you have to be confident enough to solve a problem or to speak up to a client, while also working in a team.”

Winkcup admits the Tokyo result will sting for a while. She has replayed the race countless times in her head since walking back to the warm-up track the night of her heat, head down, with a lump in her throat. But it has also helped firm her resolve to keep training.

“Next year we have the World Championships in Oregon, and then we have the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham,” she says. “I want to aim for both, I think the time standard is 9:30 for both of them, and that’s been a time I have been chasing for a while because that was the Olympic qualifying time when I was injured. I unfortunately never got to it, and obviously didn’t get that time in Tokyo, so I have my eyes set on that.”