Once a physicist: David Florence
David Florence won a silver medal for Great Britain in the single canoe slalom event at the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing.
Why did you study physics?
I did mathematical physics because it was just what I was best at. I enjoyed it at school, so I applied to do it at Nottingham University. I fell into it, to be quite honest. Once at university, I struggled at first, partly because I found it quite difficult to combine studying with competing and training in sport, which is pretty much full time as well. But by the end of my university career, I had learned to be organized, and to manage my time pretty effectively, so I enjoyed it a lot more.
What was your training schedule like?
I did not have a huge number of lectures while I was at university, maybe 10 or 15 hours’ worth a week, so the main problem was fitting in my training with the studying and some of the exams. I would be training about 12 times a week, for an hour each time — but it is not just an hour of training, because you also have to go down to the slalom courses beforehand to vet them, look at the white water and prepare for it, and then do video analysis afterwards. My schedule is fairly similar now that I am a full-time athlete, but it is obviously easier for me to go abroad to training camps.
How did you become interested in canoeing?
My uncle and father had done it when they were younger, and on one occasion my uncle brought some canoes to the beach on a family day out. I would have been about 14 then, which is pretty late to get into a sport — there cannot have been many other people at the Olympics who got started so late. I was really keen on it, though, and began training hard reasonably quickly.
Do you see any applications of physics in what you are doing now?
Not directly, but having an analytical mind can be a big help when you are training or racing. Being able to analyse a course carefully is essential, for example — you need to know exactly what you are going to do. So it is very helpful to have that kind of mindset that allows you to figure out for yourself how to get better, how to do things faster and how to learn better techniques.
What do you do when you are not training?
I tried to learn Chinese in the run-up to the Beijing games, at least to some standard, and I’m learning the guitar — I already play the bagpipes. I have not really kept up with physics, but I do still read the science section on the BBC website.
What do you plan to do next?
After the 2008 Olympics, I realized that if I retired, I did not have any idea what I wanted to do instead, so I thought I would use the next four years to figure that out. I applied to be an astronaut with the European Space Agency, figuring that with a degree in mathematical physics I might have some chance. I was not successful, but there was no harm in trying. Now, I am hoping to compete in the London 2012 Olympics, although you have to be selected, and that is a long way off. I am going to give the next four years my best shot, and now that I have an Olympic medal, I hope to get enough support from sponsors so that I can give it a really good effort in the London games.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Physics World
last edited: January 11, 2017