Whether it's for medals or for fun, Imperial sports offer students the chance to be the best they can.

World-class science, engineering and medicine – Imperial has a strong tradition of performing at the highest levels in and around the lab. But that’s not the only place the College aims to go faster, higher and stronger. From Sir Roger Bannister – who trained for his sub four-minute mile run in 1954 while a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School – to Henry Fieldman (Life Sciences 2011), Olympic bronze medallist rowing cox in Tokyo, and Dave Henson (MSc Bioengineering 2014, PhD 2020), paralympic sprint bronze medallist, athletes from all disciplines have long thrived at Imperial.

Today there are two strands to Imperial sport, one focused on elite athletes and the other on amateurs, ensuring that all members of the College community are inspired to be the best that they can, whether that’s at the Olympics – or in Hyde Park.

Take Isabell Whiteley, 28, an ice hockey player balancing her PhD in neurotechnology alongside her place on two club teams and Team GB (which saw her competing in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Nottingham last October). She is also preparing for summer conferences and hoping to find a three-month internship.

“It’s hard work finding that balance,” she says, with no little understatement – she celebrated finishing her undergraduate degree by sailing across the Atlantic. “My trainer at Imperial has helped me to combine different types of workouts, so instead of having to do multiple workouts a day, he’s able to combine it in one. I use going to the gym as a break.”

Isabell Whiteley in ice hockey kit and helmet on the ice rink

Isabell Whiteley

Isabell Whiteley

Whiteley is part of the College’s Performance programme, which offers funding and support to athletes who are balancing their studies alongside sporting success at national and international levels.

Imperial has long been known for the quality of its rowers but in the last few years the programme has expanded to offer support at varying levels to more disciplines. There are nine Gold scholars like Whiteley, 27 Silver and 19 Bronze, and nine Performance teams playing at top university level.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says James Perry, Sports Development Manager for Performance. “There’s a lot of good university performance programmes out there and we’ve worked with different universities to understand the impact their services have had, and then brought those into our own programme.”

Whiteley’s university and Team GB trainers are in close contact. The Performance programme gives her two strength sessions a week as well as access to sports psychology, physiotherapy, sports massage and a nutritionist. Imperial also gives her funding to put towards travel or equipment and, crucially, there is academic support as well.

“My supervisor’s really supportive and I let him know when I’m going to be away – he’s of the feeling that, as long as I’m getting the work done, that’s okay. He recognises that I’m also pushing the sport really hard: if he wasn’t supportive, it would be a whole lot more difficult to be competing at the level I am,” she says.

Isabell Whiteley playing ice hockey

Isabell Whiteley: Ice Hockey Assistant captain for Streatham Storm / 2021: Played in World Championships in Spain / 2021: Played in GB Olympic Qualifiers

Isabell Whiteley: Ice Hockey Assistant captain for Streatham Storm / 2021: Played in World Championships in Spain / 2021: Played in GB Olympic Qualifiers

The Performance programme originally focused solely on physiotherapy, something which orienteering Silver scholar Mihaly Ormay (Civil Engineering, Third Year) is using after sustaining a tendon injury.

Forget Scout badges and maps: orienteering is an endurance sport which requires quick thinking and excellent fitness to find the right route. Having enjoyed orienteering with his family from a young age, Ormay came seventh at the Junior World Championships in 2018.

“My mindset was ‘studying first, sports second’; mainly because orienteering is not the kind of sport which you can live on,” he says, of his choice to study at Imperial. “I applied for other universities that deliver bigger sports programmes, but they weren’t as good in science and engineering as Imperial.”

Ormay often trains with the College’s cross country runners and occasionally moonlights for the team. Before his injury, Ormay was training for around two hours a day, alongside studying for his civil engineering degree. But, as he points out, this is a normal part of the student experience. “If someone does theatre or music, they spend the same time on that.”

Mihaly Ormay

Mihaly Ormay: Orienteering

2021 and 2018: Hungarian Spring Orienteering Champion

2018: 7th at the Junior World Orienteering Championships (long distance)

Mihaly Ormay running in a wood

2017: 4th at the European Youth Orienteering Championships (long distance

2015: 4th at the European Youth Orienteering Championships (long distance / 5,000m Personal Best 16:03

And the beyond the elite level, Imperial is a hotbed of sporting achievement for the enthusiastic and less-skilled. The newly-renamed Imperial Athletes has 90 competitive clubs that focus on university-level amateur spot – and having a great time in the process. This year saw an unprecedented 5,000 new sign-ups to Imperial’s student league teams.

More than 200 people signed up to volleyball – one of the world’s most sociable group sports. “It was clear from the early days of this return to College life that there was this wave of enthusiasm for volleyball – we didn’t turn anyone away,” says club president Miriam Sarkis (MEng Chemical Engineering 2020, PhD Chemical Engineering 2024).

Miriam Sarkis playing volleyball

Miriam Sarkis

Miriam Sarkis

“Inclusivity is always a recurring theme because it promotes the sporting culture for people who maybe haven’t had the chance to practice and try out a sport before they came to university. Now they have that opportunity.”

As Imperial’s Senior Sports Development Officer, Melissa Steingass oversees the amateur arm of student sport, from martial arts, riding and polo, to rifle and pistols, rowing and the student classic, ultimate frisbee.

“When restrictions were in place you could still play sport when you couldn’t do other social things,” she says. “It definitely became a social channel. Sport always reflects society, so it is very reflective of a diverse student body.”

Miriam Sarkis hits a volleyball over a net

Miriam Sarkis: Volleyball

2021–22: Runners up at Student Cup finals / 2019–20: BUCS Division 2 League winners

2018–19: Division 2 London League winners

Miriam Sarkis hits a volleyball over a net

2017–18: Ranked 9th at Student Cup finals

2017–18: Division 2 Conference Cup winners

2016–17: Division 2 Conference Cup winners

And for many amateur athletes, sport is as much a part of their lives as it is to Performance scholars. Madeleine Woodburn (Design Engineering, Fourth Year) was a regional-level hockey player at school.

“Loughborough and the other big sporting universities would come and pitch to us, but I’d never heard of Imperial in a sporting context before coming here,” she says.

Now club captain, Woodburn has been involved in Imperial College Hockey Club throughout her studies, while pursuing her interest in robotics as part of her design engineering degree.

“Going to Imperial, one of my top concerns was not getting a good work–life balance and not finding people who were like me,” she says.

Madeline Woodburn playing hockey

Madeleine Woodburn

Madeleine Woodburn

“The hockey club has been amazing for meeting people and still doing the sport that you love. I always say to people, you know, if you join hockey then you have 150 friends automatically.”

Woodburn’s next step is a graduate scheme with a focus on leadership – she credits her hockey involvement with giving her the edge.

“The recruiters were very interested in extracurricular leadership experience, and that’s definitely something that strengthened my application.”

“I spend a lot of my time trying to convince people that actually they do have time to play sport,” says Woodburn. “Most people’s priority is to get the best possible degree, but I think it’s really hard to get to that level of academic performance without having an outlet.” And whatever your outlet, Imperial is likely to have the perfect match.

Madeline Woodburn playing hockey

Madeleine Woodburn

2021–22: Imperial Club Captain

2020–21: Imperial L1 Captain

Madeline Woodburn playing hockey

2017: Member of Pennine Pumas squad in the Futures Cup

2017: Captained the north England regional team

Madeline Woodburn playing hockey

Played at Hurley HC, Amsterdam and Morpeth HC

Imperial sportspeople leading the way

Sir Roger Bannister CBE
(St Mary’s Hospital Medical School 1954)
Olympic 1,500m runner and first man to run sub four minute mile
Abigail Dow
(MEng Mechanical Engineering 2020)
Member of the England women’s national rugby team
Daniel Rowden
(Undergraduate Mechanical Engineering)
British champion 800m runner and 2020 Olympian
Melissa Hexter
(Bioengineering research postgraduate)
European powerlifting champion
Henry Fieldman
(Life Sciences 2011)
Olympic bronze medal winning cox
Kenza Tazi
(Physics 2019)
Olympic slalom skier
Louis Attrill MBE
(MEng Civil Engineering 1997)
Olympic gold medallist rower
Simon Dennis MBE
(Biology 1997)
Olympic gold medallist rower
Dr Dave Henson MBE
(MSc Bioengineering 2014, PhD 2020)
Paralympic T42 bronze medallist

Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.

This story was published originally in Imperial 52/Summer 2022.