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Silke Pichler

Silke studied Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Vienna and did her master's thesis in Kim Nasmyth's lab at the IMP. After completing her PhD at the EMBL in Heidelberg, she joined the group of Eric Wieschaus at Princeton University as a postdoc and spent three years at Cambridge University as a staff scientist. While pursuing her scientific career, Silke also performed very successfully as an athlete and eventually switched entirely to become a professional and elite triathlete and marathon runner. Today, Silke works as a personal trainer based in London.

Silke, you have had an impressive and inspiring dual career as a scientist and a professional athlete. When did you start your sports training and in which discipline?  

I started training very early in my life because my father had always been a keen athlete and enjoyed coaching me. At the age of three, I started skiing in our garden on a small hill of snow that my father had built. Later, we had skiing training at school and at the age of ten I came third in a Super-G school competition.

I was a keen runner as well and one of my training partners in school was Stephanie Graf, who later won the Olympics in 400 m on the track. I remember her chasing me around the track. My real passion though was horse riding and at the age of 16 my father bought me a horse to compete in horse jumping competitions. I was able to achieve the National A2 horse jumping license and competed almost every weekend.

After my Matura [school graduation / A-level equivalents] exams, I decided to study biochemistry at the University of Vienna and had to give up horse riding to focus on my studies. During that time, I mainly trained swimming and cycled around Vienna. I kept on training skiing in winter and organised skiing training camps with my friends from university.

I joined Kim Nasmyth’s lab because I thought that he was a brilliant scientist … I was fascinated by his research, the way he liked to plan and discuss experiments, and the beautiful style of his articles.

Silke Pichler

Your path as a researcher started in 1995 when you joined the IMP as a diploma student to study cell division in yeast. What made you choose Kim Nasmyth’s lab for your master’s degree and how influential was this time for you in retrospect?

I joined Kim Nasmyth’s lab because I thought that he was a brilliant scientist. I had met Kim before in joint lab meetings of Gustav Ammerer’s and Kim Nasmyth’s research groups while I was conducting a student research project in Gustav’s group. I was fascinated by Kim’s research, the way he liked to plan and discuss experiments, and the beautiful style of his articles. He obviously enjoyed teaching students and eventually offered me a position as a diploma student in his lab.

During my time in the Nasmyth lab I took part in regular hiking and other sports events that the lab organised. Gustav Ammerer took me and other lab members out climbing. I remember that, during my diploma, Kim, Gustav and another staff scientist were training and planning for a trip to Mount Everest. This was clearly an inspiration for me to continue training in sports and look for some big challenges for myself.

After completing your master's degree in 1997, you went to Heidelberg as a PhD student. What did you work on and how did you combine your research with your sports career at EMBL?

For my thesis, I studied the establishment of polarity and spindle orientation in the early C. elegans embryo. My PhD work was performed in the labs of Tony Hyman, Anne Ephrussi, and Kai Simons, both at the EMBL in Heidelberg and the MPI-CBG in Dresden.

When I moved to Heidelberg, I became really committed to triathlon training. I cycled up to EMBL every morning and used to go for a run at lunch time with other members of the Hyman lab. I joined the EMBL scuba diving club, completed the qualification for sport scuba diving and took part in several training camps in France and Germany. I also joined the EMBL skiing club and went on skiing training camps every year.

One of my first running races was the Heidelberg half-marathon, together with two other members of the Hyman lab. I then competed regularly in running races on the weekends and eventually took part in my first triathlon, the Heidelberg-Man. It was very tough for a beginner because the run and cycle course were very hilly. One of my best races in Germany was a 6 km cross-country race on the Grosser Taunus where I won the women’s competition.

In 2001, you completed your PhD with highest distinction. What were the next steps in your career?

After my PhD, I joined the lab of Eric Wieschaus at the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University where I studied the molecule bicoid and its function in the establishment of domains of different nuclear density in the embryonic development of Drosophila melanogaster

When I moved to Princeton in 2002, I joined the New York Sports Club. I used to train there most evenings after lab work, sometimes going back to university after training to finish my experiments. I used to train swimming in the university swimming pool, run on the university track and run or cycle along the river in Princeton. I joined the New York Road Runners running club and somehow managed to escape to NY every second weekend to take part in one of the running races of the NYRR. My goal at that time was to qualify for the NY marathon and so I was competing in all the qualifying races of the NYRR. I went back to NY to run the marathon after I had already moved to Cambridge.

I moved to Cambridge in 2003, after I was awarded both the EMBO postdoctoral fellowship and the APART fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. I was very lucky that David Glover at Cambridge University offered me a place in his lab to continue my research project that I had set up with Eric Wieschaus at Princeton.

During my time at Princeton, I had made the decision to try and become a professional athlete, or at least try and qualify for Elite running races. At Cambridge University I had the unique opportunity to train with the CU Hare and Hounds running club and to meet some of their most committed captains. With their training programme, I qualified for the Elite race of the London marathon in 2006 and achieved my biggest goal at that time: to break three hours in a marathon. My triathlon training was managed by Tim Williams, the coach of the Cambridge triathlon club, and he also introduced me to the Cambridge cycling club and the Cambridge swimming club.

In 2006, I competed in my first Ironman race, Ironman UK in Sherborne, won second place in my age group and made it into the top ten of the women’s ranking. I qualified for both the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Florida and the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in my first year of Ironman racing.

My first World Championships in Hawaii were a big challenge because there was a massive vulcanic eruption on the day I wanted to travel to Kona. I was stopped in New York and told to turn around and go back to the UK but decided to wait it out. When I finally arrived in Kona, the island looked destroyed, most of the roads were closed and the sea was wild with high waves. In the competition, I had a very hard time on the swimming course because of the rough sea. In addition, triathletes in Hawaii are not allowed to wear a swimming suit but just a normal triathlon suit, so I missed the extra support from my neoprene suit. I did ‘survive’ the swim course, and my bike and run performances were good as usual. One month after the World Championships in Hawaii, I travelled to Clearwater in Florida, to compete in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

At which point did you have to decide between your research and sports careers?

In 2006 I was recruited by the Austrian National Elite team as full time and professional athlete. I had to write my own training programme for WADA and submit it every three months and train professionally according to my programme. That is when I had to make the decision to give up my ‘job’ as scientist and commit myself hundred percent to compete for the Austrian national team.

I had a very intense training programme and even more intense competition schedule, but I had the possibility to spend lots of time at home in Austria training cycling in the mountains. I managed to win the Austrian National championships in Ironman triathlon in the team competition in 2007, and a third place in the National Elite duathlon sprint championships. In 2008 I managed to qualify again for both the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Florida, and the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, but this time as a professional athlete. In 2009 I had my best performance in an Ironman 70.3 World Championships race in Florida and broke five hours.

After your triathlon career, you started training other athletes. How did you become a coach and what is your current focus?

During my own training sessions, I had been coaching many athletes, especially the Masters of the Cambridge swimming club. I had worked as assistant of the head coach and several amateur athletes had asked me to coach them, so I decided to study personal training and sport coaching and set up my own training business in Cambridge with the help of Fitness Agents.

In 2014 I met Brendan Chaplin at a Premier Global course in London, and he offered me to join his accelerated strength & conditioning mentorship programme as his first female mentee. With Brendan as mentor, my coaching progressed to another level and I could coach some of the best international swimmers of the Cambridge swimming club, and later move my business to Gymbox in London. In 2017 I was awarded the Level 6 personal trainer and advanced health & fitness trainer award of the European Register of Exercise professionals.

I have very recently started training patients with mental health problems and severe challenging behaviour and I have successfully completed the mental health training programme of the NHS. At the moment I am coaching my own clients at The Gymway in Marble Arch, and patients with mental health problems for the NHS.

What are your future plans? 

My plan is to complete my PT (personal trainer) level 4 course in Core Conditioning and to be able to teach PT students the training programmes that I developed during my own rehabilitation from endurance sports. I have spent a lot of time studying the nervous system, especially the sciatic nerve, pelvis and back pain, and how core conditioning can help improve such conditions. I am currently focusing on completing this huge project and get my work endorsed by PD approval and possibly even the Sports Rehabilitation Association.

For both science and endurance sport you need discipline, commitment and, most importantly, mental strength.

Silke Pichler

To pursue your dual career and to achieve that level of professionalism as an athlete must have taken incredible determination and required personal sacrifices. Did you experience any mutual benefits between your two professions?

To progress to an Elite athlete, I had to be very disciplined and often sacrifice my personal life for my training. This commitment to sport has helped me to complete my PhD and later to conduct my research and win several fellowships. For both science and endurance sport you need discipline, commitment and, most importantly, mental strength. I have seen this in all my supervisors in research and, of course, in all the great athletes that I have met in my life. Sport has taken me to places like Hawaii where I would otherwise probably never have travelled, and it has taught me to trust my own abilities and competence to master the challenges in my life. I have been trying to teach this to my clients and athletes as their sports coach or even life coach.

Interview by Heidi Hurtl, 2021