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University life and the Commonwealth Games: We chat with athletics supremo Jonathon Riall

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Published on 03 August 2022

Jonathon Riall
Jonathon Riall

Since graduating from the University of Sunderland with a degree in sports and exercise management 17 years ago - Jonathon Riall’s career just keeps moving on up.

In an interview with the University, Wearside-born Jonathon discusses this year’s Commonwealth Games, Paralympics 2024, career highlights, his heroes of the sport and why the University will always hold a special place in his heart.

 

Beginning his journey with British Triathlon in September 2005 and taking over as Regional Manager in the Midlands six months later, in 2009 Jonathon Riall was granted the opportunity to lead a new Paratriathlon Programme and became the head coach for the first ever Paratriathlon team to compete as part of Paralympics GB in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

This year, he’s reached another proud milestone after recently being announced as Head of Performance Services at the British Paralympic Association. He will still continue as England’s Commonwealth Games Team Leader, a role he’s held since 2020, and support British Triathlon until after the World Triathlon Para Series race in Swansea in August.

 

Hi Jonathon, how do you think your University of Sunderland experience has helped shape your career?

It was pivotal, as it showed me the areas I was good at and highlight maybe the areas I wasn't so good at. I did a degree in sports and exercise management, which included a few modules, such as sports coaching and sports management - where I excelled, and then other areas which were more specifically science based, where I really didn’t.

By the learning I took from understanding how to turn vision into strategy, and strategy into action was something I used immediately, before I even left university, and something which has been key to almost all projects I have led on to date.

Sports coaching taught me that delivering coaching is about people, and relationships, more so than it will ever be about technical skill, and again, this has been central to my successes.

So yes, learning about developing strategic plans, whilst also building teams to help deliver amazing things both stemmed from my learning at Sunderland. It was such a supportive place also, that it helped to develop my belief in myself and my confidence to be able to try something like I did.

 

What are your career-proud moments?

There are too many to mention in the 17 years I spent at Triathlon, from leading our national squad to the sports first paralympic games, helping our team win gold medals in both Rio and Tokyo, and building friendships that will last a life time, to now having the responsibility to help 22 sports deliver on the biggest stage.

However the one I will highlight is my 20-year journey from being a 17-year-old volunteer for Team England at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, having to ask for a shift off to get down to Salford Quays to watch the Triathlon, to now being Team Leader for the most successful team in Commonwealth History at a home games.

And with a team that consists of the best women, men, disabled and non-disabled athletes - and knowing that I have impacted on that significantly in my time in that sport, and that my last day in Triathlon will be spent watching this action all role out is something pretty special.

 

Have you any advice to students/ graduates thinking about a career in sports and exercise?

Do way more than a degree... you'll find that in today’s competitive world, people who come with experience will always be looked upon more favourably to those who haven't taken any real life opportunities. It doesn't matter whether these are paid or voluntary or even if they are in the exact areas you want to work in, showing willing goes a long way.

Before you learn anything, learn about yourself. When you get to the world of work, the reality is many people can do your job... it’s how you did it that makes an impact, and you can only be purposeful about how you work if you understand you well.

An easy way to gain more self awareness is often to ask people who work with you. You might not always like what you hear, but its critical in helping you become the best version of yourself.

Finally, never be afraid to have a voice, and to learn how to ask great questions. Often younger people feel they can’t speak out, or should fall into line with the hierarchy around them, but some of the very best young coaches and practitioners I have recruited have had an opinion, but have used exceptional questioning skill to help develop their understanding of something, whilst also leaving people in more senior roles to have to think.

High performance sport is all about thinking, learning, developing, therefore it needs people who think differently, and are willing to question the processes at play to try and make them better.

 

Tell us about your new role and what a typical day looks like as the Head of Performance for the British Paralympic Association?

 What this role ultimately means is, anything at Games Time (summer or winter Paralympics) which can impact on the performance of a team is my responsibility to understand and create Performance Impacting Interventions around.

This tends to centre around the creation of performance spaces through the Games Preparation Phase (one-month pre games) and also in the Paralympic Village at Games time itself.

There is also a big people-recruitment part to the role as we need world-leading sports science and medicine support throughout the Prep and Games time phases.

I also get to lead on quite a variety of smaller areas such as performance innovation projects, sleep projects at games time etc. Obviously the closer a games is the more time I spend on them, however right now, we have Paris planning underway, and are already developing plans for the next winter Paralympics in Milan Cortina in 2026, and I head to LA for my first visit ahead of the LA Paralympics in 2028.

 

How long will you be in this new post?

 This is a permanent role that sits in what is called the 'heads of' level within the organisation, which is one level down from the director's level. I will be in post for as long as I do a good job I hope!

 

Does this role differ from other posts you’ve had?

Yes, a lot in some ways, and less so in others. I was the Head Coach and Team Leader for the Paratriathlon team, and lead this team through two Paralympic Games in Rio and Tokyo, whereas now, I am the person helping all 22 Team Leaders to develop their plans so they can respectively support their teams best. It’s a wonderful position because in some way the end goal is very similar, yet I now have a remit to build relationships with 22 sports, and use my experience to support and challenge their plans to ensure they are as good as they can b

 

 

Tell us about your role in this year’s Commonwealth Games?

 This is the last project I get to deliver for Triathlon, having officially left there in May. I am the Team Leader for the England Triathlon team which consists of both Olympic Programme athletes, and Paralympic Programme athletes. The role is voluntary and the team I have built around me all hold other full-time roles in the organisation. I manage four coaches, one operations manager, two physios, and a bike mechanic.

Our team is made up of 14 athletes, six from the Olympic Programme and eight from the Paralympic Programme. At games time we will have the Olympic athletes race an individual race and then also a mixed team relay, and the Paralympic athletes, who are all visually impaired will race an individual race.

Therefore, we have the opportunity to win medals in five respective events. My main role was to create a team vision, recruit a team based around that, develop our selection policies, and lead all selection processes, and the closer we have got to the event, generally just try to keep everything on track, communicated brilliantly, and maintain a positive atmosphere for us to deliver in this week.

 

Are there any athletes in particular who you’re excited to be working with?

 Incredibly so, the Olympic team is made up of Alex Yee, Sam Dickinson and Dan Dixon, Georgia Taylor Brown, Sophie Coldwell and Sain Rainsley. Alex and Georgia both claimed individual silver medals in Tokyo, and then gold medals as part of the mixed team relay - and all of the other athletes here have medaled in senior European and world level events. 

I coached Sophie as the Head Coach of her regional academy when she was 10-11 years old.

The Paralympic Team is headed up by Dave Ellis and Luke Pollard (Luke is Dave’s guide) who are current world champions, and then we have athletes such as Oscar Kelly (guided by Chalie Harding) and Katie Crowhurst (guided by Jess Fullagar) who are both at the very beginning of their triathlon journey, but who will also be aiming to medal in Birmingham. So it is an immense privilege to be able to lead a team with such a wide range of experience and potential.

 

Will you be involved in the next Paralympics 2024?

I will be involved in my new role there. There is a period we go through where we will find out our games’ time role, which we haven't gone through yet, but I hope to have significant responsibility on all pre-games preparation plans, plus all of our in games planning, whilst managing our sports science and medicine team to deliver the very best support to our athlete team which will be close to 300.

 

Finally, how do you feel about being a University of Sunderland graduate? 

Proud as punch. I was born in Sunderland, my mother lives half-a-mile from the campus where I studied and graduated at the Stadium of Light, and it all just feels like it was exactly the right place for me to study. I didn't ace my final grade, but the holistic experience I got during my university years, played a major role in helping me take that first step turning some pretty ambitious ideas into reality.

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