Zak Lee-Green speaks to us about his unusual path from rowing with the GB team to a career in dentistry and what he’s picked up along the way.
Talk us through your early years, how did you get into rowing?
Zak Lee-Green: I first got into rowing through school in Cardiff.
One of the teachers was a keen oarswoman, she had previously rowed at the local rowing club.
It was just a normal state school, except we spoke Welsh.
On Wednesdays, the final lesson was a club lesson where you could choose to do one of a number of different activities.
In year eight I decided to give rowing a go. Due to a limit on numbers only about 10-12 people could go.
We went to the local rowing club and spent most of our time crashing into each other, capsizing boats and getting soaked. It was great fun.
Our teacher was really enthusiastic. It was just a bit of fun each week with no particular aim or ambitions. There was no competition, we were just learning how to row and having a bit of a laugh.
One of my friends ended up joining the rowing club. I was a swimmer at the time with the local swim club. So I was already taking part in a lot of sports.
My friend started doing quite well at the rowing club and one day the coaches asked if I would be able to be partner up with him for an upcoming race.
I was always quite competitive in everything I did. I just wanted to be the best.
Obviously when I started, he was better than me. And I just wanted to beat him. So I just tried everything to beat him.
Eventually I was good enough and it all spiralled from there really.
How did you go from rowing as a hobby to getting into the GB rowing team?
Zak Lee-Green: I was quite lucky to get into the Welsh squad at first. When I was racing the Welsh squad at the time, it was in freshers’ week, and these people were hungover.
So I’d beaten the guys who were in the Welsh squad, but obviously they couldn’t tell the head coach that they were hungover.
Then the Welsh squad called me up and asked if I wanted to train with them and I slowly worked my way up from there.
At the same time you also decided to become a dentist. Why did you choose dentistry?
Zak Lee-Green: I’d been in the Welsh squad for two years in Cardiff. I applied to study dentistry because I’d gone through the whole UCAS course list and the only one that looked cool was dentistry.
One of the rowing coaches at the rowing club was also a dentist and I thought he was a really nice guy and he let me do some work experience at his practice.
So I applied for it and got into Manchester.
That was the best thing for me really. I had an amazing coach at Agecroft rowing club and the dental course was great in the way that I could do lots of the non-clinical work in my own time.
Manchester teaches dentistry through enquiry-based learning (EBL). Essentially it means you have some tutorials where you learn and discuss the basics and you raise questions. Then you go away and find the information to fill the gaps in knowledge before the next tutorial.
It suited me down to the ground. I could go rowing in daylight hours and then do all my studying around that.
It was definitely a challenge to juggle both rowing and dentistry.
The first year was a lot more academic. So a lot of that was off-campus study. There were still a lot of lectures.
But in the final years, especially because there was so much clinic time, it was really hard.
How did you balance dentistry and rowing?
Zak Lee-Green: It’s no different to when people are managing a social life with work. I had that with rowing. Except the social life was rowing and work was university.
I like to really commit myself to something. I was training sometimes two/three times a day. And I was always on the edge of what I could manage.
But my coach was incredibly supportive. He really went out of his way to make sure I could train.
Even if I finished university at five, I’d cycle to the rowing club for half five. I would do a session and he’d stay until seven or eight o’clock for me to do a second session.
During my very first year at university the British squad selected me for the under-23 World Championships.
Every year from 2010 onwards I was in the squad. So that’s 2010 to 2013 in the under-23 team.
What happened when you finished university?
Zak Lee-Green: When I finished university I was aiming to get into the senior team.
But when you graduate you do a foundation training year. So I applied for that.
I got a place in Berskhire, which was the area I wanted to go as it was closer to the national training centre in Caversham, just north of Reading.
I requested to do my foundation training part time. That way I could row and do my training like I had at university. But that wasn’t a possibility due to the time commitments for both.
I had to make a decision; do I want to focus on being a dentist, or do I want to pursue what was my dream and try to get into the Olympics?
I felt I wasn’t going to get this opportunity to row again and decided to put dentistry on hold and I would become an athlete.
So I decided to forfeit my place for foundation training. But I was very fortunate that a dentist I already knew through rowing gave me a job at his practice in Maidenhead.
He was an ex-VT trainer himself. I was very fortunate to get a job there.
I just did an equivalent kind of training program, but it was with a private dentist.
What was life like as a dentist and athlete?
Zak Lee-Green: I would treat all the rowers. I ended up treating all the athletes who I trained with.
It was brilliant because I was treating people who had relatively bad teeth. But I would treat them in a practice I was comfortable at. I got to treat them at my own pace with all the support I needed and no pressure of time – quite a luxury!
Most athletes’ oral health is terrible because of the amount of sugar we eat. With the amount of training we did, we’d probably consume around four or five thousand calories a day, maybe up to six thousand for the biggest heavyweight rowers.
You just can’t consume all of that through complex carbs all day.
So you need gels, sports drinks. And ultimately athletes don’t have the education to understand that their teeth are often much more susceptible to decay. They would understandably just clean their teeth like a normal person who eats a normal amount of food.
Plus, when we are training you’d often get a dry mouth which doesn’t help much.
I got to see lots of issues, which was great for me. I could treat my mates. And I could understand the problems because I was an athlete.
Why did you decide to leave the rowing team?
Zak Lee-Green: I was in the British Rowing Team until December 2019.
The whole aim was to get into the Olympic squad.
So I tried for 2012 but was a bit young. I really tried for 2016. The guys I was competing against were already the second best in the world. So I just couldn’t get into that boat.
Then I was hoping to get in for Tokyo, but unfortunately with illnesses and the fact that only two people would be selected, I realised we were never going to be competitive enough to qualify for the games. I just thought, I’m not going to keep going with this if I know it’s not going to happen.
I’ve been a rower for a decade of my life and I knew there was no option to keep going for another olympiad as the Olympic programme is likely to cut the category after Tokyo.
So I made the decision to call it a day and crack on with some dentistry.
I hadn’t really done any work full time until now.
I really wanted to get started with my dentistry career, which I’ve had on hold for so long.
It was a hard decision at the time but I’ve not looked back on it.
What is life like now you can focus on dentistry a little more?
Zak Lee-Green: Life now is a little busier than it was. Normally I would train from half seven until three and I still have that need and desire to train and race.
Alongside that now I’ve got a nine to five job most days.
It’s now just about trying to pick up the skills and the speed that I need to do dentistry.
Now I’m doing the equivalent to the foundation program you’d do in the first year. The path I’m following is what dentists coming from abroad use to show they have the skills. I’m doing that program so I can get my performer number and work for the NHS.
It’s a different challenge. But I still try to get out on my bike and swim or run as much as I can.
I’ll aim to enter a few triathlons next year for a bit of fun and have something to train towards.
I was going to try some this season but obviously coronavirus cancelled everything.
I used to be a decent swimmer when I was younger. The cycling is quite similar to rowing in terms of the muscle groups. So it’s just the running I really need to sort out.
What are your plans for the future?
Zak Lee-Green: For my career in dentistry, it’s just about completing this year efficiently and learning the things I didn’t learn on that foundation year. But I think it’s also just trying to find my niche and trying to find what I enjoy.
At the moment I’m enjoying all aspects of the job.
Of course COVID-19 does create some restrictions at the moment and we’ve got a lot of emergency appointments. But I’m looking forward to building on the the skills I’ve learnt so far. I have a really good team at my new practice who are helping me to learn new skills and they’re there whenever I have a question.
I’m really enjoying it and there’s so many other things in life that I’ve not been able to do.
In the past the rowing team would restrict holidays to every September for three weeks. That’s the time we have off training. So I just want to go exploring the world with my girlfriend as soon as we can. We did manage to get a few trips in before the first lockdown, which was great.
Along the way I’ve just been quite lucky with things. I’ve been in the right place at the right time making the most of every opportunity.
Because of that I’ve had some great success and really enjoyed myself along the way.
I didn’t get into the Olympics, which is a shame. But I truly look back on it and know that I did everything I could have done. So it obviously just wasn’t going to happen for me and I can accept that.
But now it’s onto the next chapter. And what a career to fall back into. I’m very lucky to have dentistry and to enjoy it as much as I do. I’ve always stuck to the moto of work to live, not live to work.
I’ll certainly make the most of this relative new freedom and try to explore as much of the world as I can along the way.
Read previous ‘A life in dentistry’ articles
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