An In Depth Interview – What goes behind and beyond – Sarah Chouhal

Today I have an interesting profile. A fifteen year old student, athlete and singer; Sarah Chouhal, daughter of Rachid, who is a coach, former olympian and the national record holder in long jump and Antonella, the national record holder of discus, shot put and hammer throw.
As mentioned afore in the introduction, your father, besides being an olympian and a coach, is an active athlete; still competing in the Masters competitions whereas your mum is an athlete and a coach as well. As of recently, your parents together with other friends, founded a new athletic club called Rush Athletic Club and with rewarding success. You go to the National Sport School and the upcoming scholastic year will be the last one prior to your O levels. In a nutshell, you are practically breathing athletics at all times! How are you coping with this? Are you happy about it? Is there something you want to change to make things better or it befits you perfectly well?
Before I begin, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity as I really appreciate it.
Being an athlete is never an easy task, especially when you’re young as you have to balance your academic studies with your training sessions whilst also needing to find time to rest and take care of yourself. I think more than anything, the reason I’m coping is because I have a strong passion for athletics so any sacrifices I make will all be worth it to me in the end. Without passion, I don’t think you can ever be truly successful in what you do.

I am happy with the way things are going for me at the moment. This season has been the best for me in athletics and things are slowly coming around. In my academic studies, this year has also been the best as I have achieved the highest marks I have ever achieved in my life and things going pretty well in my journey towards my O levels. I don’t feel as though my athletics career or my academic studies are interfering into each other and everything is in balance for the moment. There isn’t much I would change to make things better, since everything is honestly going great for me.
Sarah, by now you have become a respectable athlete. You started mainly specialising in the hammer throws, but I can recall that you used to run cross-countries as well and with some satisfying results too. At one point, you opted to concentrate on the 100m and 200m sprints and the hammer throw too. Results were improving from one race to the next so how come this sudden choice of going for the 400m race? It is killing! Isn’t it? You tried so hard to go down the 1minute mark but now you have 59.37s as a personal best. Obviously, you want to lower it down, and there are still events locally and abroad to achieve that. Do you think its doable for this season or more manageable the next one? What are your feelings?
To be quite honest, I don’t remember the clear reason I opted to run my first 400m race and I don’t think there even was one! I just wanted to do it and I was quite sure of it, I wasn’t very nervous about it. It was purely instinct, just a feeling that I should do a 400m race. I had no idea that from the moment the starter fired the starting gun and the race had started, that I would fall in love with the 400m, despite its bad reputation amongst many, due to it being one of the toughest events in track and field. I remember finishing the race and already feeling excited and determined for the next race and how I would drop my time again. I finished 2nd in a time of 63.17s. I didn’t know what sort of a result to expect but when I asked my coach about the time I clocked, he said that he didn’t expect such a result for my first 400m! The feeling you get when you run a 400m is incredible, almost indescribable. Its one of those feelings that not everybody will understand and many will tell you you’re crazy if you love the feeling of running a 400m. For me, when I run the 400m, I feel like a different athlete. I feel so much more confident than any other race and I feel strong and relaxed. I think the way the 400m made me feel is what sold me on the event initially , rather than the results I could achieve.
One of my main challenges in the 400m was to go under the one minute mark. It’s a frustrating barrier to say the least. In the beginning, I was just focused on improving, which I succeeded in, since in my first year of doing the 400m (2017), I improved my time in each and every race I did, although I had not dipped under the one minute mark. Towards the end of my first 400m season, my sights were setting on breaking that one minute mark, and in the last few races I ran my intentions were not just to do a personal best, but to break that one minute barrier, which I did not succeed in doing in my first year. I’m actually glad I didn’t break that barrier in my first year, as it made me work harder than ever in the pre-season training to be able to achieve my goal.
In the end, it took me 9 races to dip under the one minute mark for the first time, my first time under the one minute mark being achieved on the third race of this season. My first ever sub one minute time was 59.51s. I remember being in shock once I crossed the finish line, even screaming with joy, because obviously, after working so hard for something for so long, it initially feels surreal that you have finally achieved your goal. After going under the one minute mark for the first time, it becomes much easier to go under it again. Since then,I have dipped under one minute five times and I have lowered my mark to 59.37s. I personally still don’t believe my time is good enough for this season and I am very much focused on lowering my time at least under the 59 second mark. I believe that I am capable of doing this this season and I still think that I haven’t achieved what I was supposed to this season. I’m a very ambitious person and quite tough on myself as I know I am capable of so much more than what I have achieved. Although I know that the next season for me will be much better since I improved a lot this season, I still expect better results from this current season.
Sarah, I am sure you are inspired by your family in athletics, especially when your parents are proving longevity in sports. You are still very young but your CV with personal bests is getting better and better. You could have concentrated on the hammer throw since so far you are unbeatable and you wrote history with countless all-time best performances. How come you almost let the hammer go and give it all to the 400m race? You are sweating it harder and harder than in hammer. It goes without saying that you are convinced that with the 400m you may go places, with the hammer throw it’s more restrictive. Do you agree? Who and what inspired you for this highly demanding race? The Italians call it ‘Il Giro Della Morte’ so it’s no joke going for it.
At first, I was giving the hammer throw and the 400m race equal importance. I was chasing the u18 national record in hammer throw and working hard to improve my times in the 400m race. Now, I’ll have to admit I have been giving much more importance to 400m race than to the hammer throw.
More than anything it’s because of the demanding nature of the 400m in training. For the 400m, you can’t afford to go to the training session already fatigued from another session (in my case a throwing session) or else you will simply just not perform as well as you need to. Besides the intensity of the training sessions, the frequency of the training sessions comes into play as well. I train practically everyday, with the exception of a few days because of competitions and recovery from an intense session or competition. If you are an athlete trying to reach the highest possible level in one event, it is very difficult to manage another event at the same time unless the events are related (for example sprinters typically do other sprints along with their main sprint since the training is related or else they could do a jumping discipline since this is again related to sprinting). I don’t believe that a 400m runner at the highest level can be a hammer thrower at the highest level at the same time, because of the vastly different training sessions and also physical requirements.
Now the reason I chose the 400m over the hammer throw. It’s not because of results, as in the hammer throw I have broken my own national records numerous times and at the moment I have the u14, u16 and u18 national records. I have also achieved great success abroad with the hammer throw, my most noteworthy being when I won gold at COJI, the island games in Sicily earlier this year in May. I can’t say that it was because I didn’t have a talent for the hammer throw. I was even told by numerous foreign coaches that I could easily throw 50-60m if I trained more frequently. The reason is that each and every 400m race is so unique and different because there are many different ways you can go about the race and each race has its own story. The more you run the 400m, the easier it gets and the more you can understand what to do differently the next time. This means that you believe you can do better in the next race by changing up your strategy. What’s also great about the 400m in my opinion is that you can adapt your strategy to how your body is responding on the day. If you feel super fast and explosive one day, you can afford to take advantage of the race in the first 200m of the race. If you don’t feel as explosive, you can keep a steady first 200m then attack the race in the second 200m.
A big inspiration for me in the 400m race is my coach Rachid. He inspires me to keep working hard for this race as he makes me believe that I can and I will make it. However, what truly inspires me to keep on training for the 400m is my own belief that I will make it, not just to a level that is good for Malta but to a level above and beyond, a world class level. The 400m is one of the greatest events in track and field, since it requires a powerful start, speed endurance, anaerobic capacity and power, aerobic capacity, a race tactic and strategy and incredible mental strength, making it in my opinion one of the most difficult events in track and field. Despite this fact, I love the 400m and I’m determined to reach my highest potential.
Sarah, I have some information that you are not just an athlete but a brilliant A student. I am an eye witness that you train regularly irrespective of half yearly or annual exams. Your training sessions are lengthy too so how do you manage to do the homework at best and prepare properly for the exams? Is there some kind of secret behind or you start another academic laborious session post training?
To me, my academic studies should never get in the way of my training sessions so I definitely give top priority to my training sessions. This is why I never miss a session, no matter what exam is coming up the next day. A lot of people are baffled when I tell them my academic results, especially since they know I train practically everyday. Part of the reason I achieve high marks in my academic studies is my memory and how I absorb all the information I can during the lesson. I firmly believe that once you absorb the lesson for the first time thoroughly, by paying attention and asking as many questions as you can to clear things up in your mind, the lesson becomes much easier to remember and you wouldn’t need to revise it as much to remember it well. Another reason is that I love academic studies, I have a great desire to learn more, and I can’t possibly bear the fact of doing poorly in an exam. I’m a competitive person both on and off the track, so I’m always aiming to achieve the highest marks in my form. The way I go about studying and homework isn’t really fixed. Some days I try to finish as much as I can at school, especially if the homework is tedious and time-consuming. If I don’t finish it at school, I’ll finish it after my training session since I rarely do any sort of homework right after school, since I’ll be mentally exhausted. Some days I manage to finish my homework in a matter of minutes, other days if we have a lot of homework, I’d have to stay up late to get it done. For my studies, I don’t use a study timetable, as I can never follow it. Instead I write down all the subjects I need to study in order of importance. Then, I start of with studying the most important subjects first until I reach the ones I don’t deem as important as others. Once I’ve done a thorough revision of each subject once, I can easily remember a lot of each subject. Then before the exam, I’ll revise the subject lightly once or twice more, depending on how much of the subject is verbatim and how much is dependant on intelligence and logic. I definitely don’t study as much as other people, but to me it is quality rather than quantity, and judging by my academic results, my method of studying is definitely working well.
Impressively enough, you are a formidable singer too and even competed abroad with success. How much time does it take you to go for the lessons and practice your talent? If I may deduce, you have very little time for outings? Do you go out in the weekends or prefer to unwind yourself in a better way? Do you feel the urge to go out on every school holiday or on weekends? If so what do you prefer doing during your very limited free time? Do you like being by yourself or prefer being out with friends?
Right now I am working to achieve a grade 5 in music theory (O level) and a grade 6 in practical singing (A bit higher than an O level). I have one lesson a week for music theory on Wednesday and two lessons a week on practical singing on Friday, these two being one after the other. The music theory lasts about an hour and each practical session is about half an hour. It definitely is not the easiest of tasks to hop from the track to the singing studio but it is definitely doable. To me you really need to be committed to what you’re doing, that’s the secret really. Once you’re committed to achieving your goal, no price is too high to pay.
It is true that I have little time for outings. During the week I don’t have a lot of time to go out because of training and even if I did, most days I’d rather stay at home to recover and rest for my next training session. My training sessions are quite difficult most days, so I would definitely prefer to stay at home, rest and enjoy my free time rather than go out and show up to the session exhausted and not physically or mentally prepared. I really feel as though going out frequently affects your athletic performance greatly and you can always tell if an athlete went out the night before a training session or competition solely on their performance as it is more often than not poor. Some might consider going out a lot a completely necessary thing to do in the teenage years and might say that athletics will never get in the way of them having fun. It is true that going out might be fun for the moment, but the way I see it is when the permanent consequences come about, is that temporary fun worth it?
I still think that going out sometimes is perfectly okay so long as you keep athletics in mind. I sometimes go out with a few of my close friends on the weekends after competitions or training sessions are over. More often than not instead of going out, we stay at each other’s houses for a night and have a sleepover since my close friends all train with me, and none of us would really want to go out after a session or competition due to exhaustion. If we do go out, we act very sensibly and responsibly, as we know that we are athletes and we have to keep a good image as well as take care of ourselves. This means that you’ll never see me or my friends running around the streets at very late hours like a lot of teenagers or else participating in dangerous and even illegal activities such as drinking. Unfortunately, many teenagers nowadays define social status with how many illegal things they’re doing since they’re underage. Sadly, there are athletes just as old as me who can be seen drinking or ruining their image as an athlete when going out.
Given that you are an elite athlete, an A student and a good singer, which one or ones of the three positions do you think you are more gifted from the rest? Which one takes you more energy than the others to perform at best?
I definitely think I am more gifted in athletics and academic studies rather than singing. It’s not that I am not a good singer but it’s because I don’t see myself going all the way with singing as I would with athletics or my academic studies. Between athletics and academic studies however I can’t say that I am more gifted in one rather than the other.

This is because to achieve success in both, there are very different demands for each. For academic studies, you definitely need to study and work hard to achieve your goals however some people are just born with natural intelligence and won’t need to work as hard as other people would. I definitely think I am one of those people who was born with a natural intelligence so I can say I am very gifted academically. However, for athletics, it’s a completely different story. Nobody is born a champion, and whilst some people may be more naturally talented than others, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. To succeed in athletics, you cannot rely on natural ability alone, this is merely a small part of what it takes to be the best of the best. To succeed in athletics, you need to be committed, you need to work hard in training, you have to act like an athlete both on and off the track, you need to make a lot of sacrifices and you have to be prepared to give it all to track and field. I believe that I work hard and my results on the track reflect that work. I believe that I am gifted in athletics because of what I’m capable of doing in training and the sacrifices I’m willing to make and am making to reach my full potential. Athletics is definitely the hardest to keep at a high level because of all the work that goes into perfecting your performance and the hours of training required to make it. To be just good in athletics is one thing, but to be great requires a lot of dedication, blood, sweat and tears.
To combine three issues like these and to a high level, it demands loads of sacrifices, proper lifestyle, good diet, decent sleeps, peace of mind and family support. Can you please develop more on this? People out there need to know what it takes, breaks and makes a good student, an elite athlete and a formidable singer.
You definitely need to adapt your lifestyle to the needs of what you’d like to achieve. It is crucial for athletics to have a good diet and decent sleep for example, or else it will greatly affect your athletic performance. I personally keep a very strict diet and always cook for myself so as to make sure I am giving my body the correct nutrients and the correct amounts of those nutrients. I always try to sleep early and get a good amount of sleep, as you’d be amazed at how your performance can improve just by simply getting some more rest. For athletics, academic studies and singing, you definitely need peace of mind and knowing that you’re on the right track to succeed. You also need family support since there are a lot of mistakes that can be made from a person of my age, so the support of my family is important to help me avoid those mistakes. To achieve anything in life you have to be prepared to make sacrifices. For some achievements those sacrifices might be small, but for others the price to pay is much higher.
Sarah, you are a perfectionist for sure. I can tell from your approach at the training and can even surmise the same to academics and singing. Your school reiterates and embraces the dual path career and am sure you are following this scenario. What are your ambitions in athletics, your future profession and singing?
I would definitely like to become a professional athlete as without a doubt, athletics is my top priority in life. Besides that, I’d like to continue my academic studies and move on to become a sports doctor as I would like to have a career in the field of science and a career relating to sports. As for my singing career, at the moment all I’m thinking about is achieving a grade 5 in music theory and a grade 6 in practical singing. I’m honestly not looking too far ahead in my singing career as I believe that I can be more successful in athletics and academically.
Sarah, I would like to thank you and the family for granting me permission to get to know you better. I am sure people out there are pleased to know more about you and are happy with what you have just told us. Keep up the good work Sarah. You are an inspiration to many!
Thank you for the opportunity! I really enjoyed this interview and I feel as though it can definitely help people understand what it really takes to make it to the top and all the sacrifices it really takes.

Sarah chouhal2

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