Sport gave me another string to my bow - Phyllis Agbo

Phyllis Agbo (Trinity 2004) competed internationally in athletics for over 15 years, mainly as a Heptathlete. This included representing Great Britain & NI in many European League fixtures, as well as England at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. She graduated with a degree in Natural Sciences. 

Journey to Cambridge

“I always knew that I wanted to go into full-time sport as a career, but my parents are sticklers for ensuring you have a Plan B” Phyllis recalls. “Sport gave me another string to my bow, as my Dad put it - but it was also important for me to have a full education to avoid being dependent on one outcome or one potential future.” 

Recounting her journey to Cambridge, Phyllis jokes that applying to study Natural Sciences was a compromise with her parents; one that not only allowed her to continue training as much as she wanted, but also meant that she could avoid studying medicine. “As much as I would have loved medicine, I felt I couldn’t devote the proper time to both. I ended up studying Natural Sciences, which in itself was still a huge commitment, but I knew a degree from Cambridge would set me on a great path, so my parents were happy”, she laughs.  

At Phyllis’s London state school, it was usual for one or two students per year to gain places at Oxbridge. “But in my year, there were seven of us! We were a friendship group too, so maybe we banded together because we were “the geeks” - although we all did many mainstream extracurricular activities, sport being mine.” Yet these activities were more than just hobbies for Phyllis; even at this early stage, they were an incredibly important facet of her life.

“My involvement in sport is something I highlighted in my personal statement when applying to Cambridge, because it’s been a huge influence on me. I've been involved in organised sport since the age of 5 or 6, and it’s shaped so much of my life – my friendships, my self-confidence, how I present myself, my diligence and time management – all the things that prepare you for academic and working life. Had I not mentioned it, I would have sold myself short and done a disservice to the many people in sport who helped shape me as a human being.” 

Excelling in Athletics

Phyllis’s love of sport continued when she arrived at Cambridge, where she joined the University Athletic Club, noting how it provided an opportunity for her to spread her wings beyond both her college and her subject. “I actively interacted with hundreds of people at university, versus the dozens that others might have interacted with.”

Indeed, on top of her training sessions and travels with the GB team, Phyllis also wanted to have a full university experience within the short 8-week terms and enjoyed being involved in other, non-sporting clubs, including the African Caribbean society. 

Attending Cambridge as someone from an underrepresented background, Phyllis says that she was more conscious of the socioeconomic element of Cambridge life than the racial context. “The idea of privilege and affluence wasn’t really something I was overly aware of until I got there. In fact, that element struck me more than the fact that I was a minority as a Black woman. I hadn’t realised that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with what a lot of people were doing – going out frequently, spending money on this and that without a second thought. My parents did what they could for me, but university is expensive (especially living away from home), so my goal was to work hard during the summer holidays, Easter and Christmas. Luckily, athletics is a very accessible sport and doesn’t require expensive equipment!”  

Phyllis was unable to purchase her ‘Blues’ blazer while at Cambridge, and in fact only purchased it two years ago, despite earning it in 2005 through her various sporting achievements including Varsity Matches against Oxford. “My first year Varsity was one to remember!”, Phyllis recalls with a smile. “The women won Varsity Blues, and I don’t think I realised at the time just what a big deal that was. The build up to it was intense. And even after competing in international competitions, you begin to think: Wow, this battle with Oxford really means something - it's special!" 

Phyllis’s ‘Blue’ was richly deserved; in her first year, she participated in 9 events, winning 5 of them, equalling the record of Rebecca Lewis and former Olympian Jon Ridgeon (Magdalene 1986). "In my second year I competed in 10 events and was able to surpass the record with 6 wins, then topped out in my third year with 11 events, winning 7 overall. I believe this still stands as the record!"

"It’s amazing how proud being in that light blue Cambridge vest makes you.”  

Among the many fond memories Phyllis has of Cambridge, graduation day stands out for her – even if, initially, the culmination of her studies hadn’t gone the way she’d hoped. “I was gutted that I hadn’t received the result I wanted. I remember going to Senate House, seeing the result, crying all the way back to my room and thinking, I’ve worked so hard and failed."

After feeling “completely overwhelmed” in her first year and continuing to struggle in her second year, Phyllis fell into her stride by third year thanks to the support of her college and friends. Nevertheless, she recalls the unhappy moment she opened a paper during her final exams and felt unable to answer any of the questions within a particular section. "I knew at that point – that’s my 2:1 gone. And at the time, I thought: That’s three years wasted.

But now I look back and understand that those years weren’t wasted at all. In fact, I’d do them again in a heartbeat.

I’d done so much to get everything I could from my time at Cambridge, and it was all coming to fruition. When you’re with the crème-de-la-crème from all over the world, it’s easy to feel a little inadequate or succumb to imposter syndrome. I had to keep reminding myself of everything else I had going on. I was not always going to put my hand up for everything or be proud of the work I was putting forward. Yet it was a fantastic way to learn about myself and understand that trying to be a perfectionist can in fact be detrimental. There are going to be times where you must allow yourself to breathe and take stock."

After leaving Cambridge, Phyllis did athletics full time for about seven years until multiple injuries caught up with her. “I wasn't recovering as quickly and just started to realise that my peak had come and gone. I didn't ever want to be one of those athletes that just kept on going until I was broken, so I decided it was probably time to retire. But equally, I wasn't ready to give up on sport entirely. I hadn’t achieved my Olympic dream.” 

An opportunity to try a new sport came about when Rugby Sevens was introduced into the Olympics programme in 2016. “Me being me, I got in touch with the RFU (Rugby Football Union), had a couple of meetings with them, and said: yeah, I want to give this a go.” 

After the RFU set her up with a coach, Phyllis trained and played with Saracens for a year, and was offered the opportunity to attend England's training camp. She loved every aspect of this new challenge, especially as it had been a long time since she had participated in a team sport. But frustratingly she became injured once more. “My ankle was stomped on during a game, snapping a ligament, but that's part and parcel of playing unfortunately. Me being a delicate flower, recovery was very slow. At the end of that Sevens season, I had to accept defeat. I'd given it a go, I'd tried, and it just wasn't meant to be. I had to start thinking about what to do next.” 

At this point, the network of friends Phyllis had made at Cambridge turned out to be a huge help. Joe Ansbro (Robinson 2004) - a fellow NatSci who went on to play rugby professionally and earned Scotland caps - told Phyllis about add-victor, a recruitment firm that help those from elite sport and the armed forces find career opportunities. As well as assisting with CVs, interview prep and work experience, they helped Phyllis recognise the transferable skills she had gained from both her sporting career and her time at Cambridge that she could apply in the world of work. “They helped show me that I have something different to bring to the table”.   

Thanks to their help, it wasn’t long before Phyllis was offered work experience with the largest real estate company in the world, igniting her passion for property. “There's so much you can do – so many different specialisms and service lines that you can become part of. I wanted to give it a shot.” After successfully completing an internship and then a graduate scheme, she qualified as a chartered surveyor and didn’t look back.  

Asking Phyllis if she enjoys her new career, she answers: “I'm absolutely loving it. I work in development which is quite multidisciplinary – buying land, working up planning applications and managing the developments themselves. It's a nod to my heptathlon days. It's a great industry to be part of. And funnily enough, sport has a massive influence within real estate, so I think having that background has helped me greatly.”  

Phyllis's sporting background was not left on the track, the pitch, or in the arena, but continues to help her to this day. How?

"It's a great conversation starter! When I was at Cambridge I didn't really think about being a minority, but coming to property it's something that I was very aware of; I didn't have a contingent of colleagues that I could easily identify with. Real estate is very much an industry that's based on relationships, so my sporting background is something that helps me connect with people. Sport is something I have done from such a young age, but it's still serving me now in my mid thirties."

It has been 15 years since Phyllis left Cambridge, but the ways in which being there enriched her life have become even clearer with time.

“When you graduate, you’re not always fully aware of what you've gained from such a unique environment, and what you have achieved. You only really begin to realise as you experience the wider world.

And actually, that’s a good message for current students: Enjoy your time at Cambridge to the max, be in the moment, and really open yourself up to the wide range of experiences on offer.”