Commonwealth catch up: Interview with Dr Danica Bonello Spiteri, Athlete and Doctor

Sport and Exercise Medicine: The UK trainee perspective (A BJSM blog series)

Interview by Linda Evans

Like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games only comes along once every four years. Nations that may be omitted from the Olympic pedigree, compete alongside some of the biggest names in sport. For many medics, this summer’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games combined passion and opportunity in Sport and Exercise Medicine. One SEM UK Registrar, also accomplished their dream of competing at the Commonwealth Games. A little over a month ago, Dr Bonello Spiteri finished 15th in the individual triathlon, competing for her home nation Malta. Since passing the finish line, Danica worked in Glasgow as a Sport and Exercise Medicine Doctor. I caught up with Danica to hear about these experiences.

Firstly, congratulations Danica on your brilliant performance in the individual triathlon at the Commonwealth Games. What made you begin triathlon?

I was involved in sports since a young age. I started off as a dancer from the age of 2, but gave this up at the age of 14 as I got into triathlon – which I preferred. Around the age of 14 I won a lot of track and field running medals, and my PE teacher recommended that my mum to send me to athletics training. I also enjoyed venting off energy with swimming and continued through the winter season. One day my swimming coach asked if I knew how to ride a bike, which I did – a BMX bike! He told me what triathlon was all about, and I loved the idea. So my mum managed to borrow a rather large mountain bike and I participated in my first triathlon. I came out of the water 1st lady (and 3rd overall with the men!), faded throughout the bike into 3rd lady, but I ran fast and won my first triathlon at age 14 (first female overall). Then I was hooked.

Danica Spiteri and Etienne Bonello
Danica Spiteri and Etienne Bonello

Triathlon undoubtedly requires a huge commitment in terms of training. How do you manage to balance this around your workload?

My training usually starts with a swim from 7:00-8.15 am and then I rush to get to work by 9am, work all day, and then train again after work. It’s hard to cope with it all. Being a trainee, I had to study for exams, attend courses and keep up to date with my reading. This means I don’t have much free time and getting enough sleep and adequate food intake can suffer! Sometimes I am too tired to go for my evening training, so I skip sessions to get rest. This means that on average I train about 15 hours per week. The positive side to this is that I avoid ‘overtraining’ and injury, so it’s kept me healthy and fit!

Being the Maltese triathlete of the year for the last ten consecutive years, you must have learnt a lot about how you race. Which aspects of triathlon do you excel at and how do you work to these strengths in a race?

I believe that I’m equally strong in all three disciplines and I enjoy the three of them equally well. Each discipline has bits I like and dislike. I probably struggle most in the swim section as I find it hard to make the front pack, but I have improved my swimming greatly over the past two years. I have also worked hard at my running, which has come along nicely too. At present, my favourite bit of the race is crossing the finish line, knowing I have raced to my best ability.

Alongside a very challenging sport, you embarked upon a demanding career. What made you choose medicine?

Two options interested me upon finishing my A levels – becoming a Medical Doctor or a Biology and Physical Education Teacher. When I made the grades, I opted for medicine. However, my desire to teach is still there, and I have lectured at the University of Malta for 5 years. Last year I also lectured at the Leeds University. In 2011, I moved to Leeds, UK, as a Specialist Registrar in Sports & Exercise Medicine. I am currently in my final few months of specialist training. Upon completion I intend to return to Malta and set up Sports & Exercise Medicine services, as this is greatly lacking – both in service provision and in public general knowledge.

What would your advice be to anyone who is interested in a career in medicine?

My Top 3 tips would be:

  1. You must have a passion for what you want to do, as without passion you will not get as far and it may become tedious.
  2. Love what you do and do what you love.
  3. Along the way you will meet many who will try push you down. Ignore them and follow your dreams. You will get there through determination and persistence.

What did you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now?

I always thought that medicine was ‘just’ a five-year university program. But as soon as you exit you realise that your journey is just beginning! I had no idea that a doctor ‘never stops reading and learning’. But as long as it is related to Sports & Exercise Medicine, I am interested in reading more. My limitation is finding the time to read!

Not only have you had the opportunity to be an athlete at the Commonwealth Games, but you have also worked there. What has been your favourite aspect of working at the games?

The Commonwealth Games is a very friendly atmosphere and I enjoyed meeting new people, as well as working with old friends. It is also a satisfying to help athletes, as I understand what they are going through, andensure they arrive at the start line in their best condition possible.

Finally, what is the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is that it combines two things I really enjoy in life – sports and medicine.

I love all the opportunities I have come across. I have managed to meet like-minded colleagues and top athletes, travelled to various places around the world and developed a much deeper understanding of sports medicine. I have also used my medical knowledge to better understand triathlon training and sporting techniques. Best of all are the friendships I have made throughout the years. I now hope to return to my home country in Malta where I can transfer the knowledge to help raise the level of SEM.

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Linda Evans BSC (Hons). Is a fourth year medical student at the University of Leeds. Social Media Secretary for USEMS and President and founder of Leeds Sport and Exercise Medical Society.

Twitter: @LindaEvans90 @USEMS and @LeedsSEMSoc

Danica Bonello Spiteri graduated from The Medical School of Malta in 2004. She completed her internship and basic specialist training in acute/general medicine in Malta, whilst completing her MRCP in 2009. She is also a member of the FSEM (UK) and is in the final months of her specialist SEM training. She is married to Malta’s national team cyclist, Etienne Bonello.

Dr Farrah Jawad coordinates “Sport and Exercise Medicine: The UK Trainee Perspective” monthly blog series.

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