This year’s celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of women legally being allowed to serve in the British Armed Forces has the approval of Flight Lieutenant Lucy Nell (28).
The RAF Medical Officer from Spalding made her mind up about a career in Her Majesty’s Forces as far back as 15 years ago when she joined 1406 Spalding Squadron Air Training Corps (ATC) while studying at Spalding High School.
But Lucy’s enthusiastic embrace of life in an RAF uniform applies as much to her personal life as it does professional, with three Officers’ Association (OA) Inter-Services Triathlon titles and a World Triathlon bronze medal to show for it.
Lucy said: “My father had been in the Territorial Army and my mother was a Royal Navy Reserve, so myself and my younger brother Charles (an RAF pilot, aged 26) both had an active childhood growing up, always going out on our bikes or walking.
“When I was in the Air Cadets, I saw that I could combine training for sports with having a great career.
“The Squadron put the idea in my mind to apply for the RAF and doing a little bit more research, going on ATC camps and comparing an Armed Forces career with other options, I looked at what it would take to become an RAF Medical Officer.
“When I was in the sixth form at Spalding High School, I applied for an RAF scholarship to see what support I could get while studying.
“But what sold it for me was the number of opportunities for sports there were in the RAF and I’ve never regretted the decision.”
After school, Lucy took a gap year before starting a five-year degree at Leeds University Medical School, having been sponsored with an RAF bursary.
She went on to work as a junior doctor in Birmingham for a year and then had eight months of officer-specific training at RAF Cranwell, near Sleaford.
What sold it for me was the number of opportunities for sports there were in the RAF and I’ve never regretted the decisionFlight Lieutenant Lucy Nell, RAF Medical Officer from Spalding
Lucy said: “I did my foundation year working at Birmingham’s Qeen Elizabeth Hospital, followed by some time at the former City and Sandwell Hospitals NHS Trust.
“Then I did my RAF-specific training, spending eight months at RAF Cranwell from where I qualified as an officer.
“It was a much shorter form of training than the medical one and it included first aid, weapons handling, fitness development and leadership training, teaching me how to apply those skills in my role as an RAF Medical Officer.
“I went into the process feeling quite confident because I was used to getting up early in the morning for swimming sessions, school and work.
“The process was designed to put you in situations where you’re outside your comfort zone and finding ways of being able to handle situations under pressure.
“I think the hardest thing for me about my officer training was having to be more direct, as someone coming from the medical profession where you’re putting your patient first and working out the best course of treatment for them.
“The process put a different aspect on my role and while I was going through the training, it was hard.
“But it’s meant to be like that and I managed to learn how to do it.”
Lucy is well aware of the fact that this opportunity was unavailable to women until a century and she said: “I think it’s fantastic that there are women in the military who are being given the opportunity to do the same front-line roles as men and it’s a fantastic forward step.
“As an RAF Medical Officer, you can choose to specialise in anaesthetics, accident and emergency, general practice or sports and exercise medicine, once you’re qualified as a consultant.
“You can also progress through the RAF ranks, from Pilot Officer, Flying Officer and Flight Lieutenant, to Squadron Leader.
“I would love to spend a good proportion of my career in the RAF as there’s a good work-life balance and with all the opportunities you get in sports as well, it’s an exciting career.”
Lucy has calculated that she could have a career of just over 30 years as an RAF Medical Officer.
But life as an elite athlete representing the Armed Forces is substantially shorter, which is why Lucy has chosen to be a full-time sportswoman in Birmingham, helped by having RAF Elite Athlete Status.
Lucy said: “My triathlon career was a heavy one while I was at school, but then I gave it up for a while after taking a gap year before university.
“I carried on as a swimmer before I went about seeing if I could combine a great career with sports training.
“Also, when I was I growing up, I wanted to experience a little bit of city life which took me to Leeds and Birmingham.
“In my third year at university, Leeds University and Leeds Beckett Universities formed a joint triathlon squad and I gave it a go again because it was a fantastic set-up, with (Team GB triathletes) Non Stanford, Alistair and Johnny Brownlee.
“I made some improvements to come third at the British Universities Triathlon Championships in 2013 and then, in my first age group level competition representing Britain, I came third at the 2014 World Age Group Triathlon Finals in Canada.
“It was lovely to get the bronze medal because I’d always wanted to be a sportswoman at an elite level and so my focus is on triathlon purely because of my age, whereas my RAF medical career will go on for a long time.
“I’d like to see if I can reach my peak, having been training full-time since June, rather than jump in and say ‘I want to get in the England team for the Commonwealth Games and the British team for the Olympics.
“I’ve had some good races this year and I hope, based on this, that I can have a view to reaching national elite which may bring me more onto other people’s radar.
“But I need a few more standout, elite level race performances first.”
Some of the benefits to Lucy from having RAF Elite Athlete status include time, equipment and financial support needed to train, as well as the privilege of being considered “on duty” when competing in triathlon competitions.
Lucy said: “If your Armed Forces Sports Association recognises that you have a talent, you can go for Elite Athlete Status.
“I train full-time but I still have to do 100 clinical session a year, on a morning or afternoon, because I can’t have two or three years of not doing any clinical work at all.
“Ultimately, I’d like to move back to a more rural area and raise a family, but service life can be difficult so you have to balance the chances of settling in one place with that of moving around.
“But any sport that you can be involved where there people with whom you have common interests, you can make new friends and spend your time on your hobby.
“There’s a great camaraderie with the guys I train with at Birmingham University where everybody is hard-working and disciplined.
“After triathlon, my plan is to specialise in general practice and become a GP, using what I’ve learned as an elite athlete to perhaps set up in sports and exercise medicine.
“Ultimately, I’d like to spend a good amount of my career in the RAF.”