How a Cathay pilot and Hong Kong rugby sevens player keeps fit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 6:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 1:47pm

What does it take to be at the top of your game and your career? We meet the third and final Hong Kong sports representative in this series on people who fly high in the workplace and on the sports field.

Most people would count themselves lucky if they were paid to pursue one of their passions; Keith Robertson has somehow managed to get paid for pursuing two. Robertson, 28, is a pilot for Cathay Pacific as well as a part-time professional rugby player with the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens team.

"When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a sportsman," he says.

The sporting prodigy quickly progressed through the ranks of junior rugby before being selected to play for Hong Kong at the Asian Games in Doha in 2006.

In those days rugby was not a professional sport, as it is now, supported by the Hong Kong Sports Institute, so Robertson headed to university. Unsure of his career, he chose to study finance and accounting in Britain but, he says: "All I learned was why I didn't want to be an accountant."

After finishing university Robertson became one of a handful of rugby stars supported by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union to train as professionals. "But there were only four of us and it wasn't sustainable."

While playing rugby in Kazakhstan a few months later he had a eureka moment. His roommate Mark Goosen, a former kindergarten teacher, was studying to become a pilot under the Cathay Cadet Pilot Programme. Robertson thought he could do the same.

"I used to love gliding as a kid - my grandmother in Britain lived next to gliding fields. But I thought of flying as a hobby; I never thought of it as a career."

He applied to become a Cathay cadet and 18 months later was thrilled to finally be accepted. But his triumph was bittersweet: at the same time, Rugby Sevens went professional.

"At times it's hard to balance careers. My teammates are now professional; they've taken it up a level. When they're resting and recovering, I'm flying," says Robertson, who is training for the Asian Sevens Series and the year-end Olympic qualifiers in Hong Kong. "But I'm OK with it - I get to do both."

Rugby helped 100 per cent with the skills required to be a pilot. First, you need the coordination and the awareness of knowing where you are. Second, you must have the ability to deal with pressure. After years of playing in front of thousands of people you get used to it and enjoy it.

The most surprising aspect of flying big jets is how they're not that much different from the little planes. The principles behind take-off and landing are exactly the same. There is obviously a lot more mass involved in big commercial jets and more systems, but at the end of the day, if everything fails, it's the same process.

Learning to fly was an unreal experience. We trained on small planes in South Australia to gain experience and build up hours. It was like someone handing you the keys to a Lamborghini and saying: "Go and have fun for three hours." There were lots of little aerodromes and aero clubs. So you'd see a landing strip, land and have a cup of tea.

I've learned over the past year what works and what doesn't when it comes to straddling two physically demanding careers. I used to arrive back from a 16-hour flight from New York, have an hour's sleep then go for training, go to the gym, sleep then train again and go home. Then I had a bad run of injuries. I spoke with the coaches and we realised I wasn't allowing myself to recover enough. I never wanted to miss training, but now I've realised the bigger picture.

Whichever city I arrive in I try to find a pool. I like swimming; it stretches you out and loosens the muscles. When I'm away I do a lot of the "pre-hab" stuff - injury prevention, stretching or core work - training that I can do in my hotel room. I just focus on what I can do, rather than worrying about what I can't.

I'm still surprised by how much carbs you have to eat as a professional. I've always had a high protein diet; any gym junkie will tell you carbs are the enemy. But as a high-performance athlete, you need them. At the Sports Institute we get tested all the time, and it's interesting to see the effect small changes make on your body.

I have some of the best memories from rugby. I remember standing in the tunnel at So Kon Po Stadium waiting to run onto the field for the play-offs for the shield against the Russians in 2010. You could hear the crowd starting to chant. It was dark and the field was flooded with lights. There was that adrenaline as we poured onto the field. And we won. I'll never forget it. It still gives me goosebumps.