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Meet the engineering student paving the way for Australian female biathletes

13 March 2020
How a student athlete combines study with professional sport
Mechatronic engineering student Jillian Colebourn made history last year when she became the first Australian woman in over 20 years to compete at the Biathlon World Cup. But her high-flying achievements extend far beyond the slopes.

At first glance, Jill Colebourn might appear like any other university student. She’s completing a double degree in mechatronic engineering and commerce and is set to graduate at the end of this year. But Jill’s story has more to it than most – for years, she has juggled her university study and industry placements with professional sport, and in 2019, she hit new heights by achieving a personal best at the Biathlon World Cup.

Combining sport with study

Jill Colebourn

Jill Colebourn shooting at a competition in Poland.

Biathlon, a winter sport where athletes compete in both cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, was not the obvious choice for Jill, who lived in Sydney hours away from the closest ski field.

“It was a really big commitment, as my parents were driving me six hours one way every weekend to ski,” says Jill. “I don’t think every parent would agree to do it, but they did, and I’m really lucky.”

It paid off – at the end of 2019, Jill competed at the biathlon World Cup, achieving a personal best and becoming the first Australian woman in over 20 years compete.

“I was just excited to get out there and do what I love at the highest level,” shares Jill, close to two months after her amazing achievement.

If that wasn’t enough, Jill also had to balance her burgeoning career as a biathlete with her increasing workload as an engineering and commerce student.

“I am a recipient of an Sydney University Elite Athlete Program scholarship for my sporting endeavours,” Jill adds, a program that helped her balance sport and study, along with the support of her teachers and supervisors within the Faculty of Engineering.

“It was amazing to see Jill balance the demands of her training schedule against her commitment to her studies,” says Professor Stefan Williams, who supervised Jill’s undergraduate thesis project.

“We were very proud to hear about her performance at the recent biathlon world championships.”

Academic and industry achievements

Jill’s achievements go further than her prowess on the ski fields. She was awarded an Engineering Sydney Industry Placement Scholarship (ESIPS), designed to give the highest-achieving students valuable industry experience at top engineering companies. As an ESIPS recipient, Jill underwent an internship at multinational services company Accenture Australia.

“The ESIPS program was the most incredible internship opportunity, and I am immensely grateful. I was able to gain real work experience at Accenture, one of the world’s leading consulting firms, while completing my honours thesis and gaining credits towards my engineering degree,” says Jill.

She has continued to work for Accenture while competing as a biathlete, adding that the global nature of the business has helped her immensely.

“Jillian did a great job of her thesis. She investigated new machine learning models for predicting failures in complex computer systems,” says Professor Williams.

Jill was also a recipient of the Muriel Anderson Scholarship for Engineering in 2014, the first year of her degree, which recognises outstanding female engineering students beginning their studies. It cemented a love for engineering that began early on in her life.

“At high school, my favourite subjects were maths and design and technology, but what first drew me to engineering was the idea of creating something from nothing. I still love the opportunity to be creative and actually make or build something,” says Jill.

Looking to the future

Jill Colebourn

Jill competing in Poland.

With the biathlon season well underway, Jill shows no signs of slowing down. Having made history in 2019, she’s looking ahead.

“The day after my World Cup debut, I achieved a new personal best, which re-qualified me for the World Cup circuit this year,” says Jill, fresh from another effort competing at the World Championships last week and with plenty of events still to come.

Jill has headed for an overseas exchange in Milan Italy at Bocconi University for the first semester of this year to further her engineering and commerce degree – and possibly prepare for an Olympics berth.

“I see myself working with Accenture for the near-future as a software engineer while also balancing my athletic commitments and Olympic goals. This helps me keep my technical skills up to-date while I pursue sport so that I am fully prepared for work as an engineer when I finish my sporting career,” adds Jill.

At only 25 years old, it seems certain that Jill’s achievements will continue, thanks to a fierce determination to succeed.

“My best asset is my strength of will,” says Jill. “I never give up.”

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