Healthy pursuit - Dr Greg Downey

Linda Drake
Med J Aust
Published online: 21 January 2013

It began as a fun way to keep fit and unwind, but it seems the annual Westmead Hospital Triathlon has a way of bringing out the competitive streak in its athletes. Anaesthetist Dr Greg Downey shares why this health challenge is so addictive.

Being a keen runner eventually took its toll on Greg Downey’s knees. Now the anaesthetist sticks with cycling when he participates in the Westmead Hospital Triathlon, an event he has not missed in 14 years.

Although he doesn’t run any more, Dr Downey is part of a close-knit group of anaesthetists based at Westmead who not only take part in but also organise the annual event held adjacent to the hospital.

Dr Downey has competed twice as a solo entrant, but more recently it’s been as part of a team, and twice his team has won. And now his son, Ryan, also an anaesthetist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, is following in his father's footsteps — not only professionally — but has also joined him in competition as part of the triathlon team.

And the prizes are hotly contested. They include a box of Nutri-Grain cereal and a wooden spoon. A more traditional trophy shield sits in Dr Downey’s office after his team’s win at the most recent triathlon.

Each team or individual must complete a 500 metre swim, 16 kilometre bike ride and 64 kilometre run, with the swim event being the toughest one for most participants.

“For a mini-triathlon, it’s quite challenging”, he said.

Next door to the hospital is a pool, along with extensive cycling paths, located within historic Parramatta Park. Dr Downey says although they enjoy proximity to these facilities for the event, the triathlon has remained small as the swimming leg is constrained by the pool’s capacity.

“It’s either that or we swim with the eels in Parramatta River.”

The Westmead Hospital Triathlon is more than a sporting event for Dr Downey and his colleagues. It provides an excuse to have regular cycling training sessions together. The social aspect is crucial, as is the chance to unwind after pressured working days.

“The triathlon started as a way of keeping people fit and sociable. It was informal at first, but there is an element of strong competition among some competitors”, he said.

As the event has grown, participants now come from many parts of the hospital. They include surgeons, physiotherapists, nurses, staff from obstetrics and the transport team, as well as the strong ongoing representation of anaesthetists.

A member of the transport unit has twice won the individual event, but the most recent winner was Dr Julie Howle, a surgical oncologist who has her sights set on the World Triathlon Championships in Auckland this year after beating the team entrants.

Dr Downey doesn’t limit his cycling to involvement with the triathlon, but also enjoys holidays where he rides sections of the Tour de France route, particularly the hills. He also commutes by bike. He says cycling is a life passion and he likes nothing more than the sensation of sweeping down a good hill.

He is also heartened by the growth in cycling and is pleased it’s replaced golf as one of the most popular recreation options offered at conferences.

Dr Downey also windsurfs, up to three times a week, and sails a 20-foot yacht, fitting this around his two-day-a-week role as visiting medical officer at Westmead. He also does private work, and has been a consultant for 16 years. Dr Downey also spent a decade in general practice before realising he wasn’t cut out for it.

“I was a bit of a slow learner. It took 10 years to work that out. Now I really enjoy my job. It’s a vast improvement for me on being a GP and a less stressful existence.”

Dr Downey has also been involved with a program to provide eye surgery in Northern India. With Vision Beyond AUS, a charity supported by Rotary Clubs, he visited Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas in October 2008 and 2010, as part of a team to assist in an eye surgery clinic on the banks of the Ganges.

The camp, a 6-hour journey from Delhi on roads congested with everything from human-drawn carts to livestock, was indicative of the social contradictions of India. The ashram where they were based had many elaborate religious shrines and statues among the complex of buildings by the fast flowing river. Dr Downey and his team had brought almost all their equipment, and worked amid power disruptions and equipment complications to deal with the long line of patients waiting on their first day.

Recently, Dr Downey and his team also visited Fiji to treat adults and children with cataracts and other vision problems.

Dr Downey’s interests extend to those of fellow anaesthetists. He is involved with the special interest group, Welfare of Anaesthetists, as part of the executive committee that meets on medical education to promote the personal and psychological wellbeing of its members. He is also the coordinator of a mentoring program for anaesthetic registrars.


  • Linda Drake



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