The first time I dropped out of college was in 1994. There was no Damascus moment where I woke up and decided college wasn’t for me, it just kind of happened over a period of weeks. My mother would say something like, if I didn’t want to go to college that was fine, but I needed to at least get a decent job.

The second time I dropped out of college I remember precisely. It was January 2000 and I was on scholarship on the MBA programme at Colorado State University. What happened between those two significant moments in my life can best be described as sport saving me; saving me from myself.

So to my first college experience. Dublin in the mid-1990s had not yet gone through the great boom, bust and recovery of the past few years. Unemployment was high, emigration was a fact of life and people simply didn’t just drop out of college. If you were given a chance you took it.

Yet as I attended classes on architecture, I found myself about to do just that. I felt completely at odds with academia. At high school I had been provided with lots of opportunity, but lacked the maturity to embrace the traditional curriculum. I still lacked that maturity as I started college, and for the first time felt I actually had a choice in the matter; I chose not to go.

My conversations with my mum led to me working in Shamrock Foods in Deansgrange, packing Whiskas cat food. That was by day. Then at night I would work in the Bank of Ireland in Cabinteely, sorting personal cheques into “jogglers” to be cleared. This would typically go from 10pm until 2am.

In the morning before I went to work, I would run. Mostly to clear my head and feel normal but also to explore how I had managed to finish second in the Irish National Schools Championships over 400-metre hurdles after very little but rugby training.

Gradually my running became more planned, more thought-through. With the help of many volunteers and coaches, mostly associated with Crusaders Athletics Club in Dublin, I learned to develop as an athlete.

On the back of the voluntary efforts of others, something unusual happened. I started to win races in the UK and Ireland. Not long after that the phone started to ring, with coaches from places I’d only heard of talking to me about scholarship opportunities. No one in my family had lived in the United States before, let alone understood the US collegiate system.

In January 1995, I arrived in John F. Kennedy airport after deciding that Manhattan College had a stronger understanding of Irish culture – and was less likely to reject me when my first injury hit.

True to this, my freshman and sophomore years were mostly spent injured and recovering from injuries. That was, until I met an amazing physiotherapist who worked to repair a stress fracture to the neck of my femur. I couldn’t afford to pay him, so he worked on me for free.

After a few months, I recovered to start the 1998 indoor season. I was unbeaten over 400, 800 and 1000m until I came up against Johnny Gray from Santa Monica Track Club. Johnny was the fastest American 800m runner and I knew he would provide me with a test of who I really was. He pulled me around the four laps in Harvard to run the fourth fastest time on the NCAA rankings.

After graduating from Manhattan College a few months later, I moved to Colorado to try and build on this success. But, as the millennium wound to a close, little evidence of that success remained. I was slightly chubby, injured and more concerned about going to the right restaurants than achieving ambitions of Olympic greatness. So in January, I contacted the Dean of the MBA programme, told him I wouldn’t be completing the MBA course and moved to Atlanta to train full time to qualify for the Sydney Olympics.

Not having a proper coach just months before the Olympics was, of course, a problem. I was pointed in the direction of Sean Kyle. Sean and his wife Maeve had been volunteering their time to hundreds of Ireland’s athletes for decades. I was almost ashamed to ask them for help but they embraced me like a long-lost son and helped me get the best out of myself over the next few months.

None of this is on my CV, yet it is the colour behind who I am. These events were all enabled through sport and the people who gave their time so selflessly. They have formed my character and saved me from being someone who never realized his potential.

Everything I have learned about commitment, dedication, ambition and that sense of fearlessness you get only when you know you have nothing to lose, comes from the athletics track and the people who volunteer their time there, not from the classroom or any other walk of life.

Author: Niall Dunne is chief sustainability officer at BT Group and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: Right track … running helped Niall Dunne realize his potential. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger