Viviane Pekelman, Class of 1990

The school gave me a well-rounded and grounded development to think for myself and have confidence in my qualities.”

Earlier last year, our Director of Sports compiled all the school’s sports records and a name that showed up in several categories was Viviane Pekelman’s. Viviane was born in the UK and joined St. Paul’s with her siblings when she was only 10 years old. Viviane found tremendous success in sports at school, state and national level as well internationally. To this day, she holds the school’s records in girls’: Track 200m (25.6s), High Jump (1.57m) and Long Jump (5.25m).

Aside from her many awards at St Paul’s, she was a junior national champion in high jump and long jump, South American record holder for pentathlon and an international champion in heptathlon at the 1989 World Maccabi Games.

Once she stopped competitive sports, Viviane joined the world of banking and, in this interview, she shares a lot of resourceful advice to our 6th Form pupils on what makes the path for a good career, as well as how her St. Paul’s background gave her lifelong skills to put to use.

Photo: personal file

What brought you and your family to St. Paul’s?

My parents who were Brazilian lived in London where I was born, for 12 years, and when they returned to Brazil with my two sisters Tamara and Alessandra, St. Paul’s School was a natural fit.

Tell us more about your experience as a Paulean.

Coming from England, it was a big cultural shock moving to Brazil. We were born and raised in Highgate in London and it was very green with lots of parks, spacious and close to the countryside with not much traffic and no visible poverty. São Paulo on the other hand, had a lot of skyscrapers, traffic, pollution and poverty. It was also a completely different culture and I think in the beginning I struggled to assimilate some of the Brazilian culture within St. Paul’s. Although the school was something I enjoyed and the teachers were amazing and very supportive, it was also the country in itself that took adjusting to.

I really liked St. Paul’s because although there was emphasis on sport – specially the Lancaster versus York competition, which was great fun – there was a well-rounded focus in other areas that I enjoyed equally like arts, theatre, literature, history, geography and so on. 

I am hard of hearing and I don’t think that at that point, while in school, people realised how deaf I really was, which impacted some of my social life in St. Paul’s. However, sports was a natural direction and most of my friends were made through sports related activities.

Photo: personal file

What made St. Paul’s special? What are your fondest memories of the school?

I obviously liked the sports, that was my key thing. I remember doing gymnastics when I first arrived at St Paul’s and was also part of the Scouts which I loved and participated in a few Jamborees in the countryside. It was all about exploring nature and being independent. We also used to do some weekend nature hikes in National Parks and those were amazing trips. And I loved watching the boys playing rugby, as it was such a unique thing to have in Brazil at the time. 

I enjoyed playing basketball for many years at school as it was a fun team sports and Fabio [Santos before that] was our most enthusiastic and passionate coach. Winning the inter-schools championship was definitely one of the highlights, in addition to travelling to different schools to play games, which  was a real team bonding experience and I am still in touch with many of the players even if we are spread around the world today.  

The benefit of taking part in these school sports was the opportunity to spend one week at the annual Rancho Ranieri camp where we would compete with other international / American schools in all variety of sports which gave us the opportunity to enthusiastically support our teams.  It was such an exciting week and great fun. Especially as we got to miss one week of school!

Separately from the school’s sports activities, every day after St. Paul’s, I used to go training at Clube Pinheiros, which was when I was really focusing on my athletics career. It was a completely different experience as we trained with people who came from different backgrounds and when I competed nationally and internationally, it was a very different environment. This was where I was more exposed to the realities of Brazilian athletes’ lives so going back to St Paul’s every day really made me appreciate even more how lucky and privileged I was.

My sisters and I also trained and competed in show-jumping. To be honest, I’m not sure where we ever found the time to do so many sports! My parents Marilu and Moyses were extremely enthusiastic, willing to drive us [and our teammates] everywhere and were very vocal and passionate supporters!

The juxtaposition of these two realities made me very grounded individual and prepared me for the challenges ahead in my life. I do believe that although St Paul’s could be quite elitist, there was a lot of importance given to growth as well as being well-rounded individuals and to think for yourself. We had fascinating teachers [Mr Downey, Mr Maxwell, Mr Mitchell, Mr Foley, Mr Benedictus, Dna Bernadette, Mrs Lakins, Mr Cooke, etc] and a great headmaster Mr Ross who happened to be a great Maths teacher too. I believe it was the only time I received an A in Maths.

How do you think your life in athletics related to your experience at St. Paul’s?

The team sports element to St. Paul’s was really interesting. Everything I did outside the school were individual sports. I was representing myself individually and representing the club but I wasn’t necessarily competing on a team, so there is a lot of pressure when everything is down to your own performance.

So I think at St. Paul’s, it was more of a team effort and I loved that bit. It was so much more fun. We had fantastic P.E teachers who tried to engage the pupils to become a part of the team and I really appreciated how much effort they put on that.

That did provide a lot of friendships within St. Paul’s, even after we finished school. We became a part of each other’s lives and that sort of defines you in a way. I have people who still message me to this day saying “wow, I can’t believe you still hold all these records in athletics” and I agree, I am surprised myself they’re still there because they’re not even my own best records.

It makes me appreciate my parents even more. I wish they were alive as I believe they would feel really proud of their daughter for still holding so many of these records. My mother would attend every single one of the competitions. Having my parents’ support really helped keep that St. Paul’s experience.

Photo: personal file

When did you stop competing for athletics?

By the time I finished university. Within university, we competed seriously throughout the east coast of US and training in the winter in Pennsylvania could be quite challenging. I was also competing in the Jewish Maccabi Games but that was more for fun. I also competed in show jumping at university at NYU. My athletic career came to an end mostly because I had experienced too many injuries and that was enough for me to eventually stop. By then, I was moving to different countries for different life experiences such as Australia and Paris and my interests took me elsewhere.

Now onto your professional life: how was the story of your career choices and how do you think St. Paul’s helped with that?

Although I didn’t have a natural progression in my career due to the challenges of being hard of hearing, I think St. Paul’s gave me confidence in myself. I remember going to university in the US and the first two years was rehashing a lot of what I had already learned at St Paul’s. So the groundwork was there. Of course, coming from a loving family gave me a lot of support but having confidence in the quality of education I had received from St Paul’s was important in my career.

Once the hearing aids technology vastly improved together with office technology, my career really kicked off but I never doubted that I couldn’t have asked for a better education.

Which university did you attend?

First, I went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and then I transferred to NYU and eventually I ended up at Berkely College in NY.

If you were to give an advice to our Upper 6th pupils, what would it be?

Something I hear a lot is “oh, I was never good at Maths so I can’t go into banking or finance.” However, what I tell them is that if you look at people that actually persevered in their financial careers throughout the years within your age group, it’s not as many as you would think, for different reasons. Especially women. For those that remain, you’ll notice that resilience and willingness to adapt and learn is one of most important traits.

I wasn’t very good academically but I had confidence, resilience, perseverance and drive. When challenges come your way, and there will always be challenges in life, the key is to believe that you will get through it, and will continue to find success, which is what happened to me. I never thought I’d have a career in finance but I found success in what I do, even though I was a late bloomer. My advice to any Pauleans who feel overwhelmed within their career choices, you should be confident in the person you are, backed by the quality of education that you have received and believe that you can do well.

Also, related to the way in which I fell into the banking world, it was all about grabbing the opportunities that come your way. It might not be that you thought you were going to do, but it might be the path into something great.

I have noticed that there is a lot more focus with the school’s alumni and Old Pauleans with a greater engagement to help support the students once they leave the school. This network is an invaluable tool globally which should be leveraged as much as possible. Unfortunately, back in my days we didn’t really have that before the advent of social media. So, it’s fantastic that pupils have access to this resource because the competition in the market is much stronger now than it was 20/30 years ago.

Photo: personal file
Photo: personal file