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Balancing competing passions


Inside the lives of scholar-athletes

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Ashley Chinn ‘11, a member of the softball team, sets her alarm for 6:50 a.m., then hits the snooze button two or three times before rising out of bed, rushing to get ready and make it on time to weights at 7:30 at the Arrillaga Family Center.

“It’s definitely hard to get out of bed in the morning, especially when it’s still dark outside,” Chinn said.

At 8:45, after an intense session of bench press and squats, legs heavy and arms weak, she shifts to a lower bike gear and heads to the nearest dining hall to grab a quick breakfast. Then she is off to Communications 1B: Culture, Media, and Society, which begins at 9:30, but she has a difficult time concentrating on the lecture.

“It’s very hard to stay awake,” Chinn said.

She is then immediately off to Chinese, followed by a quick lunch. At 1 p.m., she hurries to the locker room to suit up and darts onto the field for bullpen practice where she works on pitching technique for a little over an hour. She then starts regular team practice, which runs from 2:45 to 5:30.

“It is definitely tiring having a ‘job’ that requires so much physical and mental energy, but I think most athletes are used to it, or get used to it really quickly,” Chinn said.

She is finally able to head back to Stern to eat dinner, shower and start her homework for the evening around 7 p.m.

“One of the hardest things is definitely trying to motivate yourself to do work after a long day of practice, conditioning, and/or weights,” she added, running through her daily schedule. “Because I’m often so physically drained, I just want to sit down and relax or go to sleep early, but that’s not really an option when we still have to keep up with other students.”

Chinn is just one of the 200 to 225 Stanford student-athletes that are admitted to Stanford each year, according to Shawn Abbott, director of undergraduate admission. While their intense coursework is quite similar to that of prestigious schools such as Harvard or Princeton, Stanford athletes must perform at the level of their competitors at athletic powerhouses like USC and the University of Oregon.

Student athletes sometimes have difficulty balancing their competing passions.

“It’s hard when you’re tired all of the time to begin with, and if you have a paper due in a few days but you also have games all weekend, more often than not the paper or assignment is the thing that gets put off in favor of sleeping to prepare for competition,” said Shannon Koplitz ‘10, another member of the softball team. “Five hours a day minimum devoted to your sport can be hard to juggle with the amount of time necessary to also compete in the classroom.”

“[Student athletes] select Stanford because of the merger of world class academics and world class athletics,” said director of athletics Bob Bowlsby. “We expect our student athletes to excel in both areas.”

The athletes do their best to live up to these expectations and sometimes to exceed them.

“As a student-athlete, I can be an active member of the Stanford community both on and off the field,” said Greg Hirshman ‘11, a member of the men’s tennis team.

Hirshman, an economics and mathematics major, has a list of activities that he balances with his academics and athletics. He is an officer for the newly created Stanford Tea Party group, founder and editor of The Cardinal Principle, an official quarterly editorial newspaper with conservative leanings, and member of the Stanford Conservative Society. He volunteers to help disabled tennis players improve their skills, has a 4.002 GPA and still manages to get eight hours and 45 minutes of sleep each night.

“Sometimes it is difficult to balance everything that I do, but strategic planning, time management and getting enough sleep really helps me be successful in my pursuits,” Hirshman said.

Most of the athletes agreed that although they experience a significant amount of pressure, they feel quite privileged to be in their positions. They believe the rewards are greater than the sacrifices they make as student athletes.

“Think about how many people would die to be in our place,” Hirshman said. “Being a part of the Stanford tennis team is a dream come true.”

“It’s the only time in my life I get such an amazing opportunity like this,” added softball player Alissa Haber ‘10.

For Hirshman, academics are a top priority.

“The reward is so great to be able to succeed in the classroom,” he said.

Tyrone Mcgraw ‘10, a member of the track and field team and school record holder in the 60 meter dash, agreed.

“During season, academics are still first, but track and field is a very close second,” he said.

Cecelia Haig ‘11 plays squash, a sport known for boasting one of the highest team GPAs. She said that school is more important, but she still loves her sport.

“School is priority, but if I have a serious assignment due and squash practice will hurt my performance on it, I’ll miss practice,” she said.

But for other athletes, academics don’t necessarily make it to the top shelf.

Chike Amajoyi ‘11, a linebacker on the football team, said that like many of his teammates, he has professional aspirations to go to the NFL, so academics are a secondary concern.

“If I want to pursue my professional career, football is my number-one priority,” he said. “At this point I feel that I have put in far too much work to let an opportunity to play professionally slip by. Academics is important and that’s why I came to Stanford, but I’ve always seen it as a backup plan.”

Haber said she sets her athletics and academics on an equal footing, but she believes one may have a more lasting impact.

“Twenty years from now, I’m not going to care what I got in [my chem class],” she said. “I’m going to remember what kind of season I had.”

But while many athletes said that they put academics and athletics on equal par, they joked that some student-athletes must prioritize their sport because it’s the only reason they are at Stanford. Max Bergen ‘11, who plays for the football team, definitely feels the heat to perform well on the field because he feels that his “scholarship is on the line.”

Officially, every Stanford student is here at least in part because of academics.

“The academic record is still the primary focus of our evaluation for any candidate who applies for admission,” Abbott said. “Any student who applies for admission must demonstrate that they are first academically prepared and competitive as a scholar-athlete.”

The students believe it is their athletic talent on top of their intense academic performance that makes them unique.

“I feel like, as an individual, I provide another element to the diversity that Stanford University was founded on and prides itself in today,” Haber said.