The NCAA’s longtime trademark slogan stresses that most of the roughly 500,000 college athletes will turn professional in something other than sports.
A very small percentage, however, go pro in a different sport. A few of those rare athletes will compete in the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, representing a less traditional part of the important Olympic pipeline that is college sports.
A recent episode of the social series featured two such athletes: Elana Meyers Taylor, a former George Washington softball player who qualified for her fourth Olympics in bobsleigh, and Jake Brown, a former tri-sport athlete in St. Olaf (cross-country, Nordic skiing and track and field) who qualified for his first Olympics in biathlon on the US team.
Talent identification camps open the door for many of these athletes to pursue an Olympic dream in a new sport. For these types of athletes, like Kelly Curtis of Springfield College, the connection between their college and Olympic sports is different than that of a hockey player who has spent years on college ice, for example. Still, there is significant overlap in how these Olympians say they benefited from their collegiate experience in their pursuit of the Olympics.
Leadership, for starters.
Meyers Taylor was captain of her George Washington softball teams, and now she pilots a four-person bobsled that can travel over 90 miles per hour.
“One of the most important things is that as a bobsled driver you are a leader in your sport. You lead a team, you manage a team. I was in that leadership position (at George Washington) and I really learned it there,” she said. “Leading this team really taught me how to work with other people, how to manage a team, how to manage different personalities.
Andrew Blaser, a Team USA skeleton athlete who was a decathlete and heptathlete at Idaho, shared a similar reflection from his college experience. Specifically, he noted the ability to work with different people and coaches as a benefit of his time in Idaho.
“You learn those communication skills and you learn things that you can take with you everywhere. I get a lot of compliments on how I interact with a coach, but I learned those skills through my interactions with my coaches. said Blaser, who also coaches the high school track. “I think there’s a lot that NCAA athletics brings to the table outside of just competition, and there’s a lot that I will carry with me forever.”
Blaser noted a few other lessons about time and stress management instilled in college athletes. That goes especially for multi-sport college athletes like Brown and Michigan Tech alum Deedra Irwin, also a biathlete for Team USA.
“For college athletics, the most important thing is being able to balance everything. Whether you’re a multi-sport athlete…balancing that with your studies is the biggest challenge every athlete faces, and every student knows that. That doesn’t change. nothing will change, even when you’re a ‘professional’ playing your sport full-time,” Brown said. “There are so many things in life that you have to balance and you have to be able to prioritize. Being a college athlete gives me a bit of a leg up on other people who came straight out of high school and have tried to keep doing biathlon or cross-country skiing, it allowed me to take a step back, to find a little more balance in my life, to know which aspects of training I should prioritize, and even when it is important to rest.”
Meyers Taylor echoed Brown’s experience.
“In bobsledding, you have a lot of different moving parts all the time, and there’s always a lot to do. But that has nothing to do with what it’s like to be an NCAA athlete when you pull 18 credit hours and you’ve got a study hall and you’re on the training ground 20+ hours a week and you’ve got games and all that kind of stuff,” she said . “You handle a lot, and I like to think my experience as an NCAA student-athlete has definitely helped me.”
Blaser said his time as a decathlete and heptathlete taught him a lot about perseverance, which is key to taking on any new sport in an Olympic pursuit. Brittany Bowe, a former Florida Atlantic women’s basketball player and three-time Olympian in speed skating, agreed.
“Going through four years of college basketball has definitely strengthened my spine,” she said. “My four years of basketball really taught me to be resilient and overcome obstacles.”
These obstacles are a little different for each person and each sport. Blaser recalls learning to pole vault, an event he never tried until college, and how he took that experience with him. Now he’s running the event at the high school level, allowing him to reflect on how he’s matured through the process.
“It’s quite funny for me, those 4 and a half years of learning at university really took off and played a really big part in my life. You make a lot of mistakes when you’re learning to jump. You break a pole. You’re going to take off a pole,” he said. “It kind of taught me a bit more about tenacity and respect for the sport in general. It’s really easy to walk away from skeleton. It costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of time and you hit lots of walls going over 80 miles per hour. All of that kind of prepared me to get through this.
Likewise, Blaser said his ability to stay calm after a bad run or turn stems from his time on the track.
“I’m very used to being at a higher level of athleticism, and I’m used to always having another shot,” he said. “When you go through the decathlon you can have a really bad event, but you know you’re going to have a good one next. And I feel like it has a lot to do with the skeleton. When I have a bad race or even a wrong turn, I keep my cool as I go down the trail to get back in line and back to where I need to go to accelerate my sled.
“One of the things I’ve learned with the decathlon is that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay not to be perfect. But we’re looking for consistency, not perfection. is a thing with the skeleton…consistency is important It happens from repetition and this (lesson) came from the opportunity I had to walk the track every day for 4 1/2 years at the university.”