A Winning Combination for Mount Holyoke's Student-Athletes
By Janet Tobin
These students, and hundreds of their MHC classmates, share a drive to exercise body as well as mind, to excel as athletes and as students.
What does it mean to be a student-athlete at Mount Holyoke? The hallmarks are training long, competing hard, and maintaining strenuous schedules in order to balance academics and athletics. During their four years here, these dedicated young women gain strength physically and mentally, increase self-confidence, and become leaders by applying lessons learned in the classroom and laboratory, and on the playing field, in the pool, and on horseback. As student-athletes, they continue a Mount Holyoke tradition of mental and physical vitality that extends back to the days of Mary Lyon.
Lyon required Mount Holyoke's young ladies to walk a mile before breakfast, run up stairs, do calisthenics in the hallways, and complete one hour of domestic work each day. Firm in her belief that those who enjoy bodily idleness enjoy sin, Lyon made physical education a requirement. While most people of her era believed that physical activity drained energy from women's brains, Lyon contended that exercise enhanced women's academic growth.
Today, approximately 20 percent of MHC students participate in a varsity sport, hundreds of students play at the club or intramural level, and 70 percent of students voluntarily take more physical education courses than are required. It seems fitting that MHC teams are known as the Lyons.
Physical education at Mount Holyoke has come a long way since Lyon's students hauled coal for heat and to gain strength. Whether a student is competing on one of MHC's fifteen intercollegiate teams, playing in an intramural Ultimate Frisbee competition, taking a yoga class, or representing the College at an NCAA championship, physical education is part of her MHC experience. Participation in athletics enables students to enjoy themselves, stay fit, and learn lifetime skills, according to Director of Athletics Laurie Priest.
Women here learn to have positive feelings about their bodies and use sports as an emotional release and social outlet. Courtney Scherpa '00, who plays varsity volleyball and helps coordinate intramural athletics, believes that students reap rewards from playing sports at any level. "It's great to see students who may not have the time or skill to do varsity sports participating in intramurals," she says. "They have a lot of fun."
No matter what their level of participation, MHC athletes coordinate sports with many areas of academic and extracurricular life. Although their lifestyles might seem frenetic to those who see them rushing from practice to class to lab, these students thrive on busy schedules.
When Amanda Salb arrived here, she quickly learned to budget her time. "Athletics has given me a purpose," she says. "I can't slack off. I have to stay focused." Rugby Club cocaptain Elizabeth Frechette '00 noted, "The more you have to do, the more you get done." That was true for Valorie Burkholder '97 too. She completed her senior thesis at 5 am, one hour before the deadline and two hours before leaving for a crew race in Pennsylvania. "I learned to be efficient with my time," noted the physics major, who must have perfected the art. She graduated summa cum laude, and her thesis earned highest honors. Now pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Arizona, Burkholder finds herself far less efficient without crew.
Varsity athletes often have the most demanding schedules, and their lives are intricate balancing acts. During a typical week, Meredith Garey '99, captain of the cross-country track team, runs about forty miles and studies at least forty hours, efforts that have resulted in her designation as a New England Women's Eight Conference scholar-athlete, an academic all-American, and a seven sisters scholar-athlete. Off the track, she serves as a student adviser and teaching assistant, and last semester enrolled in a natural and human environment program in New Zealand.
To achieve this kind of equilibrium, student athletes must often take stock of shifting priorities. Like Garey, Wynatte Chu never had trouble focusing on her studies while she devoted herself to her sport-until she decided to become a dentist. Facing her dental entrance examinations, professional school applications, and a heavy course load this year, Chu decided to cut back on a successful riding career that has taken her around the globe. Next year, her first in dental school, she anticipates not riding for the first time in seventeen years.
Whether they want help with a difficult decision, tips on technique, or a shoulder to lean on, MHC athletes often turn to their coach. A mixture of mentor, friend, and teacher, coaches work, play, and travel with their teams and form close relationships with athletes. "C. J. treats us like one of her kids or one of her friends. I can talk to her about anything," commented Chu about equestrian team coach C. J. Law. Law responds, "There are things that I can learn from Wynatte and things she can learn from me; we play off each other." Crew coach Jeanne Friedman keeps in touch with team members after they graduate and has a stream of students in and out of the small office she shares with her dog, Cedar. Friedman says that she often serves as a sounding board for students and says having an older, more mature ear can sometimes offer a different perspective to her students. "She's always there for her rowers and sees the best in everyone," Burkholder said of Friedman.
When we read about college athletes these days, more often than not the stories revolve around academic problems, recruiting violations, and athletes leaving school early to turn professional. It's enough to make even diehard fans wonder if student-athletes are a thing of the past. But at Mount Holyoke, they are doing well in the classroom and on the scoreboards.
Amanda Salb's photo by Ted Warren