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Balancing act

October 10, 2008


University of Minnesota soccer player Clare Grimwood.

In addition to being a key piece of Minnesota's soccer team this fall, Clare Grimwood is a dedicated student. Last year she was named Academic All-Big Ten.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Student-athletes at the U discuss the challenges of juggling coursework with their sports

By Rick Moore

To an average, casual sports fan, it might appear as if athletes on campus live the life of Riley.

There are the team meals, the scooters at the ready, and the seemingly endless wardrobes of maroon and gold sweats and hoodies. There are the trips to exotic Big Ten locales (if we make the leap for a moment and consider Iowa City and West Lafayette, Indiana, to be exotic). And for certain spectator sports, there can be a fair amount of fame.

But there's much more to the life of a student-athlete than meets the eye. Like the early-morning weight room sessions while other students are sleeping. And the travel time spent reading textbooks or writing papers that need to be turned in early. In fact, participating in a sport and keeping up with class assignments often requires a balancing act worthy of Shawn Johnson... or, more appropriately, Carmelina Carabajal (a Gopher gymnast).

For the most part, student-athletes at the U are an extremely dedicated bunch, adept at juggling academics and athletics and proud of their classroom accomplishments. Six athletes shared their time to talk about the adjustments they've learned to make, the help the U provides them, and what people might be surprised to know about their lives.

Deon Hightower, football

Deon Hightower came to the Gopher football program in 2004 from Mansfield Summit High School in Arlington, Texas. Weather notwithstanding, there was a definite learning curve.

"My biggest adjustment was just the actual workload of the sport," says Hightower, a fifth-year player who has a degree in business and marketing and is now a graduate student in sports management. "I don't think a lot of people realize that there is homework for football. You have to study film, and you've got to know how to balance [that extra work] with your study hours."

He says freshman football players are required to spend 10 hours of time each week studying at the Bierman athletic complex, which helps with the adjustment.

Hightower figures that staying ahead in school keeps him a leg up in his gridiron pursuits. "One of my mottos is that if you take care of everything that's off the field, everything on the field will follow," he says. "If you're not stressing about classes [and things like that], when you go to the hotel on Friday night you'll be able to focus on the task at hand, which is to win the game."

While some athletes choose to wear maroon and gold sweats and hoodies to class, Hightower prefers to keep his identity as an athlete under wraps, more or less. "I want to be perceived as a regular student," he says. "[And] I want to get my education as much, if not more, than the average college student."

What does he think people would be surprised to learn about student-athletes?

"I think one of the most shocking things would be just the fact that every day your day starts at 7 a.m. or 6:30. When the average college student is struggling to get to class at 8 a.m., you've already been up for two hours… You come to class tired, and people think you're tired because you stayed up late, but you went to sleep at 9:00 and you're tired because you just came from a workout."

On the field:
Hightower, a fifth-year senior, notched 70 or more tackles in each of the last two seasons. Heading into this season he was the Gophers' active leader in tackles with 148, and had registered 13.5 tackles for losses and forced four fumbles. Those numbers are continuing to grow; Hightower is one of the leaders on a much-improved Gopher defense.

Clare Grimwood, soccer

Clare Grimwood is a gregarious senior from Eagan, Minnesota, pursuing a bachelor’s in individual studies, which she describes as a program designed for students who know what they want to do after graduation: "Ultimately, I want to be a creative director in an advertising firm."

"I thrive in competitive situations," she adds, "so I think that would be good for me."

Her main adjustment as a freshman was in managing her time and prioritizing her tasks. "I’ve learned you can’t procrastinate as a student-athlete," she says. "With that has come a lot of maturity in terms of getting things done on time and being on time. My responsibility has increased because I’ve been able to manage a lot of different activities on my plate."

She serves on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which gets students involved with volunteer activities like talking with elementary school kids about exercising and eating well. Grimwood also found time to be in sorority for a year.

Like Hightower, she doesn’t typically wear athletic gear to class, even though she has a wardrobe full of Nike swoosh—emblazoned garb. "I really try to keep my student life and my athlete life completely separate," she says, adding that there may be one bad egg from a team and you don’t know how that might affect [a professor’s impression of you] in the classroom.

Grimwood also points out that people generally have no idea how demanding it can be to participate in a sport.

"They would be surprised at the amount of time and effort... and exhaustion that goes into being a student-athlete," she says, and that’s on top of attending class and staying on top of schoolwork. "You have to exert yourself to the extreme to get better at a sport, both physically and mentally."

On the field:
Grimwood is a senior midfielder who has started 55 of 57 career games for the Gophers heading into the season. Last year she was third on the team in scoring and tied for second with five goals. She was also named to the Big Ten All-Tournament Team and was Academic All-Big Ten.

Luke Silovich, men's track

Luke Silovich admits to struggling a bit in his early days as a student-athlete.

"I didn't adjust too well right away," Silovich says, "because it was nonstop every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. It was classes, practice, eat, then study, and then repeat pretty much every day. [But] once you get used to the schedule, it's really not that bad."

He found his groove about midway through the semester, and his guide for success includes getting his papers done about a week before they're due so that he can revise them later, and not on deadline. "Then if I have a test to study for, I can do that a couple of days in advance," he says.

Silovich, like all of the other athletes interviewed, stressed the assistance the U offers its athletes though its academic advisers and learning specialists, and adds that "our academic strengths are better than some other conferences."

He has no reason to hide the fact he's an athlete; in fact, his major, kinesiology, draws a good share of student-athletes.

"It leads to a lot of good conversations that go on in class," Silovich says. "[And] I've never had an instance where a professor has been harder on me or belittle me because I'm a student-athlete."

The track team faces a particular challenge in the spring, when the Big Ten outdoor meet coincides with finals week at the U. Since the athletes need to leave on Wednesday evening, they're forced to scramble to complete all their finals in three days instead of five or six, he says.

Last year, he says a proctor had to monitor about 20 athletes who had to take exams just prior to competing. "There would be guys taking a final for two and a half hours in the morning, and after that heading out to the track to do their race for the Big Tens," he says. "We'd be at the hotel lobby right next to the continental breakfast, taking tests. Not exactly ideal."

Silovich says people would be surprised to learn how much track athletes hate walking around campus, given the amount of time they already spend training. "You can tell by the scooters," he jokes.

He also notes that "you're kind of friends with the people you run against, whether [they're from] St. Thomas or Purdue. It's a pretty friendly environment out there."

(Silovich called a few minutes later with a clarification, so that he wouldn't lose any favor with his teammates. Yes, he says, he does pull for friends on other teams, just not all teams: "I do cheer for everyone, except for Wisconsin.")

On the track:
Silovich is a hurdler, competing in the 60-meter hurdles indoors and 110-meter hurdles outdoors, along with the 4 X 100-meter relay In 2008, he clocked a season-best time of 14.70 at the Big Ten outdoor championships, and in 2007 he was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.

Ashley Ellis-Milan, women's basketball

Ashley Ellis-Milan didn't have to venture far when she headed off to college, coming from St. Paul Central High School. But the journey had its adventures, just the same.

"Time management was my biggest thing. It was hard for me to balance basketball, school, and trying to have friends outside of basketball," says Ellis-Milan. "And as a student-athlete, the classes move a little bit faster."

She used her academic adviser in athletics a lot. "She really helped me with a lot of stuff. She made me have a weekly plan... and always asked if I needed help, which was a huge plus," she says. "I feel like I have a pretty good balance, but it took me a while to get to this balance; it just didn't happen overnight."

Her instructors in elementary education are well aware that she may need to miss class. "Most of my teachers—probably 90 percent of them—support women's basketball. They follow the team and they know who I am, so that's cool."

Ellis-Milan thinks some people might be surprised to know that she and her teammates are not stuck up, and "and we do appreciate a lot of what we receive."

"We're always thankful," she adds, "for our fans and our booster club. A lot of [athletes] don't have that, and we don't take it for granted."

On the court:
Ellis-Milan has been a two-year starter at center, and will share captain duties this year with Emily Fox and Brittany McCoy. Last year she started all 32 games, averaged 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection. Her cousin is Linda Roberts, a former star for the Gophers whose retired number hangs from the rafters of Williams Arena.

Kyla Roehrig, volleyball

Senior Kyla Roehrig came to the U from Papillion, Nebraska, which is on the outskirts of Omaha. And she comes from an extremely athletic family; her father was a basketball player at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and her sister, Kelli, was a basketball player on Michigan State's team that finished second in the nation in 2005.

Like the other athletes interviewed, she faced a big adjustment in time management when she came to the U, particularly in trying to schedule classes with weightlifting sessions and practice. She's double majoring in business and marketing and human resource development, and a spate of evening classes means she's had to wake up early to do homework.

But she's had a good experience with her professors, even when having to miss classes for team trips. "I've had all great instructors that were helpful to the situation," she says. "They're helpful, but they're not going to give you extra benefits. You have to figure out how to manage everything."

"On weekends you can't not do homework," she adds. "You have to schedule time."

Speaking of weekends, Roehrig has had to deal with another inconvenience in the spring, when coaches bring recruits to campus and expect the players to help out with the show-and-tell.

"Sometimes, it'll be Friday and they'll say, 'Hey, we have a recruit coming in—you need to be around from 4:00 to 10:00 and hang out with them,'" she says.

She also admits to being something of an academic perfectionist, not resting until all her work is finished. "I have to have the feeling that I'm going to work as hard as I can" to make everything perfect, she says.

On the court:
Roehrig is a senior outside hitter who has been a consistent performer for the Gophers during her career. She has averaged more than 3 kills per game over the past two seasons, and is also a strong blocker. In 2007 she finished second on the team with 361 kills and third with 108 blocks.

Adam Reichow, men's gymnastics

Adam Reichow is a junior in eligibilty and a senior in the classroom, with a double major in supply chain and operations management and a minor in leadership.

He points out that for gymnastics, the training schedule is actually lighter in college than in high school, due to NCAA regulations.

"At Bierman, the Athletic Department does a really good job of making sure you're prepared, so that the adjustment from high school to college is smooth and effortless," he says. And the coaches "make sure you know what's available to you and how to get the most out of your college experience."

He jokes about athletes and their ubiquitous scooters and mopeds. "It shaves probably 15 to 20 minutes off your day," he says. "In a tightly packed schedule, you need that time."

Even though people give him flack, he responds, "Listen, I don't need five workouts a day; I already have two or three. Lay off."

What would people be surprised to learn about student-athletes?

For starters, "That student-athletes on campus actually graduate at a higher rate than the general population of the University of Minnesota," he says.

"Our athletic department here is one big community. We all hang out together. We all share one thing in that we love athletics and love the University of Minnesota... And sometimes we all wish we could be just regular students... Sometimes it looks so fun.

"We don't get to go out on Thursday nights, when you hear screaming in Dinkytown," he adds. "During the semester that we're competing, we're sitting in a hotel room every other Saturday.

"We don't get to experience some of the typical college experiences. The envy goes both ways sometimes, and I don't think people understand that."

In the gym:
Reichow had a sensational freshman season, earning All-America honors in two events. He finished sixth in the vault at the NCAA meet with a score of 8.975, and was national runner-up on floor with a score of 9.550. (The gymnast he finished second to at the 2007 NCAA national championship—Jonathan Horton of Oklahoma—went on to win a silver and a bronze medal at the summer Olympics in Beijing.)

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