Varsity sports at Carnegie? Why bother?

When the name Carnegie Mellon University is mentioned, the first thing people think of isn’t usually sports teams or dedicated student athletes. The truth is, at the end of the year, there won’t be too many Tartans in the NFL or NBA draft or competing at the Olympics. So, you may ask, what’s the point? Student athletes at Carnegie Mellon have a particularly demanding daily schedule. Not only do they have the countless hours of studying typical for a Carnegie Mellon student, but they have two-plus hours of practice every day, extra weight training and conditioning at least twice a week, and weekend trips or early Saturday morning alarms that cut into their social lives. They are stressed to the limit, putting their bodies at risk for injury and illness. If professional sports are not even an option, why risk it?

Coach Andy Girard recruited me to play tennis at Carnegie Mellon. We started optional practice during orientation week, playing several hours a day. Season started and we traveled to a few matches here and there, and I thought this wouldn’t be too bad. The winter season came and we practiced indoors from 9–11 p.m., sacrificing crucial study hours. That was just the winter. During our hectic spring, we practiced two hours a day, and sometimes for conditioning we ran afterward. We traveled to matches just about every other weekend, and even had to miss Carnival. As the season came to a close the weekend between finals, after a 5–3 loss to Washington and Lee on our home courts to qualify for nationals, I sat in a circle with my teammates. As I sat there, looking around campus, tired as could be from pulling several all-nighters to finish my studying, I realized for the first time in my tennis career that I had never once throughout the year questioned why I was a student athlete. The friendships I developed with those girls around me, and the pride and passion we had representing our school on the tennis courts heavily outweighed the work we put in throughout the year. Memories of the trips we took spun through my mind; our week-long spring break trip in California, the weekend away from Carnival, and the various other social occasions we missed stood out as exciting bonding times with my team, not as things I missed because of tennis.

During the summer after my first year, I developed an injury to my right shoulder. My range of motion was slightly limited, and my strength weakened. I was severely disappointed, and couldn’t imagine not being a part of the tennis team. When the doctor told me it was my decision whether or not to play because my shoulder wouldn’t get much worse, I was all for it. I told my coach I could only participate in doubles because it demanded less of my shoulder than playing singles, and he trusted me to tell him when I had enough. The excitement of the successful season and the endless encouragement from teammates to succeed on and off the court was enough for me to make it through the end of the year. But when I saw the doctor this past summer, he wasn’t so sure I had made the right decision. Though I had been able to stay on the court before, he wasn’t so sure I would ever get to experience that again. I underwent an experimental procedure to help fix my shoulder, and to my luck and the doctor’s astonishment, it worked. After some therapy, and a little bit of pain, I am back on the tennis court participating with my team.

However, not all people are quite so lucky. Sometimes, passion for the sport and for the team just isn’t enough to keep student athletes on the field. Luckily, Carnegie Mellon has excellent athlete support. Each team meets with a nutritionist who understands the demands of their sport. Specific dietary guidelines are explained to student athletes in hopes of filling their bodies with the proper nutrients needed to keep their bones and muscles healthy under rigorous demands. A sports psychologist also meets with the teams. He discusses how to cope with the demands of being a student athlete and how to develop time-management skills and other strategies to be the best on the field and in the classroom. Strength and conditioning coach Kevin Schultz has also dedicated time to surveying student athletes about which muscle groups they feel are most prone to injury. He develops a special workout including agility exercises and weight training techniques to develop, strengthen, and rehabilitate these muscle groups for each team.

The demands of a student athlete are incredible, but the Athletics Department is doing its best to offer the necessary programs to allow their student athletes to feel that passion and excitement on the field while still having the energy and time to perform in the classroom. Perhaps that’s why Carnegie Mellon athletic teams are comprised of UAA Champions, National Champions, and All-Americans while still as a whole maintaining a higher GPA than the general student body.