When I started writing this blog I had the idea of bringing more athlete’s voices than just mine to these posts. My goal was to create a general picture of exactly how post-secondary athletes balance their lifestyles when confronted with work or school obligations. In my case, I cannot explain what it is like to be part of a school team, live on campus, and pursue athletics with a team. For this post I asked two friends who are varsity athletes at the University of Victoria to share their thoughts with me on what it is like to be a school athlete. They are Alex Nemethy the runner, and Avalon Wasteneys the rower, both full-time, first year student athletes.
I am fascinated when I analyze the teams and environments that Alex and Avalon are in. The running and rowing teams at UVic are both national powers, and so the training and psychological environments should be extremely well monitored and fostered by the coaches. Since Alex and Avalon are both in their first year with these new teams, and self-described as being; “the slowest guy on the team,” by Alex and “completely new to the sport,” by Avalon, it was very eye-opening to see what sort of treatment they were receiving from their teams. I was interested in answering the question: “What about the team is going to transform these two athletes from ‘good’ to ‘great’ in these sports like many athletes before them? What is the most valuable aspect of the team?”
Alex Nemethy is an old friend of mine from when I lived in Smithers. Born and raised in Vanderhoof, Alex took up running and skiing from a young age under the coaching eye of his parents. He quickly developed a very active lifestyle, and enjoys skiing on the frozen lake that borders his property in the winter. He ski races when he has the opportunity and he was a very avid racer through grade school, but now running at UVic has taken priority. Alex is a very positive, relaxed person, and he has fully embraced his new life of running and studying, something he considers to be “living the athlete’s dream”.
Alex is in the engineering program at the University of Victoria, but he wants to spend as much time as he can running. Normally his program involves taking 6 courses at once. But, because 6 courses is overwhelming for any student, never mind a student athlete, he decided to take only 4 courses, a decision which was supported by school councilors as soon as he told them he was a varsity athlete. The decision has paid off, Alex is able to manage the 4 courses with his training schedule. On a regular day Alex will wake up at 7:00, go for a 20-40 minute run, go to classes for the day, go for a run with his team in the afternoon, and then go home for dinner and homework. He has time to power through his hardest workouts on weekends, complete his homework, and occasionally show up at a party to decompress. While drinking would be detrimental to his cause, it is a nice change of pace for Alex to at least get out and socialize after a long day, and it is one of the perks of living on-campus. A few nights Alex has been stuck doing homework past midnight, but he is happy to say it hasn’t been common, he has found good balance in his lifestyle.
Alex has a good peer group in his running team. He says everyone in the team is going through the same stress, the same fight for balance between sport and school, and he is inspired by their energy. He receives support from more than just his teammates. Because he is a recruited athlete to the team he pays a $250 team fee and has his travel expenses covered by the Varsity program. Alex has access to free physio, a hydrotherapy room, and a beautiful multimillion-dollar sports complex known as CARSA. These perks do come with the price of tuition and hard work.
Alex says his experience in Victoria has been very positive. The only drawbacks he can find are the rowdy parties and lack of vegetables in campus food. He loves training and racing in a social environment. He has the support of many of his professors when he misses class and a strong school-athletics program to look after him.
I was able to attend a training session with Alex’s running team. The whole team treated me very well. I met the senior athletes who were training for national medals and I was impressed by how well they led the team despite being focused on their personal training. For example, the oldest runner there had an entirely different workout than us but he spent as much time as he could with the team, socializing with everyone and asking me how I liked my skiing and if I was considering running at UVic. This year I’d be too slow to make the team for distance running, but the team was very friendly to me while they ran my pants off. I was truly a spoiled guest for not being left in the dust by them. Because everyone on the team was on different schedules for the week, what I got to witness was a group of very collaborative athletes who supported each other in our warmup, long run, and intensity workout while being attentive to their own needs. I was impressed by how they managed to stick together as a team and how friendly they were to myself and each other. I met no snobs, something which I have experienced a lot of in other running circles, and everyone seemed to be great friends.
The second athlete I interviewed was Avalon Wasteneys. Avalon is a Vancouver Island native from the Campbell River area and has found national success as a cross-country skier. This summer she made the difficult decision to switch sports from skiing to rowing. A decision she said was motivated by her desire for a new training and racing experience. She got what she was looking for, Avalon is loving the massive change in schedule, sport, and large team she is surrounded by in Victoria. She knows now that she wants to stay in rowing throughout University.
When I spoke with her she was drinking a Frappuccino and had just finished a nap. Her schedule involves waking up at 4:50 in the morning, leaving campus at 5:20 to be on the water by 6:00, and returning to campus by 8:15. If she has an 8:30 class she has to sprint to it. Her training is as rigorous as skiing or running. At this point in her season, she normally completes a myriad of intervals ranging between half an hour in length at a steady pace to minute-or-less blasts of power. Intervals are either timed sets or distance repeats up to 12 kilometres. She has found this intensity training especially difficult to do in a new sport.
Avalon often naps in between class because she needs to catch up on sleep before she can focus at night and do her homework. She was enrolled in 5 courses initially, but has made a “healthier” decision to take 4. On Thursdays and Mondays her schedule is lighter, which has been important for keeping up with homework. If Avalon were to make senior varsity in the coming years she would need to take 3 or 4 courses and train 12 times per week.
The rowing team has 4 tiers; Senior Varsity, Junior Varsity, Freshman, and Novice. Avalon is a novice rower because she has just walked on to the team with no previous experience. Freshmen are rowers recruited to the university from high school, and for now Avalon must train to be fast enough to make the Freshman boat. From there she will have to train and push harder to have a shot at making Junior and Senior Varsity boats. When I asked her if competing for spots on a race boat detracts from the team atmosphere she assured me that her Novice team is very supportive of one another. She went on to tell me that the men’s Varsity boats had made a pact with each other to refrain from drinking during the entire competition season in order to improve their overall performance. I was left with the impression that UVic rowers put the good of the team over personal issues. She remarks:
“We are literally all in the same boat, if we are fighting with each other we won’t be fast… we can’t nag each other about poor technique, because it might be ourselves that is the reason for the boat being slow, there are so many factors, it is hard to pin a slow boat on one mistake”.
Avalon’s attitude perfectly captures the ideology of having a big team, where many diverse individuals can work together to make a successful performance. It is evident that the coaches at UVic teach their athletes to work together, which is crucial for success with any training partner in any sport.
Avalon, like Alex, benefits from being enrolled in a varsity sport. She has to pay about $400 to be on the team, and then receives subsidized travel costs when travelling for competition. As she climbs the ladder in skill she will receive more monetary support, and more one-on-one attention from coaches. Because rowing is a large program with lots of depth she receives similar support from professors and councillors as Alex does. She too, has access to the fancy sports complex known as CARSA where she spends many hours “staring at the same spot on the wall or counting bricks,” while working out on a rowing machine.
Avalon has found no fatal flaws in her new sport other than having constantly blistered hands from hours of training. She supposes “I could ask a Senior Varsity athlete and I’m sure they could give you a list. But for now I am the wrong person to ask.” After a few minutes of consideration she says that there is a higher chance of injury when compared with skiing. “The coach isn’t always focused on you individually when you are making technique mistakes, and I am using my muscles in a new way, so I have to be careful and listen to my body when I feel a pain that I haven’t encountered in skiing”. Unfortunately, she has yet to get access to free physio through the team, which will come with moving up the skill levels. Avalon recognizes over the next few years that she will have to shift to “being a 24/7” athlete and the training will start to wear on her more, but for now she is enjoying her new experience without regrets.
I was really happy for Alex and Avalon when I heard about how well their new sport is treating them. I was able to conclude that a supportive training environment and school are two crucial aspects of an athlete’s success at university sport. It is evident that having a successful team comes from having a good training environment; which is a big focus of my ski club. A positive training environment is especially important in skiing where many young kids drop out of racing because they don’t like the isolation they feel in an individual sport. The more my club can be accommodating of all types of young skiers, the more we can build depth of athletes in the older ages with a wide variety of talents. My club should strive to grow to a senior team as large as the Alex’s Uvic running team, where 20-odd middle distance and long distance runners make up the 2015 National Champion Cross Country Running Team.
It is clear that Alex and Avalon have found a great university to support their sports, and they are obviously enjoying themselves a lot. Varsity Sports are a good program to support athletes, especially at the University of Victoria. Their stories make me wish that I had taken 3 courses this year, and skied with school full-time. I realize now that skiing could easily have university Varsity teams as well. That will be addressed in my next post…