From classroom to podium: The journey of US student athletes to the Olympics

Student athletes heading to the Olympics in Paris this summer face a monumental task training for their sport while completing college courses.

Universities will be sending scores of students to the games, representing the U.S. and other countries, which requires coordination from coaches and exceptional dedication and time management skills from students in order to complete an athlete’s dream while also earning a degree.

While student athletes might get some leniency from professors, there is otherwise little special treatment for the ones going to the Olympics, coaches and hopefuls for the Paris games tell The Hill.

“It definitely adds a layer of complexity,” said Fred Richard, a rising junior at the University of Michigan, who was in Minneapolis this week with hopes to qualify for the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team, when asked about juggling school and training.

“But I have a really strong support team around me, from my family to coaches to training staff to teammates to career management to social media production. So together we make it all happen fairly seamlessly,” added Richard, who is majoring in business studies.

Dozens of student athletes will be heading to Paris this summer to compete in sports from swimming to rowing, with the games running from July 26 to Aug. 11. The athletes are at varying stages in their academic careers, with some still early in their college studies and others with brand-new diplomas in their hands.

“It definitely was not easy. It took a lot of time management, a lot of sleepless night,” said Katelyn Abeln, who just graduated from Ohio State University and will be competing with the Women’s Air & Sport Pistol team in Paris. “Yeah, a lot of having to travel for competitions and working with my professors and classmates. It was definitely not the easiest thing. But of course, making an Olympic team is not easy either so I was pretty adamant about continuing to get my education while making the Olympic team. I didn’t want to put anything on hold.”

At the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) said more than 1,000 of its past, current and future student athletes participated, representing more than 100 countries and earning some 282 medals. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, 1,018 current and former NCAA members competed, including 168 current students in 15 different sports.

The players sometimes get some leeway with their classes as professors work around the athletes’ schedules and when they may be away at competitions, but it is not common practice for those aiming for the Olympics to get any special privileges on top of that.

“There really isn’t a big difference between our offerings for our student athletes and those who are striving to be Olympians,” said Bill Dorenkott, director of men’s and women’s swimming and diving at Ohio State. “In our particular situation at Ohio State, we’re fortunate in that we attract a lot of kids who aspire to represent their country so we’ve really designed a program around those student athletes.”

Athletes differ widely in their workouts and practices, but their academic requirements largely stay the same.

“They have very specific workouts where they’re doing special workouts with a kid because he’s demonstrating that he has the athletic ability to compete at the next level. Academically, there are the same requirements within the classroom,” said Lonnie Greene, director of cross-country and track and field at the University of Kentucky

Once an athlete makes it on an Olympic team, coaches have a balancing act of helping them train, do well in school and coordinate with the national team.

“And when it comes to the internationals, it requires having a good working relationship with their federation and so their home coach, their federation, our staff, has to work together to put the student athlete in the best possible position to succeed. Some countries are more friendly than others when it comes to collaborative work. But we’ve established a pretty good reputation, nationally and internationally for developing kids,” Dorenkott said.

And the assistance does not end at campus boundaries, with some coaches traveling to the games with their athletes to support them on their journey.

Emil Milev, head coach of the pistol team at Ohio State, said he will be going to Paris “to support them all the way through their practices and matches.”

“I mean, it’s sort of simultaneous nerve-wracking, but I really want them to succeed and to do well. But everything is in their hands,” Milev said. “It’s a privilege and it’s going to be kind of — for the first time being as a coach on that stage and it’s going to be really exciting, I know, no matter the outcome.”

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