Sports and Student Athletes


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Student Athletes


My alarm woke me up, screaming incessantly in my ear. It was eight o'clock Saturday morning, and I felt like I had fallen asleep only a few minutes earlier. I rolled out of bed onto the itchy carpet and somehow found my towel and shampoo in the darkness so I could drag myself to the shower. As the steaming water helped wake me up, I began to think about the day I had in front of me.

"Here we go," I thought. "I better make it through this one or I'll be in serious trouble."

It was the 27th, and in under an hour I would be in huge gym with hundreds of people taking the SAT. A mere two hours later, I would have to row my first 2k erg test of the season. My new coach from Germany would be standing over my shoulder, and I knew that those seven minutes would have a huge impact on whether or not I would make the varsity boat that spring. I could not help thinking about how important this day would be for me as I saw in my mind the e-mails from Dartmouth, Harvard, and Brown asking me about my times on the erg, which would determine how much interest they would take in me.

Last minute thoughts on standardized test strategy swirled through my head as I tried to eat my quick breakfast of toast in the dining hall. Micah tried to talk to me about what we would do that night, but my mind was in a haze as I tried to focus on the task ahead. His voice was just background noise, an every once in a while I would nod me head and appear interested in what he had to say, but his words didn't register in my mind.

Before I knew it, we were in Ridgedale. The long rows of desks stretched out before me, and I felt overwhelmed by everything going on around me. I sat down and refocused, realizing that I was getting over-excited about nothing. I tried to calm myself down, but I couldn't help worrying about doing well on the test and proving to everyone around me that I deserved the scholarship I had received to this school.

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Everyone expected me to do well, they didn't even consider that I might not. I could already hear their voices in my head.

"Wow, I beat you! I never thought I would!"

They would act surprised but also excited. I hated the looks on their faces as they would explain to other people that they had beaten the Honors Scholar. I didn't really mind being beaten because I never considered the tests competition against anyone but myself, but I hated being singled out and noticed for my scholarship. I preferred to be noticed only for what kind of person I was, not an amount of money I had received from the school or the GPA I had.

Soon, the test started. Only thirty minutes later, Mr. Reynolds was calling time on the first section. I couldn't focus the way I wanted to. I kept wondering if I would have time to eat lunch after the test was over. I couldn't eat less than two hours before my race, but if I didn't eat I would be at a disadvantage. By the end of the next section, my nerves had calmed, and I felt that maybe, just maybe I would be able to score like I wanted to. However, with each question that I wasn't sure about, my hopes became dimmer, and I began to sweat, thinking about what would happen if I didn't do well. As the third section ended, Bennett came up from behind me.

"How you doing?" he asked.

"Well, I think I'm ok so far, but it's tougher than I thought," I said as I heard a small scoff from behind me and Micah walked up from across the room.

"Oh shut up!" he screeched, "You're a fricking Honors Scholar. What could be so hard about this? I don't even have trouble with these tests."

He laughed, not sensing my anger at what he had said, or seeing my fists clench the way they always do when I'm trying to restrain myself. I said nothing but walked away from him, acting like was going to talk to someone else. I could feel my blood boil in my veins. Ever since I received the scholarship and came to McCallie, I felt that people saw me differently than I saw myself. I had never been viewed as someone who was just a student, one-dimensional without any other areas of interest or expertise. Yet with my new "title" came new stereotypes that I had never experienced before. People I had never met before simply assumed that I was smart, and therefore not a good athlete, not an interesting person, and not fun to be around. People had me labeled as a nerd before they even met me. I wasn't ready for this type treatment, and I hated being viewed so negatively by people who I hoped would become my friends.

My worst experience came on community service day. I went to a day care with a group of guys in my grade freshman year. Case, a day student friend of mine, and I were talking about spring sports. I had played lacrosse for three years in Denver, but when I told that to Case, all I heard was a laugh from behind me.

"Ricky plays lacrosse. I bet he could school you."

I turned to see Ricky and John standing behind us, smirking.

"There is no way you could be good at any sport, Prentice; you're a nerd," John jeered.

I tried to argue, but I was so surprised by what he said that I had no words. I had been considered one of best athletes at my school in Denver, and getting good grades had just been accepted as part of who I was. I had never been called a nerd before in my life, and being directly called one by someone who was almost a total stranger hurt and shocked me. For the rest of the day, I couldn't even look at John, and only by the middle of my junior year have I been able to forget that day through getting to know him better in a church youth group.

Memories such as this one went through my mind for the rest of our short minute break. By the time the next section started, they were out of my mind, though, and I forgot them by the time the test was finished. The second I answered the last question, my mind changed gears. School, classes, and tests were shoved out of my mind, and my race became the number one priority.

When they let us out, I jumped in Zac's convertible BMW, and we sped off down McCallie Boulevard to UTC, where the race would be held. I went inside, looking at my watch to see how much time the two bananas and roll that I had stuffed down my throat for lunch would have to digest. I was worried, the SAT had ended only an hour and forty-five minutes earlier, and the butterflies in my stomach made it feel like I would throw up already. At 2 o'clock, I got on one of the warm-up erg machines and began to loosen up, feeling the tension in my muscles. I realized I was holding my breath and let out a huge gasp. Dan, one of our coaches, came up behind me.

"Relax, Stabler," he said with a laugh, "you haven't even gotten into the warm-up yet. Just calm down and get your muscles moving."

"All right, Stabler, here we go, quick out of the bow with nice long strokes. Breathe easy, come on."

This time it was Mr. Bushbaucher's German accent that I heard behind me. I immediately felt myself tense up, feeling the acute need to impress this man who knew so much. He had come to McCallie from the U.S. Olympic Team and, before that, the German Olympic Team. He watched for a few more seconds before moving on to help coach Anders, who was warming up a few seats away. Somehow, I got my muscles to relax and continued my warm-up for another twenty minutes.

When they called our event, I moved to my assigned erg and tried to calm my nerves. Brad, one of my best friends on and off the team, was my timer. He talked me through the last few minutes.

"All right, here we go, man. This is your piece; you own this!"

I nodded, feeling my stomach turn, and watched the 6'4" Oak Ridge rower warm up next to me.

"Don't pay attention to the other people," he hissed in my ear, "this is your piece and nobody can take it from you. All you have to do is go out and row your best race. If you do that, there is nothing else you need to worry about."

I knew that what he said was true, but I could not help feeling intimidated by the other forty guys, many much bigger than I, lined up in the room.

"Two minutes, gentlemen," boomed Robert Esposeth's voice. Then, "3...2...1...GO!"

My heart raced as I threw my weight back against the handle and began the race. Halfway through, my breath was coming in rapid gasps, and I felt there was no way I could finish. I was already too tired.

"Don't you dare slow down!" Brad screamed in my ear. "You have done too much to go this far and give up." I tried to push harder, but I felt as if there was no strength in my legs. "When we're at Nationals neck in neck with Cincinnati and there are 500 meters left, you'll be happy you went through the pain now."

Brad's words kept me focussed, and I tried to push myself through the pain. Then, as the last 200 meters came, I had no more energy, I raised my stroke rate from thirty-five strokes a minute to thirty-eight, impossibly fast, and tried to hold on and survive the last forty seconds of the race. Each stroke felt harder than the one before it, but then it was done.

When it was over, I could hear Brad from behind. I felt the pats on the back, but nothing was like the pain. My entire body was in agony. My head pounded and my stomach churned. Five minutes later, I still couldn't walk. So, Brad and Tommy carried me over to a table where I promptly threw up every ounce of food and fluid in my stomach into an empty trash can. I felt that I would die that very second. My head throbbed, and every time I tried to move from my seat, I would dry heave into the trash can. Finally, half an hour after my race, I could walk and drink without throwing up. Despite the lingering pain, I was ecstatic. I had gotten second place in the heavyweight division, much better than the fourth place I had aimed for. I was sore but happy, and I felt a sense of achievement as I showed the engraved glass mug I had won to everybody.

"That was awesome, man."

"You tore that up. I never thought you'd pull so well."

"Great job, Prentice. I'm really proud of you."

From all sides I heard the congratulations of parents, teammates, and friends. Even though I knew I deserved little praise, I soaked it up happily. There were no stereotypes, I was not a student, I was the two-seat in the varsity eight. Marc offered to drive me back to the dorm in his new Jetta, and I slumped happily into the soft leather seat. When we got back, I walked up the stairs tired, but happy. I had achieved my goal, and it was worth every second of the pain. As I neared my hallway, Chris, a day student passed me on the stairs.

"What the hell are you doing out of your room?" he asked with a look of disgust.

I just looked at him with eyes as big as dinner plates and mumbled a weak question.

"What?"

"Get in there and do some homework or something," he sneered.

His words practically knocked me off my feet. I was so shocked to hear him actually say them to my face. In the dorm, everyone knew me. Nobody saw me as only a student, or a nerd of any kind. I felt perfectly comfortable there. To be so abruptly accosted caught me totally off guard. I felt as if someone had taken a needle and punctured me, letting all the happiness that I had felt after the race suddenly rush out of my body. It was obvious I had been working out; Sweat soaked my hair, face, shirt, and shorts. Yet, despite my appearance I had still been seen and stereotyped as a student, a boy who did homework, nothing else. I sat down in my old, beat-up recliner, wondering if I would ever rid myself of the label that many people had placed on me from the day I came to McCallie.

"Oh yeah!"

The shout came from behind me. I turned to see Craig walk in my room on his way back from the shower.

"Awesome job today, man. I watched it all from behind you."

I smiled and nodded at him, too tired to be much of a conversationalist. He left, slapping my hand as he walked out the door. However, his few words of encouragement helped change my point of view. I got my towel and shampoo and headed off to the shower, thinking that I had been here only a few hours earlier, even though it felt like I had achieved much more than a day's work. As I thought back over the day, I couldn't shake the image of Chris' sneer as he passed me down the stairs, eerily similar to the treatment I had received from John freshman year. Yet, as I let the warm water clean me and thought about the way my teammates treated me, I realized that it was not Chris' opinion that mattered to me as much as those people whom I truly considered friends. I hated being singled out and stereotyped as a student, but I also realized that as long as I was happy with who I was, and my friends liked me for who I was, it didn't matter how people who didn't know me viewed me. I could always try to show them another side of myself, but unless they were willing to see it, they wouldn't change their minds about the kind of person I was. I cared what they thought of me, of course, but their opinion was far outweighed by more important people. I was satisfied in my self-image, and satisfied with how my true friends viewed me, so it did not matter whether or not anyone labeled me as a student, an athlete, or neither of the two. There would always be people who resented me for my grades, but they did not know the real me. I would always try to shed my stigma as an Honors Scholar. But, if I didn't, I wouldn't be that sad. Although I wish I could be friends with everyone and have the problem disappear altogether, that is idealistic. No relationships that especially mattered to me would change at all if I never changed my image at McCallie.


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