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Going the Distance

By Helen Lee ’03

Being a student at Smith is a lot like running a race. Whether I am in a classroom at Seelye or racing at Vassar or Williams, I constantly face new hurdles. Confronting fears, taking risks, setting and achieving goals are all aspects of being both a student and an athlete. And when I worry about failing academically, I draw courage from my athletic endeavors. If I can race week after week with a sea of runners half my age, often in scorching heat, and make it to the finish line, I
can pass a nasty statistics final, participate in the dreaded group research project and write a 30-page paper on the nocturnal mating rituals of urban cockroaches.

When I tried out for the track and cross-country teams in 1999 I had many concerns. The last time I had been on a team was before members of the incoming class of 2006 were born, and I had never been a distance runner. In the beginning, my body ached and I frequently felt overwhelmed as I tried to juggle academics with athletics. However, over time I learned that if I woke at 5 a.m. each week-day, I could squeeze into the week a total of 20 more hours of precious study time before daily classes began at 9 a.m. And if I went to sleep by 10 p.m., I would have enough energy each week to participate in my three classes, complete my homework assignments, spend two-and-a-half hours at practice five days a week and eight hours at meets on Saturdays, hold two jobs, do research for my professors, clean my apartment (occasionally), pay my bills, volunteer for different college events, maintain my marriage and occasionally eat!

Learning to take risks is part of everyday life for the 275 student athletes here on campus. Day after day we sweat, laugh and cry. We learn that hard work, commitment and discipline build stamina and endurance. With guidance and support from our coaches we learn how to compete and to push through our comfort zones and surpass our expectations. Like many of my teammates, I must explore new courses, whether in the classroom or in a race. As an athlete I will not improve if I race only on my home course and likewise as a student I will not grow if I choose only classes that I am comfortable with. Taking risks brings rewards and also surprises, as I discovered last spring when I took my first science class in 20 years and promptly fell in love with neuroscience. And after decades of failed attempts at swimming, I finally plunged into the deep end—at the urging of my enthusiastic swimming instructor, Karen Klinger—and learned. I doubt I would have taken these risks had I not been in the habit of taking risks as an athlete.

Other challenges await me as a student/athlete. Perhaps like many of my friends, I obsess about grades and race times and forget to focus on learning. During one race I ran my heart out, but as I raced across the finish line, the clock showed my time to be four seconds slower than my previous week’s race, which I had run more conservatively. Unperturbed, I tried harder the next week. As I dashed past the finish line, the clock again recorded a slower time than I had hoped. By the third week I vowed to work even harder, and once more hurled myself past the finish line. Exhausted, I stared at the uncooperative clock and collapsed into tears. On the rambunctious bus ride home I heard my teammates laughing and celebrating, while I sat alone and pondered what I had done wrong. By the time we arrived back at Ainsworth Gym I realized my real errors. By looking only to the clock and to my race times to validate my hard work, I had ignored the other areas where I had improved in each race. Similarly, when I look only at the mistakes I have made on an exam or fixate on grades, I am also forgetting the bigger picture. Grades and race times do not always reflect the quality of an experience.
Like many student athletes, my teammates are the reason I love being a Smithie. Without them I would, like many of my fellow Adas, forget to take the time to enjoy life. As older students, we have a passion for learning that is often all-consuming. However, my wonderful teammates have inspired me to participate fully in the richness of campus life. Whether it is apple picking on Mountain Day, performing in hilarious Rally Day skits with forty other student athletes, or running through Main Street dressed as Vikings on Halloween, this effervescent group of women has taught me that working hard and playing hard go hand in hand.

“Sports is not extracurricular; it’s part of what you learn at Smith,” says Director of Athletics Lynn Oberbillig. Students do not simply stop learning because they have left the classroom. Like my professors in the classroom, my coach Carla Coffey also teaches me how to strive for and achieve excellence. After I graduate from Smith, I will still carry the vital skills and lessons that I learned from being in the classroom and from being on a sports team.

As I enter my senior year and the final furlong, I reflect on the past three years. When I arrived at Smith I wanted to find meaning beyond the classroom and to participate fully in student life. My longing to bond with the younger students coupled with my desire to challenge my mind and body brought me to the playing fields. Although I have never won a race and I am not one of the fastest runners, I was thrilled to be elected co-captain of the track and cross-country teams by my teammates. As I celebrate my own victories and the victories of my team, I am deeply grateful to the many supporters along the way, particularly my husband, Patrick, who provided the foundation upon which I was able to build and grow. Today I am mentally and physically stronger and more alive than I have ever felt. Returning to my studies and to sports at this stage in my life has inspired me to passionately believe that women’s minds and bodies are powerful and wonderful forces at any age.

Campus Center

Helen Lee is an Ada Comstock Scholar who will graduate in May with a degree in sociology. The Ada Comstock Scholars Program is designed for women who have interrupted their education and now wish to complete a bachelor’s degree at a realistic pace.

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