Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

October 24, 2001:
Tiger, tiger, tiger for the student-athlete
Even a walk-on finds his place at Princeton through the athletic and academic combo

To many, the concept of student-athlete presents a conundrum: The words cannot possibly suggest a peaceful coexistence of two seemingly disparate focuses, right?

Absolutely wrong.

As a senior, a former varsity athlete, and ostensibly still a student, I am well qualified to comment on the existence of the Princeton scholar-athlete. Though too late to consider this column a direct response to the letters of April 4 and May 16, 2001 (and others online in Letterbox), hopefully my words will shed a student perspective on a topic that of late has received considerable criticism from uninformed persons.

Ask most freshmen why they came to Princeton, and you'll hear a variety of responses. One will be, "Because I was recruited to play a sport." This answer is as legitimate as the textbook, administration/trustee/alum specialty response: "Because I endeavored to enrich my intellectual capacity through vigorous academic pursuits with other innately intelligent, highly motivated peers." Yes, this is true. We all want to do this.

I came to Princeton from a small prep school just north of Chicago. The first person from my school to enter these Ivy gates in five years, I had no response to the "why-I-chose-Princeton question." Well . . . um, they chose me, I mumbled that entire summer before freshman year, as though still in shock by Dean Hargadon's letter.

The first thing I did at Princeton was run down to the track - after all, I was the best distance runner in my high school, breaking all the school records, and finishing among the top 15 in the state for the two-mile. Maybe this was why I came to Princeton, I thought. The cross-country coach allowed me to "walk on" to the team along with two other freshmen. All three of us suddenly felt like second-class citizens, resident aliens among the elite, "recruited athletes" in their new — and free! — Nikes.

And make no mistake, the mens' cross country and track team at Princeton is elite. Ranked as high as eighth nationally during my sophomore year, the athletes were superstars, among whom were multiple state champions, Footlocker National finalists, or even that scrappy Canadian who placed eighth at NCAAs, as a sophomore (Paul Morrison '02). With a 4:23 mile time — not shabby by any stretch of the imagination — I was the third slowest miler on the team!

Although the coaches viewed walk-ons as nonentities, the three of us worked and trained constantly, hoping to earn the respect of our teammates, and the approval of our coaches. The former proved simple, the latter impossible; but in no time I was part of a cohesive yet individually unique team. And I loved it.

You'd think that these national-caliber runners, who train upwards of 85 miles per week, would do poorly in school, or would only choose "gut" classes around their athletics, right? Again, you'd be wrong. My class had more engineers than AB majors, and the team owned the distinction of having the best cumulative GPA of all the sports teams.

For the most part, athletics at Princeton challenges athletes to raise their game, both on the field and in the classroom.

No athlete, from the most stereotyped football-playing jock to the dignified elitist fencer, deliberately coasts through this university merely to play a sport. Of course, some athletes may say that, and some may even appear to act that way, but in reality, all athletes at Princeton care about their studies, and find the necessary time to accomplish their work.

Not many of us aspire to play a professional sport, and we'll all intelligent enough not to believe in such pipe dreams. So we play hard, we study hard and we're all closet academics.

And what of those athletes who, in addition to excelling on the field, sing in an a cappella group, or star in a Shakespearean tragedy, or serve as Residential Advisers (RAs), or write for the Triangle show, or participate in ROTC? (By the way, I was an RA and I manage a Student Agency).

The time constraints of a varsity sport necessitate time management and strict work habits. Before nagging injuries and a broken leg ended my running career during my junior year, I found that my running— two to three hours per day — required me to study efficiently, to sleep regularly, and even to drink less, if at all. I had a routine that at times proved difficult, but that never hindered my studies. It facilitated productivity.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of athletics on a collegiate level, and particularly at Princeton where academic pressure is so intense, is the social comfort, the cohesive team framework, and the physical outlet of energy, even if out of pure frustration. Simply said, when I arrived on campus four falls ago, I was intimidated — even overwhelmed — by my surroundings, by the intellectual potency of my peers, by my Texas roommate.

To spend two hours daily with athletes who shared a common passion proved to be how I first became comfortable with Princeton. These guys were among my first friends, and they gave me a sense of belonging that I'd wager many freshmen seek during the first, trying months of college.

Though I've stopped running competitively, I still maintain a strict running regimen. It helps me focus on my studies. But sometimes, when I see a pack of Princeton runners streaking through town on the half-marathon loop, or doing "hills" on Washington Road, I cannot help but miss that team unity, and the tangible benefits of the scholar-athlete.

Maybe I'm just a sentimental senior. But I'll stand by my claim that walking on to the cross-country and track teams four years ago created my Princeton experience.

Patrick Sullivan can be reached at pas@princeton.edu.