The sacrifices that student-athletes at Wesleyan make begin long before they arrive on campus for orientation. For many, it started with competitive travel teams and recruitment camps that put them on the map for college coaches, which involved not only demanding effort, but also time-consuming travel, even during the school year.
“Soccer was pretty much my number one priority aside from school, so [during my childhood] it didn’t feel like too much of a sacrifice because it was what I wanted to do,” said Isabel Clements ’16, who just finished her senior season as a striker on the women’s varsity soccer team. “I put it ahead of almost everything. When I was in high school, I played for my high school in the fall, and then for the rest of the year I played for a team that was a club team, but it was the top one in Connecticut. We were part of this league called the ECML, and there were tournaments almost every weekend. There was one in Texas that we went to every year, one in California, one in Las Vegas, one in Seattle, one in Florida, so it was a lot of traveling. In terms of time, that was a huge, huge thing. I was away from home and school pretty much every weekend.”
Some athletes even go as far as playing unpaid semi-professional sports for one to three years, or doing what’s known as a post-graduate year at a prep school, commonly referred to as a PG year. Almost every sport at Wesleyan has some athletes matriculate from PG years at prep schools, whereas men’s ice hockey is the only sport to take unpaid semi-professional athletes.
More commonly referred to as junior hockey or “juniors,” unpaid semi-pro teams became the destination for potential DI hockey players around the mid-1990s, with DIII schools following suit more recently. James Kline ’17, a forward on the men’s hockey team, played three years of junior hockey in three different cities before coming to Wesleyan as a 21-year-old first-year.
“Junior hockey is kind of like a stepping stone to college hockey,” said Kline. “So right from high school, I went and played three years of junior hockey, which means that I’m a little bit older than the typical freshman coming in. You know, I wouldn’t change it for the world. My experiences were great. My first year I was in Wisconsin, second year I was in Michigan, and the third was in Boston.”
Although playing juniors is essentially the same as being a professional athlete, minus the salary that would make one ineligible to play college sports under the NCAA, Kline stressed that it wasn’t all about hockey.
“We did a lot of volunteer work around the community,” said Kline. “During one of the summers I [took college classes] to make sure I was sharp. I also did a lot of reading on my own.”
One of the hardest factors that incoming hockey players at Wesleyan face is the transition back to academics, especially because of the high level of academics at the University. This is an even greater issue for those who played more than one year of juniors. The autodidactic Kline, however, was ready to go right from the start.
“Making the transition was surprisingly easier than I thought,” said Kline. “I mean, being out of school for that period of time, you’d think it’d be more difficult, but I came in with a good work ethic, and I was pretty sharp with my academic tools coming in, so I was able to transition pretty easily.”
Using athletics as a means to get into an institution of higher learning, especially an elite school, is something that lots of student-athletes at Wesleyan have in common. Considering that Clements came from one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the world in Choate Rosemary Hall, which boasts alumni such as John F Kennedy ’35 (whose room Clements lived in), one would think that academics rather than sports would be what would get students into elite schools, especially if they were already coming from an elite school. However, this wasn’t the case for Clements’ coaches.
“They kind of told us that this is your key to going to the college where you want to go,” Clements said.
It would be overly simplistic, however, to think that athletics are merely a means to get into just any school for student-athletes at Wesleyan. For many of our student-athletes, the target was always an elite education, not just top-notch athletics.
“One of my goals was to place into the best academic institution I could while having a great hockey program,” said Kline.
In fact, athletics are only one component of the admissions process for student-athletes, who often have to have standardized test scores and grade point averages high enough to meet or raise the average of those held by current students to even be considered for recruitment in the first place. Jack Katkavich ’17, the starting goalkeeper for the men’s varsity soccer team, addressed some of the misconceptions about student-athletes at Wesleyan.
“A lot of times, athletes get categorized as students who got into Wesleyan solely because of their athletic talents, and a lot of the times people see athletes in big groups,” Katkavich said. “They’re with their team a lot, you know, they’re wearing their team gear, and individuals can kind of get lumped into a greater category, especially when you see them around campus in those big hoards in Usdan. They kind of take over things. I think sometimes the individual can get lost. These very articulate and well-meaning and well-managed people can get lumped into this greater sum of athlete ‘jockishness.’ [Wesleyan student-athletes] are real people and they care, too.”
As for the sacrifices that student athletes make while on campus, every single contributor pointed out time management.
“[The biggest sacrifice] is mainly making sure that your time management is on point,” said Katkavich. “You don’t have a lot of time to fool around. You’re either in the gym, you’re on the ice, in film, so in-season it’s a lot more stressful where your free time is usually just studying and your sport.”
However, Wesleyan has much more to offer than just sports. Clements pointed out her personal evolution to highlight how Wesleyan provides a much more holistic education for its students, of which athletics is only one component.
“I think [Wesleyan] solidified my values and what I believe in and what matters to me,” said Clements. “I came in here, and soccer was kind of my everything. I think that in playing soccer, it’s been amazing, but playing at Wesleyan, I’ve learned that there’s so much else going on, and so much more that I care about. I do care about soccer, but Wesleyan has taught me in my classes and the people I’ve met, and studying abroad made me realize that there are so many things that I care about in the world, and it’s not just social, and it’s not just soccer.”