Road tested

Student-athletes hustle and so does their academic adviser, with 56 final exams packed in her carry-on bag.

Essay by Maureen Lewis, Jour ’84, Grad ’12

Brad and Amy start their exams early Thursday morning of finals week. I read the exam instructions, which include advice to move on if they get stuck on any one problem or they’ll run out of time. It’s a long exam — 13 pages. They sigh. They groan. They turn to a first set of problems, run their hands through their hair, rock back on their chairs, chew on their pencils, stretch, sigh again and buckle down to attack the exam.

Their groans grow deeper as the minutes tick away. Brad asks if he can stand and stretch. “Of course.” He paces the back of the room, his hands on his head. Amy crouches forward, her face obscured by long hair. I hear her sniffle, her head dips progressively lower. Oh, wow, is Amy crying?, is all I can think. Then I wonder what I should do. Go to her? Hand her a tissue?

I continue calling out the passage of time. “Sixty minutes to go. Thirty minutes.” We are winding down; the clock is running out. Though Amy is still sniffing, she sits straighter and pushes through to the last page. “Five minutes left.”

Meanwhile I text the coach and ask him to please hold the bus that will leave shortly to take the track and field team to practice. We are fighting the clock now. The bus will leave in minutes, and Brad and Amy still have to go back to their rooms to get their spike shoes.
Finally, they turn in their exams. “Were you crying?” I ask Amy. “No! It’s cold in here so I was sniffly,” she says, “but I could have cried.” She walks out the door to where her roommate is waiting, holding Amy’s gear bag. “I threw some practice clothes and your shoes and some snacks in here. Run for the bus,” she says.

Go, team.

That was just two of 56 final exams squeezed in on this road trip, taken between meets, taken in a little conference room at the end of the hall of banquet rooms at the hotel in Philadelphia.
I’m one of Marquette’s academic advisers serving 314 student-athletes.

All NCAA Division I teams provide academic support in the form of a mandatory study hall or study table, tutor centers and a staff of advisers to help student-athletes negotiate the sometimes-clashing demands of school, practice, travel and competition. When the track team’s travel overlaps with final exam week, I join them on the road. This time my carry-on bag is loaded with exams in subjects ranging from anthropology to philosophy.

Athletes are responsible for alerting instructors when they will miss exams due to sports travel. They have options to take exams early or have them proctored at nontraditional exam times, like in a hotel suite when they’re on the road. Every one of the 72 student-athletes who traveled to Philadelphia for the Big East Conference meet last May had at least one exam conflict to resolve.

Most of the college teams competing in Phila-delphia were doing the same thing: balancing final exams with the championship chase. Villanova made its academic center available for us to scan exams and send them back to professors on our home campuses. We also used the local copy shop and the hotel business office. It’s our goal to get every exam completed before the meet begins so that our student-athletes can be just competitors.

We hustle to make it happen. Sometimes at track meets, you see student-athletes from opposing teams help each other up from the ground or congratulate one another on a great performance. Those of us who work in academics do that, too. We walk together to the copy shop from the practice field; we scan and fax from offices at the gym. Do you have a stapler, tape, a Sharpie, paperclips?

Go, team.

At this meet Day One is pretty successful. A number of our athletes advance to the finals that will be held tomorrow. We feel positive, some medals are already won, and records and best-performances already logged.

We’re all hungry. Our team is too big to take one place for dinner, so we pull up to King of Prussia Mall and descend on the food court. Georgetown and DePaul have the same idea. An all-athlete conga line snakes around Chipotle, different team names on multicolored uniforms but the same post-meet hunger being sated.

Day Two dawns with a dismal forecast: 100 percent chance of rain all day. I spot Amy at breakfast. She jokes that for the first time in the last three days she doesn’t get to sit in a room with me for three hours. She laughs and says, “If you see me on the track today in the rain, it’s just rain, I’m not crying.”

Later in the day, I try to remember that light-hearted breakfast.

By mid-day, we feel a gut punch when one of the fastest guys on our men’s 4×100 relay, the team going for a national-qualifying time, the guy who broke school records in four meets in a row this season, pulls a hamstring on the far turn. He makes the hand-off but has to be helped off the track.

Unbelievably something similar happens in the 100-meter dash, when a second athlete from that relay team pulls a hamstring on the straightaway and falls, splayed out in his lane, then picks himself up and staggers across the finish and into the arms of medical support.

You wonder what next? Both of the young runners had already qualified for the 200-meter race. They pull uniform tops over sweatpants covering their tightly taped injured legs and hobble and limp the full 200-meter race to cheers from teammates, determined to add every possible point to help the team eke out a victory. In the end Marquette’s men finish second. The women cruise to victory.

We spend seven hours in the rain wearing garbage bags over uniforms, school logo tattoos peeling off wet cheeks and biceps, muddy shoes, matted hair. Then we all crowd into the gym at Villanova, where trash cans overflow with food wrappers, banana peels, plastic bottles, vomit-soaked paper towels. The floor is sticky with spilled Gatorade, the air gamey with sweat. Wet clothes and towels are being shoved into duffel bags.

Suddenly Xavier’s seniors pull graduation caps and gowns from Ziploc bags and put them on over their wet uniforms. They’d missed their own graduation day, sacrificing pomp to compete three states away in the rain with the name of their alma mater across their chests and “X” tattoos on their cheeks. They pull their track medals on over their heads, and someone calls each student by name in an impromptu graduation ceremony in that damp, smelly gym.

The other athletes who are busily changing out of spikes or searching their bags for dry socks look up. Then they stand and begin applauding. Someone starts humming the Pomp and Circumstance march, and, just like that, all of the Big East athletes honor Xavier’s seniors who put a conference meet before a formal ceremony, defining school spirit the best way they knew how.

Xavier’s athletes walk out of the gym toward the team bus, their graduation caps providing a little shield from the rain, and slap high fives with their competitors, bonding them forever to the sport they’d given their hearts and weekends to since they’d learned they had speed or hops or throws.

Soon, back with our team, standing on the wet infield for the trophy ceremony and photos in the driving rain, it’s hard to differentiate tears from raindrops. Amy catches my eye, points to her eyes beneath the brim of her fresh new Big East 2017 Champions hat, and mouths one word — “crying” — tracing the tears down her cheeks with her fingertips. “Me, too,” I mouth back. •

Maureen Lewis is assistant director for academic services in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and a wonderful writer who often posts on Medium.

Report card

• Marquette University’s track and field men’s and women’s teams made program history in 2016, when both won the Big East Outdoor Conference Championships. Sights were set on repeating that feat in 2017— with the championship meet scheduled during finals week.

• Men’s golf, men’s tennis and women’ cross country performed among the nation’s elite in the classroom, according to the latest Academic Progress Rate released by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The APR is an annual scorecard of academic achievement calculated for all Division I sports teams. The teams were each recognized for posting scores in the top 10 percent of their respective sport.


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