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Posted: July 28, 2003

Athletics: The US College Athletics Scholarship Experience - Part II

Background:

Tracy Montgomery, Mary Jane (MJ) Middelkoop, and Stephanie Duffy are currently members of the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team, an Ottawa based women's running and triathlon club. All three attended university in the US on athletic scholarships. The Runner's Web asked them about their scholarship experience. This is part one of a three part series. This column interviews Stephanie Duffy.

Name: Stephanie Duffy
Hometown: Whitby, Ontario
US University: Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas
Primary Events: 1,500m, 3,000m, 5,000m, 10,000m

Stef after the OAC Triathlon

1. Runner's Web (RW): Could you describe the recruiting process and how you came to be offered an athletic scholarship - how the initial contact was made, whether a high school or club coach was involved, did you communicate with the university head coach or an assistant, etc.

Stephanie Duffy (SD): I was contacted by a recruiting company called "College Prospects" after O.F.S.A.A. in grade 11. Their job was to introduce me to the U.S. schools and make me sound as "marketable" as possible. Once they sent my athletic resume to the schools, it was up to the coaches to contact me. It varied as to which coach I communicated with, about 50% were assistant coaches and 50% were head coaches. My high school and club coaches mainly offered me support throughout the process.

2. RW: Once the scholarship was offered, did you accept immediately? If not what processes did you go through such as discussion with family, local coaches, peer groups, etc.? Were you offered a four-year deal or a one-year renewable scholarship?

SD: The coaches were quite up front about what they could offer me, which was always discussed on my recruiting trips. I did not accept the offers right away as I needed to know what all the schools were offering (there were four offers). The scholarship was to be renewed each year, depending on performance and grades. As for the choice, it was solely mine. My parents would have supported me wherever I chose to go.

3. RW: How much communication was there between you and the university from the time you accepted until you arrived at the school?

SD: There was minimal communication throughout the summer. If I remember correctly (it's been a while) the coach had sent me the first week's training program before I arrived so that I could get a good idea of what to expect and make sure I was ready for it.

4. RW: After arriving at the school, what was your initial response (over the first few weeks) to your decision to accept the scholarship?

SD: I think I could write a book about my first week at the school! It was quite a change from the town of Whitby, where I grew up. I was very fortunate to have been with a good friend of mine who was on the same track team at home. After accepting the scholarship I asked the coach if he happened to have any more money for my friend as she was a middle distance runner. He did and she received a scholarship as well. ( Her companionship was my signing bonus I guess!) I was pretty nervous about the decision - it was far away from home and I couldn't exactly take a train back to see my parents for the weekend, but it was really exciting. There was a lot to adjust to but there were many other people at the school who were in the same position, who came from different countries on an athletic scholarship. That along with being on the track team allowed us to meet people pretty quickly.

5. RW: Describe your feelings for the first month or so after you started training with the team? How did you feel you fit into the team from a performance perspective? How many other first year recruits were there? Were you accepted immediately by team members that had been there a year or more? Did you ever seriously question your decision in the first few months?

SD: Our team was a fairly young one - about five freshmen, one senior and one junior. Performance wise I fit in well. I usually placed first or second, however out of the 7 only about 3 of us were distance runners (as opposed to middle distance). The freshmen usually stuck together however the senior member of the team ended up becoming one of my best friends and greatest mentors. (She stayed on at the university after graduating to do her masters). As for questioning my choice of universities - I think I questioned it for two years. I'm the type of athlete that doesn't improve unless I am training with someone who is better than me. During my second year the team saw some "casualties" and we were scrambling to have a full team most of the time. It wasn't until my third year that I felt we had a good strong team and I started to see greater improvements in myself.

6. RW: What was the greatest issue you encountered throughout your time at the university?

SD: Homesickness. You should have seen my parents' phone bill.

7. RW:Did you continue to run for a local club when you came home for the summer?

Stephanie running the 2003 National Capital Marathon

TM: I came home my first summer and trained with a friend. The other summers I stayed in Georgia, worked and trained with friends.

8. RW: What you consider your best performances while at university and why?

SD: My best performance was my final Conference track meet (May 1998) . Conference is all about points and that weekend I ran a 10,000m on the Friday night, 3,000m on Saturday, and 5,000m on the Sunday. I was top-three in all events (therefore "All-Conference") and even got a personal best in the 5,000m.

9. RW: Did you feel pressure to race when you felt you were not ready? Were you asked (directed) to double or triple or run an event that was not your normal racing distance? How were you treated when (if) you were injured and could not compete?

SD: No, I didn't feel any pressure at all. I loved racing (and still do). I was very fortunate not to have any serious injuries but when the minor pains would appear, I listened to my body and my coaches never pushed me. I often doubled up but didn't mind. To be honest, I think sometimes we weren't pushed hard enough.

10. RW: Did competing (and travelling) interfere with your academic schedule?

SD: We didn't have too many overnight trips so I rarely missed class due to track meets. Although, there was a time where my teammate and I weren't ready for our Accounting test and we blamed it on the pressures of being an athlete so we were permitted to write it at a later date! (It was cheap, I know - I only used that excuse one.)

11. RW: Describe your "typical" racing season in terms of numbers of meets, location in terms of travel requirements, distances raced, doubling or tripling for points, etc.

SD: The Cross-country season started in late August and went until the first week in November. We would run about a race a weekend starting mid-September for about 5-6 meets. Our x-country meets were usually within 3 hours driving distance, with the exception of the Conference meets. We would stay over night if it was over 3 hours. We went as far as Western Kentucky - luckily, we flew (that was the only time). In-door track was a short season, mid-January until March. We would only have about 3-4 meets as there weren't too many indoor tracks in our area (Southeast Texas). When I was there, our conference was always in Jonesborough, Arkansas, which was about a 10-12 hr bus ride. We never flew with the track team. The team was too big and our budget too small. Outdoor was from March until the about mid-May and we would run a race every weekend. Probably about 8-10 meets in all. Whether or not we doubled depended on the schedule - when the races took place, how much time between them and which ones they were. It also depended on what our focus was. For example, if I wanted to perform well in the 5,000m and the 1,500m was only 1 hour before it, then there would be no point for me to run both. If I wanted to do well in the 1,500m then I would probably run the 5,000m as well. I didn't mind doubling up. It made for a good workout. I find it hard to watch a race I could be running anyway.

12. RW: What do you estimate your scholarship was worth over the four years? Looking back on your experience do you feel there was a balance between your athletic contribution and the academic benefits you gained?

SD:It was worth about $40,000 US. I think I came out far ahead of the school on this. Athletics doesn't generate much money at all. The best that I contributed would be a bit of exposure when I raced well. I think it's a great deal - I had a job I loved and received a free degree for it.

13. RW: Would you recommend the scholarship route to others , unconditionally or with conditions?

SD: Absolutely, unconditionally! No matter what school you choose, whether or not they have budgets fit for professional athletes or not, as long as you finish with a degree, you can't lose.

14. RW: What were the highs and lows of your years at university, both from an athletics and an academic perspective?

SD:Academically - my lowest time would have been my first year. I needed to keep my grade point average at a certain level in order to keep my academic scholarship and I stressed out about that more than I needed to. Adapting to the environment, getting used to being on my own and staying disciplined were the challenges. My high academically was my second year, first semester, when I took the maximum amount of hours - the more I had on my plate, the more organized I needed to be and I got a 4.0 grade point average ("perfect") that semester. Athletically - my low was second year, first semester, when most of my teammates were injured. My high was probably my final semester when I had a better understanding of what it took to improve. I also achieved personal bests in all my events, as well as school records.

15. RW: Overall how would you rate your experience?

SD: The experience was good. I didn't go to the wealthiest university so we didn't have a lot of the perks that bigger schools had, but my experience was what I made it. It was good to experience a completely different culture and meet many people from all over the world. If I didn't know discipline before I went, I knew it when I left.

16. RW: After leaving the university did you continue to compete or run? If so at what level? If not, for how long did you stop and why?

SD: I didn't compete much the summer I returned from school - I just did a few road races and kept the competition intensity low. I did a lot of cross training, mainly swimming and cycling thoughout the winter and the next summer I decided to try a triathlon. I did three that summer and have been hooked on it ever since. I competed at the World Championships (as an age grouper) in 2001 and 2002. I think I'm more competitive now than ever and perhaps in better shape than when I was in University (at least I was when I was getting ready for World's). I don't have any major goals now, however. Maybe I'll try to get some P.B.'s in running again.

17. RW: Last comments - feel free to touch on anything not covered previously.

SD: The only comment I would have (or advice) is that I wish I wasn't in such a hurry to leave school. There are ways of extending the scholarship, for example red shirting a year (not competing) and then having a 5th year paid for (starting a masters or completing another major in order to open up the options when the real world hits). There is also the possibility of returning as an assistant coach while continuing to study and getting some financial assistance that way. There are options there, you just need to explore them.

More on Stephanie:

www.OACRacingTeam.com

This is part II of a 3 part feature. Next week's column will be an interview with Mary Jane (MJ) Middelkoop.
Part I of the series.


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