It’s a typical late-November morning, mercury on the thermometer heading south, many of us wishing we could make the same trip. Jessica Hiew is busy lacing up her cross-trainers. She puts her books down beside her to make sure she doesn’t forget them. A crumpled uniform hanging out of an old gym bag the only evidence of the double life she’s been leading.
She doesn’t have much time to think: she’s late for class, or is it practice? Lately it has all blurred into one. Without looking, she picks up her books with one swift movement and is out the door. Suddenly the cold hits her like an opposing point guard, but she fights through, weaving past a throng of slow moving students in front of her. It all seems very familiar; like she’s done it before. Heart pounding, she finally gets to class just as the professor walks in, cursing the weather. A wave of relief runs over her’ she’s made it, all the training has paid off.For many student athletes, the challenges don’t stop once they step off the field. In the real world there are no timeouts or substitutions, and the game ceases to be five on five, but everyone for themselves. Jessica, a second-year guard on the University of Toronto women’s basketball team knows that when the final buzzer sounds, the real game begins.Like any other undergrad pursuing a degree, she often finds herself walking a delicate tightrope between school and recreation, but trying to maintain that balance can be even more elusive: “It’s happened several times where I had a test, but I haven’t done much studying, and then you have to drag your butt to practice, and you’re thinking I could be using these extra three hours to study for the exam the next day,” says the physical education student.
Taking one for the team
Being a student athlete at one of Canada’s top academic institutions is a bit like leading a double life. Every athlete is required by the University to maintain full-time status in their programs (usually a minimum of three credits) in order to be eligible to play for a Varsity team. They also commit upwards of 15-20 hours a week to their sport, including two-hour daily practices, team meetings, video sessions, and weekend games, which can adversely affect their scores off the field.
“I remember in first year, my time management was an absolute mess,” recalls Mike Bialy, the captain of the men’s soccer team. “I thought ok: an hour to get to practice, two hours of practice and another hour to get home, and I’ll study after, which clearly never happens because you’re absolutely exhausted from training. By the time you get home there’s nothing you want to do except get some sleep.”
More than a game
For Michael, the dilemma is slightly more complex than a decision to choose school over sports. Getting good grades in University does not always guarantee you the career you want, especially when your dream is to have the best of both worlds: a career in athletics. Unlike Jessica Hiew, who plans to enter medical science or optometry, Michael wants to pursue what he’s known for most of his life: soccer.
“Basically I’m trying to do the whole professional athlete thing,” says the fifth-year political science student. “That’s pretty much going to be taking up most of my summer, then I’ll see where it goes from there.”Winner of both the Ontario University and Canadian Interuniversity Sport MVP awards for soccer in recent years, Michael has already attracted interest from professional clubs in the United Soccer Leagues, and practiced with the Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. Still, most soccer players turn professional at a much younger age than the 23-yearold Bialy. American soccer prodigy Freddy Adu began playing for D.C. United of the MLS in 2004 at the age of 14, the same year Michael began plying his trade for U of T’s Varsity Blues:“My chances might be hindered a little bit because I’m going so late. I’m 23 right now, and 23 is considered old. If I had gone when I was 18, I would have had better opportunity. Then again, I think I developed a lot playing for the program that U of T has.”There is no tried-and-true path to becoming a professional athlete, no four-year program you can take. Oftentimes it takes as much dumb luck, stumbling into the right situation or opportunity, as it does skill. And so, it’s always important to have a backup plan, and that’s where the student part of the equation comes into play. Michael, who also minors in math and statistics at UTM, is keeping an open mind to career options outside of sports:“I think I’d be able to [do a desk job], just for the fact that I wouldn’t stop playing soccer at least at the amateur level, for something to look forward to.” He has even considered entering accounting (his mother’s profession) but wants to see where soccer takes him first.
Sports has taken a couple athletes on a strange and circuitous route. For Jessica Hiew, her love of basketball took her from her native Canberra, New South Wales, to Idaho State University on a basketball scholarship, then finally to the University of Toronto. Hiew was chosen most valuable player three times at Radford Highschool, but she was forced to seek opportunities abroad due to a lack of athletics in Australian universities.
U of T grad Safiya Muharuma, 28, can relate to the trans-national adventure. After completing teachers college at OISE in 2003, the formerdefenseman with the Varsity Blues decided she wasn’t prepared to commit herself to that career for the next 30 years: “I wanted to do something closer to athletics than simply being a phys-ed teacher at a school” said the East York native.Muharuma, who helped lead the 2000-2001 Blues squad to an undefeated 35-0 record, decided to prolong her hockey career by joining a professional women’s hockey team in Switzerland, an experience which she admits broadened her horizons, but also left her in a state of uncertainty: “Your path kind of opens up in forks in different directions. I think that’s what happened with me. If I hadn’t gone to Europe I wouldn’t have second-guessed becoming a teacher. But after I went there for 2 1/2 years I really thought about doing other stuff.”Her story also shows that a career in professional sports is not always full of the glitz and glamour North Americans have come to associate. Sports doesn’t exactly pay the bills, in fact Muharuma never had a paycheque from her Swiss club, working at U of T sports camps in the summer just to fund her hockey dream. “I didn’t play hockey for the money,” says Muharuma, “I played because I love it,’’
Scoring off the field
In 2007, Canadian Universities, U of T in particular, finally started to step up to the plate to help fund student athletes, many of whom can’t work parttime throughout the year because of their intense training schedules. Last year the Faculty of Physical Education and Health gave out close to $250,000 in athletics-based awards, much of which is donated by alumni and friends of the faculty. There are currently 50 awards for athletics according to the FPEH awards handbook, ranging from basketball and hockey, to rowing, swimming, and fencing. All awards related to participation in Varsity sports fall under OUA and CIS regulations, which sets a limit of $3,500 per student, as roughly half of the 50 awards are for the maximum value (This year the deadline for awards applications is April 11.)
The big picture
Is it worth being a Varsity athlete in the long run? The majority answer in the affirmative, without a second thought.
“My best memories of my university experience will definitely all be basketball related. It’s pretty much been my life here,” says Hiew, who helped the women’s basketball team capture OUA silver this past season.“Sports has definitely defined my university experience,” says Jessica Fitzgerald, 23, a wrestler who is pursuing a second-entry degree in pharmacy at U of T. “Being an athlete, that’s my label. You know, some people are sorority girls, or whatever, and I’m a student athlete, that’s what I do. I couldn’t imagine not competing while I’m at school.”Considering the amount of hours most students’ waste procrastinating, , there is something noble in dedicating oneself to an ideal and pursuing it. The important thing for any student is just to find that balance: “It really helps you develop your time management skills [being a student and an athlete] because it forces you to stay on top of things, you can’t just waste time on other things” says Fitzgerald.“I would say I was a better athlete than a student,” says Muharuma, recalling her experiences. “That’s going to be an honest answer, I was a good student, but I’d probably be a better student if I wasn’t an athlete, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to be an athlete, so it’s a catch 22. It’s worth it in the end.”