Former Tigers keep on running as graduate students
Brian Leung ’12 has had his fair share of injuries. When he was healthy, the former cross country co-captain was an All-America, leading the Tigers to a 12th-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2010. He later went on to run the 10,000 meters with a time that ranks fourth in Princeton history.
But plagued by lower-leg stress fractures during his collegiate career like many distance runners, Leung has had to cut short, or even entirely miss, multiple seasons. With athletic eligibility still remaining at the end of his senior year, Leung was faced with the decision many Ivy League athletes make each year — whether to go to graduate school and give it a shot for one more year.
The NCAA allots collegiate athletes five years starting from when they enroll to finish four seasons of their sport. Often, this results in coaches sitting athletes out for a season — a process called “redshirting” — in order to help them recover from injury or develop as players. Graduating in five years gives these athletes the opportunity to be stronger and healthier. Leung, however, faced a different situation.
At Princeton and the other seven Ivies, athletes are expected to graduate in four years and use up their eligibility during their time as undergraduates. Unlike in other conferences across the NCAA, graduate students are not permitted to participate in Ivy League sports.
“The history of that rule is that the presidents believe that intercollegiate athletics is an undergraduate activity. It’s as straightforward as that,” Deputy Executive Director of the Ivy League Carolyn Campbell-McGovern said.
Occasionally athletes may take the year off entirely if they are injured or wish to engage in other pursuits. Last year, senior sprinter Austin Hollimon left Princeton for the spring semester to train for the Olympic Trials. In situations like this, eligibility is preserved.
“Under NCAA rules, if you haven’t played for whatever reason, then you haven’t played. Under Ivy League rules, you’re expected to play and use a season if you are on campus. The student can choose to not be enrolled that year; at Princeton it might be because they are out for medical reasons, because they chose to study abroad, form their own business or whatever it is,” Campbell-McGovern said. “If you’re not here for whatever reason, then you’re not expected to use that season. But the concept is that if you’re here, then you should play.”
In the grueling three-season sport of distance running, with cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, making it injury-free through four consecutive years is difficult, if not impossible. Often runners graduate with eligibility left over.
“Coming into Princeton, I planned on finishing up my eligibility in four years. When you make a commitment to an Ivy League school, you’re pretty much making the commitment that you’re going to run all four years,” Leung said. “In the Ivy League there’s no redshirt option. For me it was all about timing. I had about four or five stress fractures or reactions throughout my time at Princeton, and they came at very inconvenient times. I didn’t really have a choice.”
Now studying for a degree in public policy and administration at the University of Wisconsin, Leung is finishing his final two seasons of indoor and outdoor track. He is not alone in his decision to pursue post-graduate running. Joe Stilin ’12 and Trevor Van Ackeren ’12 are competing at the University of Texas, while Tyler King ’12 is at Boston College. Mark Amirault ’11 is still racing for the University of Virginia. Other Ivy League graduates are also scattered throughout the country. Dartmouth alumna Alexi Pappas was a key contributor to Oregon’s national champion women’s cross country squad, while Brown’s Dan Lowry was a top runner for Michigan.
“I didn’t always think I was going to grad school. But going into the spring season I was running fast and really on a tear and just didn’t want to stop running. I decided to take the opportunity to use the indoor season I had left over from sophomore year,” said Stilin, who is pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. “In the end I wanted to continue to be on a college team. The competition is great, you get all the gear, you have training partners and you have the facilities. All the things you’d need as a professional or unattached runner are already set up for you.”
For all of last year’s seniors, picking the right graduate program and the right university to run for was a calculated and careful decision. After four years of competing collegiately and studying at a top school like Princeton, they knew what they needed in a school.
“When I think back to high school recruiting, this time around I realize how much I didn’t know in terms of what the teams are actually like and what it’s like to run at the college level. In high school, every coach that talked to me impressed me; every team seemed so fast. I felt that anywhere I went would be very tough for me,” said Van Ackeren, who is studying education. “Having already had success and experience in college, I had a much more realistic understanding of which teams were best for me. In the end the decision still came down to a balance between academics and running.”
Stilin may not have even applied to Texas had it not been for Van Ackeren’s advice.
“I was all ready to go to Wisconsin before Trevor told me about Texas. He sent me an email, and I realized Texas’ engineering program was ranked in the top ten nationally. I wasn’t even aware of that. When I heard that I said, ‘Well actually maybe I should apply to Texas,’ ” Stilin said. “Brian and Trevor would joke that I was choosing between them, but it was really just about the schools. Brian still jokes that I’ve betrayed him because I didn’t go to Wisconsin.”
Going into new schools and new teams as older veterans, graduate students such as Leung, Stilin and Van Ackeren are often faced with conflicting emotions. These athletes have only a season or two in which to compete in their new uniforms, and fresh allegiances can be hard to form.
“I feel like it’s been a very interesting dynamic,” Van Ackeren said. “I had fears of what my role on the team was actually going to be — I thought that I was probably not going to have a ton of emotional investment and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel like Texas was my team. At heart, my school is Princeton. But once I got down here, the Texas guys were very welcoming to us fifth-years. It’s more like we have two teams now.”
While Princeton has some of the best athletic facilities in the country, going to a large state school such as Texas or Wisconsin that places a heavy emphasis on sports undeniably comes with some extra benefits for the runners.
“There’s a lot more money put into the little things at Texas, such as the training room. You get more massages and more rehab opportunities. We have an awesome weight room and little things like chocolate milk waiting for us after our runs,” Stilin said. “But in the end running is running, and all you really need are a pair of shoes and some shorts. You get the job done at both places.”
Wisconsin is similar in that respect, Leung said.
“In terms of athletic facilities, I’d say Princeton ranks right up there with any school in America,” Leung said. “What is different is the gear deal here. Wisconsin is sponsored by Adidas, and I’ve got so many pairs of shoes since I got here, I can’t even count them.”
With plenty of experience behind them, the former Tigers are smart and well-prepared. Going into the fifth year, the guys know what has given them trouble in the past, and what has worked out. Whether it’s getting more sleep or progressing into harder training, they are careful to address all the little things that go into quality training.
“Going into this year my number one priority is just keeping myself healthy — even if that means taking a down day here or there or missing a workout,” Leung said. “Getting through the entire year without taking an extended period of time off is the goal. Things have been going well. I’ve been very fortunate since the start of the summer, and I’ve had 15 or 16 weeks where I’ve put in more than 100 miles of training.”
With one last year of collegiate competition available to them, the Princeton alumni are making the most of their new training and racing situations. Whether they want a few more opportunities to set personal records or aim to run well enough to compete professionally, running in graduate school has enabled these athletes to continue to pursue their passions.