With commencement week closing in, I am checking off a fair number of boxes on my graduation “to do” list. I turned in my last paper of undergrad this morning, I am working on my thank you cards, and I have begun the arduous task of figuring out how to pack up the last four years of my life before my parents get here next week. One of the last things left for me to do is compete in my final collegiate competition - the Division III Outdoor National Track and Field Championships.
Oberlin College’s varsity athletic programs are a part of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division III. There are a lot of misconceptions about what being a DIII athlete means, ranging from “DIII athletes are just athletes that aren’t good enough to go DI” to “all DIII athletes do is practice their sport.” To the latter, I encourage you to read my blog posts about my experience studying abroad, writing an honors thesis, and participating in a variety of extracurricular and volunteer organizations in my time at Oberlin. To the former, I invite you to lace up your shoes and join me for a Tuesday track workout, or to try to beat my friend Monique Newton in an arm wrestling match.
I myself really had no idea what I was getting into when I submitted my marks and times to the Oberlin College Track and Field program, or OCTF as I will refer to it in this article. I was a decent athlete in high school, but lacked specialized training in my highly specialized events (the 400m hurdles and the triple jump) and had an aversion for the weight room that prevented me from building any serious fast twitch muscle.
After I visited Oberlin, I submitted my information to the coaches, and shortly received a call from the recruitment coach. He called me almost every week, learning more about me as a person and an athlete, and sharing information about what the college and its athletics program could offer me. Honestly, my coach probably could have saved a lot of his time: I was already sold on Oberlin after my visit, but it was exciting to feel like someone at Oberlin was investing in me before I had even gotten there.
What sets DIII athletes apart from DI and DII is that we are not allowed to receive any kind of scholarship, money, gifts, or special treatment for our participation in athletics. There are also efforts made to minimize conflicts with competition and school, and to limit our time practicing so as not to impede schoolwork. The NCAA website states, “DIII athletes do not expect a financial reward either in college or beyond. They do not expect to achieve fame or earn major endorsements because of their athletic ability. Rather, they compete and sacrifice and train so hard because they love the game.”
I don’t believe that the way I practice my sport is any more “pure” than the training that DI or DII athletes do; in fact, it is the money generated from these athletes’ competitions (like March Madness) that supports the existence of DIII athletics, which do not generate revenue. It certainly does take a certain kind of person to keep up with the demands of a varsity sport alongside Oberlin College’s rigorous academic course load, though. Between running practice, weight lifting, traveling, competitions, and taking care of my body, I spend an enormous amount of time practicing for my sport.
However, track also provided me with a support network from the very first day of college—an entire team that shows up to my events (on and off the track) when I ask, and who support me through my highs and lows. I also was able to meet upperclassmen as a freshman who taught me how to balance school and track, as well as how to be a leader and a teammate.
DIII athletics does not come without its sacrifices. For instance, I will be missing my senior week in order to compete at the national meet this year. However, I prefer to think that the student-athlete experience doesn’t mean I am missing out on things. Instead, it means that I am taking a path that is different than most students at Oberlin, and having experiences that few people have the opportunity to.
I have missed concerts, events, and birthdays, and I often forfeit going out and staying up late in order to get the sleep I need to compete at my best. But I also was able to witness one of my closest friends win a national championship, push my body to limits that I never dreamed it was capable of, travel to different parts of the country to race against some of the best athletes in my events, and be inspired every day by the work and support of my teammates and coaches.
At Oberlin and in the world, I think people sometimes have difficulty expressing when they deeply care about something. To reveal that you care, you must make yourself vulnerable and share parts of yourself with people who may not always accept them. What I love most about running is that it demands, every day, that you demonstrate that you care. In order to be the best, you must bring your best self every day to practice.
There is no hiding on the starting line, and as an individual sport, all eyes are on you whether you fail or whether you succeed. Track has taught me to trust myself, remain calm in intense situations, and above all, to care about something.
I hope to leave the national meet with some serious hardware, but that is not what I will think about when I am on the line waiting for the starting gun. Instead, I will think about how grateful I am to have chosen this path. It has not always been easy, it has not always been fun, but it is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding experiences that has shaped me into who I am.
I will remind myself how much I love running, how strong and in touch with my body it makes me feel. I will think about all of the coaches and teammates who have challenged me to be the best version of myself every day. And then, I’ll race the crimson and gold around the track one last time.