Teachers Were Student Athletes, Too
It is the dream of many Pace students to play a sport in college, but what they may not know is that many of their teachers were able to achieve this feat. The upper school faculty is comprised of many former athletes, including All-Americans, National Champions and even an Olympian. These teachers worked tirelessly to achieve athletic success while simultaneously dealing with the rigor of academics, just like the student-athletes at Pace.
The most prestigious athletic competition in the world is the Olympics, and athletes train for years just to get the opportunity to try out. However, Spanish teacher LAURA AGRONT-HOBBS, a basketball player in high school, decided she would try out for fun with her brother. Since jumping is a large component in basketball, Sra. Agront-Hobbs decided she would try the high jump. That day, she broke the Puerto Rican high jump record.
After proving to the Puerto Rican Olympic Federation that she could qualify for the Olympics, Sra. Agront-Hobbs began to train and prepare. She competed at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she placed 22nd in Women’s High Jump.
However, since she was very young, it was hard for her to grasp the scale of the event in which she was competing. If she were able to go back, Sra. Agront-Hobbs would love to reverse the order. “I would like to have done it the right way,” she said. “Start in high school, go to college, work hard and then try to go compete and see if I could make the Olympics. The Olympics are the biggest and best, every athlete’s dream. But I didn’t see it that way because it was my very first international meet.”
The exposure that Sra. Agront-Hobbs got at the Olympics led to her recruitment by the University of Alabama to compete on the track team. During the season, not only did she have practices every day and often had to miss Thursday and Friday classes for meets, but training during the offseason was also intense. “Every Saturday morning we had to get up at six o’clock for practice from six to ten,” said Sra. Agront-Hobbs. “It was insane, but I enjoyed it and you get used to it. It becomes part of your everyday life.”
While she was competing at Alabama, the Women’s Indoor Track and Field Team won the 1986 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship as well as the 1986 NCAA Division I Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championship. For the latter of these achievements, the team was invited by President Ronald Reagan to the White House. In 1987, the team was the runner-up at the NCAA Division I Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship.
Individually, in 1986 at the SEC Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championship, Sra. Agront-Hobbs placed second in the high jump and third in the triple jump. She was able to achieve the same feat in the high jump a year later at the same meet. Later on, in 1986 at the SEC Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship, she won the high jump competition. In 1987 at this same championship, Sra. Agront-Hobbs celebrated another first-place finish for the high jump.
Following her successful college career, Sra. Agront-Hobbs traveled around the world for three more years competing in different meets, and she coached two high jumpers at Alabama for a year. She has competed in not only the Olympics but also the Pan-American Games as well as the Central American Games, both at the junior and professional levels. Her athletic prowess earned her the title of Puerto Rico’s Athlete of the Year in both 1984 and 1985. She holds one of the top 10 high jumps in Alabama’s Women’s Outdoor Track and Field All-Time Records, and she still holds the Puerto Rican national record in women’s high jump at 6’1.”
Most people get really good at a sport by beginning practice as a young child, which was the case with English teacher SELBY HILL. She rode horses constantly while growing up, and she always knew she wanted to be a college athlete. “It was kind of always just part of the plan.” Mrs. Hill was recruited to ride at the Division I level at the University of Georgia (UGA).
Unlike most sports, which take place during the duration of one season, Equestrian begins in the fall and ends in the spring. The practice schedule was also different from most sports because they were involving animals. “We can’t practice on the horses every day or else they would be exhausted,” said Mrs. Hill. “We would actually practice [with horses] three times a week, and then we had six in the morning workouts Monday through Thursday as well as lifting twice a week.”
In order to get to meets, Mrs. Hill and the UGA Equestrian Team had to travel all over the country, from South Dakota to Delaware to Texas. Even though they had to miss classes, Mrs. Hill recalls that UGA made sure its athletes were keeping up their academics as well. “You have a class checker, every class all four years, where if you show up one minute late, they highlight your name and you can’t practice that day.”
During the first three years of her career, UGA’s Equestrian Team came in second at the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) National Championship. As a senior, Mrs. Hill was selected as captain of the team. Despite losing the SEC Championship, the team ended up winning the NCEA National Championship in 2014. “It just felt like that was the year that all the stars aligned,” she said. “I was never the top person on the team but I was really honored that even though I was not necessarily a point leader, I was still able to have that opportunity to lead in different ways.”
Class of 2022 Dean BEN EWING, Class of 2020 Dean GRADY STEVENS and Upper School Head MICHAEL GANNON all played Division I lacrosse at different schools. Before being recruited to play at Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Stevens was a lacrosse All-American in high school. While playing in college, the team traveled along the East Coast for games once or twice a week. In addition to having official practices or games six days a week, players put in extra hours before and after practices as well as on their off days.
“There are three parts of life in college,” said Mr. Stevens. “There’s your social life, your physical health and there are academics. You can’t be an All-American at all three.” While in college, he decided to give up parts of his social life in order to do well in academics as well as continue to improve at lacrosse. “I was really interested in trying to pursue athletics and academics to the highest level I could. I would spend a lot of time in the library after practice, but during the day, I was up at the field house if I wasn’t in class.”
In his junior year, Mr. Stevens suffered a traumatic brain injury, essentially a very bad concussion, forcing him to take a step back from playing. “I actually moved into a coaching role in my senior year,” he said. In addition to occasionally being ranked as the first or second team in the country, Johns Hopkins also made the NCAA tournament in three out of Mr. Steven’s four seasons. He also received the John N. Richardson Award for Johns Hopkins lacrosse. Mr. Stevens continues to be involved in lacrosse, now as the head coach for the varsity boys lacrosse team at Pace.
After graduating from Pace in 2006, Mr. Ewing was recruited to play lacrosse for Presbyterian College. “Lacrosse was a big part of my life in high school, and college lacrosse offered me an opportunity to go to a good school that could offer scholarship money to attend college,” he said.
Not only did Mr. Ewing spend a lot of time conditioning with six practices a week and morning lifts, but he also spent numerous hours on long bus rides. “Most Division I lacrosse teams are up North, so because our team was in South Carolina, our games were almost exclusively away games,” said Mr. Ewing. “We would get on a bus and drive for up to 1000 miles for a game.”
With all this time away from campus, it was difficult to manage both athletics and academics. “I convinced myself that I could survive on four hours of sleep, which in hindsight was the dumbest thing ever,” he said. Mr. Ewing also served as captain of the team his senior year.
After playing in college, Mr. Ewing kept lacrosse in his life by coaching in addition to teaching at the Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina. He now coaches at Pace as an assistant coach for the boys varsity lacrosse team.
At Brown University, Mr. Gannon also played Division I lacrosse. Similar to both Mr. Stevens and Mr Ewing, the practice schedule was intense and games were primarily in the Northeast.
For Mr. Gannon, lacrosse was the priority in college. “I liked playing so I didn’t mind not going on spring break,” he said. “You just make choices. But they weren’t hard choices for me to make because I liked playing more than I liked school, and I liked playing more than I liked going out. I didn’t feel like it was a sacrifice.”
In order to improve, he has a true belief that people need to love the sport. “What I found with my teammates who didn’t improve, many of whom were more important recruits than me coming in the door, was that they didn’t like to play enough,” said Mr. Gannon. “They didn’t train enough, they didn’t condition enough and they didn’t improve enough.”
During Mr. Gannon’s lacrosse career, Brown went to the NCAA tournament three out of four years. In Mr. Gannon’s senior year, he was named an All-American, and Brown went undefeated until the NCAA tournament. Brown won the Ivy League Championship that year. Mr. Gannon coached lacrosse at Pace, including a team Class of 2022 Dean Ben Ewing played on. In 2000, he received the Georgia Lacrosse Coach of the Year Award.
Class of 2021 Dean KRISTA WILHELMSEN attended Bowdoin College where she played Division III soccer. Playing soccer in Maine, where Bowdoin is located, could be extremely difficult at times. “It’s dark by about 4:30 and cold and sometimes snowing,” said Mrs. Wilhelmsen.
Despite playing as a forward in high school, Mrs. Wilhelmsen was given a challenge when her coach asked her to try playing as a fullback. “I had to fill a need on the team,” she said. “It was a totally different experience, but still to this day I couldn’t tell you which of the positions I preferred. I really loved them both, and it was more about just being out on the field.”
As a senior, Mrs. Wilhelmsen was named her team’s most valuable player. Although Mrs. Wilhelmsen only continued playing soccer after college for a little while, the sport still had a huge influence on her life. It was through soccer that she met her husband, Jason, and they continue to encourage their sons to play. “Soccer is one of the highlights of my entire life, and it’s always been a part of my life.”
It is not often that an athlete gets recruited for more than one sport, but that is what happened to Director of Admissions JENNIFER McGURN. Although she ended up playing Division I volleyball in college, Mrs. McGurn also looked at schools for softball and basketball. “I chose volleyball because I chose Butler,” she said. “You really got to know your teammates and your professors and I loved my coaches. So while I did choose the sport, it was actually that I chose the school more.”
The Butler University volleyball team traveled all over the country for games, but their coach did something very special for the players. “My college coach was really good about scheduling games to get close to home for all of the kids from all over the country,” said Mrs. McGurn. “That way their family and friends could come to see everybody play. It was also a fun way to see a lot of the U.S. that I wouldn’t have normally gotten to see.”
Especially in times of competition, Butler was very active in helping its players stay on top of their academics. “When we traveled quite a bit, we would have somebody proctor a test or somebody to help us with homework while we were on the road,” said Mrs. McGurn.
“I stepped in as a freshman and started setting,” said Mrs. McGurn. “And so by the end of my career, I had a lot of the career setting records because I had a lot of opportunities to play throughout my career.” She was a three-time all-league player as well as the Horizon League Player of the Year as a senior. Mrs. McGurn was also named to 10 consecutive all-tournament teams, and she completed her career as the Butler and Horizon League career record-holder in assists.
Today, she still holds three of Butler’s top-10 single-season assist totals as well as four of Butler’s top-ten single match assist totals. Mrs. McGurn also has the second most career aces and the third most career digs. In 1997, she led Butler’s volleyball team to their first, and as of today only, appearance in the NCAA tournament.
As a result of her record-smashing career, Mrs. McGurn was inducted into the Butler University Hall of Fame in 2009. She worked at UGA as an assistant volleyball coach before coming to Pace in 2006. She continues to coach volleyball at Pace for the middle school team.
Many athletes deal with adversity during their career, but the most devastating is a career-ending injury. “Hockey was my main sport,” said English teacher TAMARA NEILEY. “I was recruited young out of high school to play Division I, but my senior year I had a career-ending injury so I couldn’t play anymore.” She ended up choosing to attend Union College because they had strong academics, and, if she were able to ever play again, a strong Division I hockey program. However, she never was able to play again.
Since she grew up as an athlete, not having a sport was very difficult for Mrs. Neiley, so she decided to try something new: crew. “I tried out for the crew team, I made it, and I ended up loving it.” However, rowing in the North turned out to have its challenges, the main one being the weather. “Up North it is very cold,” she said. “There was this one race and there was a snowstorm. My boat was in the middle of the race and there was sleet, ice and snow in the boat. I got frostbite.”
The practice schedule included practices during all three seasons every single day. Whether it was on the water in the fall and spring, or inside training during the winter, the team was always working to get better together. “Crew is the absolute ultimate team sport,” said Mrs. Neiley. “You do not stick out. Everyone has their own job in the boat. Watching a regatta you can’t say, oh that person in seat number four looks really good. You just don’t have that individuality.”
Mrs. Neiley was named to the All-Liberty League Team during her career. “My dream is one day to have a boat of my own and be able to still practice it.”
Some college athletes decide to walk on rather than be recruited. Upper School Math Chairperson GUS WHYTE decided he would try to be a walk-on for Williams College’s Division III wrestling team. He was on the team for four years during which he trained on a rigorous practice schedule that sometimes included two practices a day.
In contrast with large Division I programs, a large number of the Williams students participate in athletics. “It is a place with a large percentage of student-athletes so there is no special treatment for anyone,” said Mr. Whyte. “The people on the wrestling team are the same as the people on every other team or any other extracurricular. And that’s the beauty of a place like Williams.”
Both junior and senior year, Mr. Whyte served as captain of the wrestling team, and he was also named to his all-conference team. Despite never making it to nationals, the team was the runner-up for the New England Conference twice. He continues his involvement in the sport today as Pace’s head varsity wrestling coach.
Playing a sport in college is time consuming and takes a lot of hard work and effort. The reality is, playing a varsity sport in college is not for everyone; something all the former collegiate athletes unanimously agreed with. “It’s a big commitment. You have to truly love the sport, and you have to want to play for yourself and for your team,” said Mrs. McGurn. “If you don’t really love it, then you shouldn’t do it,” agreed Mr. Gannon.
However, everyone still said that staying involved in activities you enjoy is the most important thing in college. “I think everyone should find a passion the way I found a passion for lacrosse,” said Mr. Stevens.
Mrs. Wilhelmsen recognizes that even those who love sports but don’t want a serious commitment can still enjoy participating. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an organized team. That’s the great thing about college, there are club teams, so you can always stay involved somehow.”
Top photo: Sra. Agront-Hobbs competes for the University of Alabama track and field team in high jump. Photo: Laura Agront-Hobbs