Balancing act: Lessons learned as a student athlete

American Kate Courtney graduated from Stanford University in June 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. A month later, she won her first U.S. national elite cross-country title in Snowshoe, West Virginia. She won three U23 World Cup events in 2017, clinching the series title. She also won four…

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American Kate Courtney graduated from Stanford University in June 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. A month later, she won her first U.S. national elite cross-country title in Snowshoe, West Virginia. She won three U23 World Cup events in 2017, clinching the series title. She also won four 2017 USA Cycling Pro XCT events, taking that series title as well. In September, she took silver at the 2017 U23 World Championships in Cairns, Australia. With an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, she will be contributing to CyclingTips along the way.

In a lot of ways, graduating from college feels like the end of a bike race. In both, you cross the finish line relieved, exhausted, excited, and only vaguely aware of the months and months of hard work it took to get there. All the little moments — the intervals in the rain, the hours in the gym, that one night you fell asleep at 7pm because you couldn’t keep your eyes open — fade into that one big, messy moment of achieving a goal.

I felt quite the mix of emotions in June as I finished my undergraduate degree, a four-year journey of balancing school and cycling, with lots of excitement, hard work, compromise, and quite a few tears along the way. Here are a few of the messy moments that taught me the most:

1. It takes a village. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Just a few months into freshman year, I headed to the collegiate national championships in Snowshoe, West Virginia, with the Stanford Cycling Team. We arrived, a small crew made up mostly of male grad students, and pitted out of a rental minivan. I loved being back with my mountain-bike community and finally felt grounded after what had been a huge transition starting college.

On the day of the race, it was 20°F (-7°C) and snowing. I looked over and saw the Fort Lewis College team pulling out fleece-lined skin suits and heated gloves, while I stared down at the thin arm and leg warmers that I’d thrown into my bag at the last moment. It was safe to say this California girl wasn’t prepared for an East Coast snowstorm. But with a little encouragement, and a loaner pair of gloves, I reluctantly exited the heated minivan and took to the start line. The snow came down even harder in the race and by the time I finished, my hands had gone completely numb. I spent the next few minutes crying my eyes out, due to how badly my hands hurt, before I actually realized I had won.

Thanks to the teammates and friends that wrapped me in jackets and offered me some of the best-tasting hot chocolate I’ve ever had, my hands eventually regained feeling and the celebrations began. I was overwhelmed by the shared joy and support I had found time and again in the mountain-bike community.

When I returned to school, two national championships in hand, I had a newfound pride in being a student there, a new community of friends on the Stanford Cycling Team, and even a closer connection with my friends from freshman year who had followed the racing from afar. It was on that trip that I came to appreciate how important it is to have a village of support, particularly when you are in school.

In the midst of classes and training, the travel required for that trip added a whole new layer of stress. But luckily I wasn’t in it alone. From my father who packed my bike for me — thanks Dad! — to my freshman-year roommate who hid snacks in my suitcase to the female grad student on our team that arranged all of our flights, my support network came together and stepped up to make it all possible.

If there is one thing that college taught me, it’s that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. Surrounding yourself with a village doesn’t make you weak. it makes it possible to accomplish things you would never be capable of on your own, and it gives you the chance to be a part of something bigger.

2. Be present. Be adaptable.

It was 1am and there I was, trying feebly to recline on a hardwood staircase in Germany, the only place in the hotel that I seemed to pick up a wifi connection. My computer was balanced precariously on my lap as I tried to type while talking to my group project partners through a spotty Skype connection. “Can you hear me?” I asked again. Silence. The internet cut out yet again, this time followed by tears of frustration.

Earlier that day, I had competed in the second World Cup of the season in Albstadt. As a second year U23, I suddenly felt a huge amount of pressure to perform. The reduced expectations of my first year racing with Specialized and my freshman year in college seemed to give way — it was now time to step up. Sophomore spring was one my hardest quarters of school. Sleep was hard to come by and my training seemed to be going downhill. When I pulled up to the start line in Albstadt, I abandoned all expectations of a result. “Just do the best you can and leave it all out there,” I told myself. But to my surprise, I crossed the finish line in third place, landing on the podium with a giant trophy and an even bigger beer. It was one of the highest moments of my career at that point. I was on top of the world.

But that’s the thing about being a student athlete — there are highs and lows. And sometimes, just a few hours after standing on that World Cup podium, you find yourself sobbing in a stairwell in Germany trying to will the internet to work so you can finish your project, pack, and go to bed. The internet did eventually come back on, my paper got finished, my bags got packed, and I made it home. But I know now that even if it hadn’t come back on, I could have found a way to solve the problem and make it work.

In bike racing, and in life, things don’t always go to plan, but it’s in moments like these that you learn to be adaptable, to stay present and just do the best you can. There were many moments, like during my staircase sob session, where graduating college didn’t seem possible. But in the end, there was always a way to adapt, to move forward, and to emerge on the other side more resilient and confident.

Video: Student athlete Kate Courtney is out to rule XC mountain biking (Red Bull)

3. Share the journey — and enjoy it!

It was the eighth week of my senior year. While many of my classmates spent the weekend enjoying the California sunshine and the last few day parties of the year, my apartment was empty. That day, my three roommates competed in the NCAA National Championships for women’s water polo. I watched the live stream from my hotel room in the Czech Republic, feeling like a proud mom who wanted so badly for them to succeed. I had seen how hard they worked. I had watched them wake up early every morning and come home late from practice after a long day of classes.

In the last minute of the game, it was all tied up until Stanford scored and took home the championship. Watching my roommates’ hard work pay off after the determination and resilience I had seen them display all year reminded me of how special it is to be surrounded by people that push you to be your best self. A few days after they won the national championship, I competed in the first World Cup of the season and won the U23 women’s category. It’s safe to say it was a very successful week for us all.

When my roommates and I returned to our apartment from our travels, we shared in the success just as we had shared in each moment of the journey. Their support and friendship made the year easier and much more fun, even when we had to get to bed at 9pm on a Saturday or restock our fridge 10 times during a hard training week. We pushed each other to work harder and remember that we do this because we love it. They helped me see the bigger picture and enjoy life outside of bike racing, all while remaining determined and committed to my goals.

Finding my tribe senior year showed me the power in being around inspiring people, and in maintaining balance and perspective while chasing your goals. On a college campus, everyone is working towards a degree and, beyond that, so many students are chasing their own goals as athletes, musicians, artists — you name it. But at the end of the day, we all need to find a little support and a lot of balance. Being a part of my roommate’s journey, just as they were a part of mine, made our shared successes more meaningful and any setbacks seem conquerable.

In bike racing, as in life, you never finish quite the same person as the one who started the race. While in some cases, the long hours of studying and balancing classwork in college definitely held me back in my training, there were also countless moments where being a student pushed me forward, helped me commit again and again to my goals and changed me for the better.

While I can definitely say I’m excited for the professional athlete lifestyle, I am also so grateful for the experience I had at Stanford and how it changed me as a person and an athlete.


About the author

Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 U.S. national champion. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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