Kelly Catlin journal: Trying to balance grad school and pro racing

Team pursuit world champion and Olympic silver medalist Kelly Catlin explains how finding balance in her life is like juggling with knives.

Photo: Wil Matthews

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The crowds cheered. The flags waved. As our team stepped off the podium, pupils dilated from adrenaline, faces beaming, it was hard to imagine a better outcome. We had just finished second at the Berlin World Cup, which marked our first team pursuit podium of the 2018-2019 season. Just in time for the run-in to the 2020 Olympics, things were finally looking up.

Or so it seemed.

I began to feel a bit apprehensive when we stepped to the side for pictures because our U.S. National Team coach, Gary Sutton, was white as a sheet. And he was looking at me. Dang.

“Gary, what is it?”

Uh oh. He took a step closer and put a hand on my shoulder like he was bracing to tell me my parents had died or something. “Kelly … I got an email from Stanford … something was wrong with the Statistical Analysis test.”

Oh no.

“I’m afraid, well, it looks like you’ll have to take it again.”

And that was when I died a little on the inside.

Being a graduate student in Computational Mathematics is easy. Being a graduate student while simultaneously competing for the National Team on the track is often more difficult. It’s most difficult when you have to retake a three-hour final exam the moment you step out of the final round of a team pursuit. Being a graduate student, track cyclist, and professional road cyclist can instead feel like I need to time-travel to get everything done. And things still slip through the cracks.

This is probably the point when you’ll expect me to say something cliché like, “Time management is everything.” Or perhaps you’re expecting a nice, encouraging slogan like, “Being a student only makes me a better athlete!” After all, I somehow make everything work, right? Sure. Yeah, that’s somewhat accurate. But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work. It’s like juggling with knives, but I really am dropping a lot of them. It’s just that most of them hit the floor and not me.

So how do I balance three competing (no pun intended) careers?

Easy. I don’t balance them.

Every masters cyclist in the world knows this. When you go out to train after a long day at work, you’re not really “balancing” your cycling and your work. Rather, you are prioritizing your cycling (possibly against your significant other’s wishes!) ahead of the myriad other tasks you could pursue in the evenings. When you’re cycling, you’re not doing your 9-to-5, and when you’re at your job you’re certainly not cycling. Each day you’re breaking the hours down into discrete chunks of 100 percent. During you’re work day, you’re ideally working 100 percent on your job. After quitting time, you’re 100 percent committed to cycling.

I do exactly the same thing, only instead of breaking down the hours, I break down the days. From November through mid-December I had a 40-day track camp with two World Cups mixed in. Those 40 days were 100 percent committed to track cycling. Then, when I got back, I was 100 percent committed to graduate student duties for the two weeks until we departed again. And on and on it went, with the only bumps in the road occurring when certain major tests and projects had to be turned in while I was on the road.

But things go wrong, no matter the time management or organization or discipline. Life happens, and of course, cycling and Murphy’s Law are practically synonymous. Broken arms, concussions, mechanicals, lost books, bad Internet speeds, you name it. You cannot plan for the unplannable, and — to go back to the juggling analogy — sometimes those knives will hit you. What do you do when that happens?

Now I am going to say something cliché: The greatest strength you will ever develop is the ability to recognize your own weaknesses, and to learn to ask for help when you need it. This is a lesson I have only just begun learning, slowly and painfully, these first few months as a graduate student. I still fail. As athletes, we are all socially programmed to be stoic with our pain, to bear our burdens and not complain, even when such stoicism reaches the point of stupidity and those burdens begin to damage us. These are hard habits to break.

Do you want an example? I once studied for 12 hours during my recovery day, only to realize I needed a recovery day from that “recovery” day.

So, remember: Just as with your muscles, your mind can only repair itself and get stronger with rest. Ask for a rest day, or, if you’re fortunate to be your own taskmaster (er, coach), give yourself a rest day.

Unlike everything else in life, it cannot possibly do you harm.

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