On Your Mark, Get Set, GO!
Weinberg Athletes Balance Big Ten Competition and Academic Rigor
Last March an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “The Myth of the ‘Student-Athlete’” bemoaned the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s use of the phrase. In particular the writer cited misuse in some Division I teams of a term that suggests players are first and foremost students; he argued that these athletes spent more time on sports than on their studies, took much longer to graduate, and finished their degrees only with the help of advisers who steered them toward easy majors and provided intensive tutoring.
Student-athletes at Northwestern, however, live a completely different reality. They opt for challenging majors (for example, economics is a popular major among Weinberg student-athletes) while gutting through grueling workouts and high-pressure competition.
The weekday schedule of a Weinberg student-athlete goes something like this: Get up at dawn for early morning practice, eat a quick breakfast, run to classes, grab lunch somewhere along the way, head back to afternoon practice, eat dinner, do homework, fall asleep. Repeat five times, then spend weekends at games and tournaments. Complete papers and various assignments on airplanes or on the bus, and take exams in hotel rooms under the watchful eyes of proctors.
Despite such punishing schedules, all of the following six Weinberg student-athletes have received Academic All-Big Ten honors, which require a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0. We asked them to open up about the challenges and rewards of playing Big Ten sports and how they cope with the stress. The paths they’ve chosen aren’t easy, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Chelsea Armstrong ’13 first came to Northwestern in 2009, she committed to only two seasons on the women’s field hockey team. After all, she was half the world away from her family, friends, and hometown of Perth, Australia, and didn’t know what to expect at a competitive U.S. university.
But just two weeks into the season she felt at home in Evanston and pledged to stay all four years. Good thing, because the Aussie junior has turned out to be a powerhouse on the pitch. In fall 2011 she was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row, having scored more goals than any other women’s field hockey player in the Big Ten. She also holds the Northwestern record for career points and career goals, and is tied fifth all-time for career assists.
Armstrong is known for her speed and versatility, qualities she developed on her parents’ farm in western Australia. “When I was little I used to help my dad herd sheep. We would ride motorbikes to bring them in,” she recalls. “They’re not the smartest animals.”
Armstrong started out as a defender at the University of West Australia, but was soon recruited by University of Michigan coach Tracy Fuchs. When Fuchs told her she had taken a job at Northwestern, Armstrong decided to follow. Fuchs changed Armstrong’s position to forward, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When asked how she balances her rigorous economics major with year-round field hockey training, Armstrong admits, “My first quarter was hard. In Australia we have a pass/fail system, so you don’t have a GPA. It was a bit of a shock.”
By second quarter she adjusted her study habits and brought her grades up quickly. She says the cultural similarities between Australia and America helped her settle in. “Maybe it’s a little more fast-paced here, a little busier. But I’ve benefited from the work ethic on and off the field. My experience has helped develop me as a person.”
Her time at Northwestern has also forced a change to her diet. Armstrong finds herself eating a lot more peanut butter these days than vegemite, the Australian vegetable spread she enjoyed at home. “I wasn’t really a fan of peanut butter before I came over here, but now I eat it on everything!”
Facing the Big Ten’s toughest linemen week after week while pursuing premed ambitions might seem like a terrifying challenge to most.
Yet Doug Bartels ’11 has confronted much scarier situations.
When Bartels was only 14 months old, a man posing as a florist entered his family’s home in Rockford, Illinois, and kidnapped him after handcuffing his babysitter and six-year-old brother. The kidnapper demanded a $100,000 ransom, which was delivered, and the community, including FBI agents who were attending a well-timed regional golf outing, turned out in droves to look for the toddler. After about 12 hours a sheriff’s deputy shined his flashlight in a patch of weeds and saw a pair of tiny arms waving. Aside from being covered in mosquito bites and quite hungry, Bartels was fine.
At the time his mother, Carol, told a local newspaper reporter: “When you see grown FBI men crying because they found a child alive, you know it’s something special.”
Bartels, who majored in anthropology, remains thankful for everyone who helped rescue him that day, channeling that gratitude into hard work and commitment to everything he does, on and off the field.
Bartels red-shirted as a freshman but soon earned a scholarship and started as right guard his sophomore year. He still recalls his first game against University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Iowa has a pretty rowdy crowd. I looked around the stadium and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these people who want me to fail.’ But when you’re on Northwestern’s team it’s like a personal statement. There’s no abandoning your brother when they’re counting on you … I thought, ‘You want me to fail but I’m going to prove you wrong. Northwestern is going to hang on and show you.’”
After his sophomore year Bartels underwent surgery on his right shoulder and a year later had surgery on his left shoulder. Despite his physical challenges, he started 24 straight games for the Wildcats and delivered a consistently strong performance.
He stayed at Northwestern after graduating to earn a master’s degree in liberal studies and play his fourth year on the team, but was sidelined due to injuries. This fall he will begin his studies at Rush Medical School in Chicago in order to fulfill his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. “I want to go into orthopedics because of my experiences in football,” he asserts. “I shadowed an orthopedic surgeon and got to sit in the OR, and when I saw him operating I got the same rush as when I was stepping onto the field.”
The son of an NBA referee based in Chicago, Drew Crawford ’13 grew up attending some of the most exciting basketball games in history—those played in the late 1990s by the Chicago Bulls, when Michael Jordan led the team to win six NBA finals.
“I am a big Bulls fan and it was such a blast to see Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen play, and to get my picture taken with them,” Crawford reminisces.
Those heady victories reinforced his desire to play basketball at an elite level. His father taught him the fundamentals of the game, and as the boy progressed he helped his son with the sport’s psychological aspects—how to maintain his confidence, composure, and focus when the game got tough. Crawford honed his skills on the court at his high school in Naperville, Illinois, and worked equally hard in class. “I’ve always been interested in economics, and I knew I wanted a school that had a balance of great academics and great athletics.”
He says he found both at Northwestern, where he plays guard and forward. This year he was selected to the Capital One Academic All-America Second Team; he was the eighth Northwestern men’s basketball player to earn the honor, which requires a 3.3 GPA (Crawford has a 3.4), and the first since 1994.
Crawford credits his success with what he calls Northwestern’s “family atmosphere. Everyone cares about each other here … But we know there’s no free pass. Our academics are extremely demanding. If we ever fall out of line, the people here get us back on track.”
When asked what helps him get through long days, Crawford replies without skipping a beat, “A lot of naps. You find time here and there, just 25 or 30 minutes. Also, thinking in general about the opportunities we have here, what it means to be at such a great school.”
Crawford plans to play basketball as long as he can after graduation—perhaps overseas—and then start a career in finance. Wherever he goes, he will carry fond Wildcat memories. “The highlights are the home games when the gym is totally packed and we’re playing some of the best college teams in the nation. The energy in the building is incredible.”
In a parallel universe, Dayana Sarkisova ’13 would be fencing for the Soviet Union, earning national medals and accolades for the Azerbaijani team.
But history in this universe took a different course. Sarkisova’s father, an elite Armenian fencer who was once headed for the Olympics, had to flee his native Azerbaijan when old ethnic hatreds flared with the first crumbling of the Soviet Union. In 1988, rather than participating in the Olympics, Sarkisov escaped to Ukraine where he sought refugee status in the United States. By the time he received papers allowing him and his parents entry, he was married and Dayana was 11 months old. They all moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1992, just months after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Eventually the family relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, because Sarkisov was offered a coaching position at a fencing club. Sarkisova spent her early childhood at the club, trying to get into fencing suits that were much too big for her. It was one of the few places she felt completely comfortable. “Even though I was very young when we moved, it was still a culture shock. I was very different from most kids. I was trying to learn American culture. At home TV was in Russian, food was Russian—we might as well have lived in Russia.”
As she grew, Sarkisova exhibited some impressive skills under her father’s tutelage. Like him, she excelled at foil, the fencing style that allows contact only on the torso and back. She describes fencing as “physical chess” because of its intellectual as well as athletic demands. “You always have to be a few moves ahead in your mind. You have to balance that mindset and still be physically fit,” says the political science major and business minor.
So far Sarkisova has successfully met those intellectual and physical challenges. As a freshman she placed third in the NCAA Championships and became the third Wildcat woman fencer ever to earn first-team All-America standing. She maintained that status for the next two years and vows to make All-America next year to complete her winning streak.
Sarkisova says the fencing season, which lasts from January through March, is a blur of practices, classes, and traveling. “I try to take one thing at a time. Every weekend there’s some kind of competition, a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Whether he’s leading Northwestern’s soccer team on the field, shooting hoops to relax, or speaking one of the six languages in which he is fluent, Oliver Kupe ’12 finds a way to bring people together.
In fact, he chose Northwestern over Georgetown, Duke, and Brown because of the unity he felt on campus.
“I was looking for a place where it was all about the team and connectedness, not individuals or the name of the institution,” says Kupe (ku-PAY), an economics major. “When I came here I felt that it had something special. The players and the coaches seemed genuine, like they really cared about me as a player and a person. They were interested in creating a family of brothers. Then you have Chicago in your backyard. Plus it’s so close to home that my parents came to every single one of my games.”
Kupe’s parents are used to traveling—they moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo to earn their Ph.D.'s in Germany, then relocated their growing family to Luxembourg. As a result of the family’s peripatetic background, Kupe speaks German, French, Luxembourgeois, Spanish, and Lingala (the Congolese dialect he learned from his parents).
When Kupe was seven they moved once again to suburban Detroit, where the young boy continued to improve his soccer skills and learned to play basketball, too. He played so well, in fact, that he could have walked onto Michigan State’s basketball team as a freshman.
“But the way I grew up in Europe, soccer was the game. It was always my real, true passion,” says Kupe.
Last November Kupe realized his dream of helping Northwestern win the Big Ten Tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan, defeating Penn State 2-1. He scored the winning goal in front of his family, teammates, and friends from home and Northwestern, which made success all the sweeter. “To leave that accomplishment behind for the younger guys on the team was the most incredible thing. It’s great to put another star on the board for Northwestern.”
Although the Real Salt Lake City soccer team chose Kupe in a professional draft, he has decided instead to start a career in July as a financial adviser at a Chicago investment firm. “I’m ready to move on,” he reflects of his time at Northwestern. “There’s nothing more I could ask for.”
All her life Felicitas Lenz ’13 has moved between two worlds that are deeply connected by family ties and her sport.
Born in Tuebingen, Germany, to physicians who relocated to California to complete their post docs when she was nine months old, Lenz holds dual citizenship. She grew up speaking German at home and English everywhere else, including the pool where she first learned to dive. Lenz and her younger sister, Cosima ’14, started diving together and today both are Weinberg students who dive for Northwestern.
Lenz chose Northwestern over Stanford, Columbia, Duke, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Part of Northwestern’s draw was Alik Sarkisian, the diving coach whom she has known since high school, and part was the call of the unknown. “I thought for sure I was going to Stanford, but I saw a better fit here,” Lenz explains. “I came to Chicago and seeing the city made me change my mind. College is an opportunity to go somewhere and see things you normally wouldn’t see.”
A German major who aspires to become a neonatologist, Lenz says that diving actually makes her a better student. “If I didn’t have diving I’d be a huge procrastinator. Being an athlete makes you focus on academics. It’s good to have a break every day from school, and it’s fun working with a team. Our coach has a very creative approach.”
Lenz was thrilled to spend last summer with her sister in Dresden, where Lenz worked in a stem cell research lab and practiced with the German national diving team. The experience also helped improve her language skills, because she was unfamiliar with the diving terms used by the German coaches. “They have new jargon and a different style of coaching,” Lenz notes. “They are all government-sponsored athletes who go to a sports school, so it’s very different from here.”
Like many divers, Lenz also trained as a gymnast for years. Her favorite dive is the inward two-and-a-half pike on the three-meter platform, a maneuver that involves straightening the knees and bending tightly at the hips while propelling forward.
Lenz’s two worlds merged last August when she competed at the 2011 World University Games (regarded as the Olympics for university students) in Shenzhen, China. She competed for the German national team while wearing a Northwestern suit, coming in tenth in a competition full of Olympic athletes.Back to top