Distance school facilitates academic and Olympic juggling

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Team USA watches during overtime against Team Slovakia during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on February 16, 2022.

Lintao Zhang | Getty Images

Here’s one thing the pandemic has made easier for young stars at the Beijing Olympics: juggling the demands of elite athletic competition with college life.

Distance learning, now a reality for students around the world, is also useful when you’re away from campus for weeks. And the technology has been battle tested for two years now.

Nathan Smith, a student at Minnesota State University and one of 15 varsity players on the United States men’s hockey team, was able to follow his schoolwork and even talk with his teachers.

“I wasn’t sure what type of connection and everything I would have here,” Smith said. “I try to do my best and keep up with the times.”

Devon Levi, goaltender for the Canadian men’s hockey team and a student at Northeastern University in Boston, says his teachers have supported him in his athletic endeavors, so he’s doing his part to keep up to date with his studies. He brought his books with him to Beijing.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they totally understand that,” said Levi, who is majoring in IT and business. “They are on my side and they want me to pursue my dreams.”

Other elite athletes at the Winter Games have chosen to take time off from school to compete, including Jared Shumate, a member of the US Nordic Combined team who studies geography and sociology at the University of Utah.

Balancing school and skiing “definitely got easier than in my first two years when I was living in the dorms and getting in-person lessons and training,” he said.

By the time they reach the elite level of their sport, most young Olympians are experienced at balancing academic and competitive demands, said Michelle Smith Ware, board member of the national academic advisory group NACADA.

Not everyone is able to find this balance. Hong Kong skier Arabella Ng reportedly opted out of the Beijing Games, citing academic pressures and travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic.

“It’s really an individual choice,” said Ware, director of academic support services for athletics at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Either give up your spot, take time off from your studies, or take on the challenge of maintaining the workload for a semester while working and conditioning and working or playing the Olympics,” a- she declared. . “It must be a difficult (decision).”

The USA Figure Skating Team is made up of Ivy Leaguers who decided to put their studies on hold to pursue their Olympic dreams once the coronavirus crisis started and lessons moved to Zoom anyway.

This includes gold medalist Nathan Chen, who is studying statistics and data science at Yale University, Vincent Zhou at Brown University, and Karen Chen, who is in pre-med at Cornell University. Snowboarder Chloe Kim is on leave from Princeton University.

Nathan Chen said the only thing he was sure of after winning gold in Beijing was that he wanted to go back to school in August.

Even before the pandemic, some athletes had tapped into distance learning options in order to focus on their sports.

Russian ice dancers Gleb Smolkin and Diana Davis are both students in a fully distance learning program at Astrakhan State Technical University in southern Russia.

The pair train in Novi, Michigan, but they skate for Sambo 70, the club of Davis’ famous mother, Russian figure skating coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Smolkin said the club had reached an agreement with the university which allowed them to continue their studies remotely.

“It’s all remote learning, so that’s no problem for us,” Smolkin said. “They’re giving us concessions. Now it’s the Olympics and they’re giving us time so we can focus on the competition, but after that we’ll go through all the evaluations.”

Even after the pandemic is over, Ware said, the benefits of distance learning will remain a resource for those balancing elite athletics with campus life.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for this to be used post-Covid,” Ware said. “I don’t know how institutions will choose to adopt this. Why not use the technology?”


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