For Love of the Game: The Club Sports Perspective
- by Kate Johnson, '11 Earth Systems Stanford Club Sports
As they pass into the tiny coastal town of Davenport, cars turn off of California’s Highway 1 into a gravel parking lot, following the intoxicating aroma of cinnamon sugar. I stand my bike against a table outside the bakery and pull my cell phone from my pocket. “Davenport,” I tap out slowly. “Mile sixty-five.” The text coming back makes my hand buzz. I smile when I flip open the phone and read: “You’ve been riding a long time.”
Next to me, my partner in crime updates her own “loyal fans” – friends who love us enough to indulge our mutual lunacies. She is a gifted first-year cyclist who shares my simple approach to the sport: if some riding is good, more is better. Today, we will cover over one hundred and forty miles, working our way from the Stanford campus to the coast, south through the bustle of Santa Cruz, back over the hills and home. We will stop only to use public restrooms and fill water bottles. We will pull energy bars and peanut butter sandwiches from our pockets as we ride. By evening, we will share a giddy, ridiculous exhaustion that turns our brains as well as our muscles to mush and inspires us to sing Disney songs aloud. Returning to campus under a sky the color of California poppies, despite our ravenous hunger for real food, we will feel so full of the day and the scene and our memories as to believe we might explode.
When I joined Stanford’s cycling club, I found a community of athletes united by a common love for their sport. Some compete at the highest possible collegiate level, and several of our alumni now race professionally. But in a program that emphasizes broad participation, these individuals train alongside riders of all abilities. And while our stars’ success continually inspires novices and veterans alike, I have also seen the best riders draw inspiration from the “average” Stanford cyclist. The first-time racer who finishes at the back of the field, but smiling all the way; the overworked doctoral student who sneaks an hour on the bike before sunrise or after dark; the gray-haired alumnus who drives three hours to a racecourse just to cheer – and the spontaneous, not-too-serious training partners who decide to take off on a nine-hour ride just for kicks – these people are the soul of our team, and they remind us that we need not measure success in victories. We can just as easily, and perhaps more correctly, measure success in the sharpness of our tan lines, the strength of our friendships, and the depth of our joy.
As President of Stanford Club Sports, I see this diversity and passion in each of our teams. Club Sports offers a unique experience that delivers social, intellectual, and athletic challenges and rewards. As I discovered on the cycling team, one of the program’s defining features is its inclusiveness. Many Club teams welcome new members with no prior experience, and several field “A” and “B” squads to accommodate a range of abilities. The resulting skill level diversity helps top athletes keep their success in perspective, and gives newcomers access to mentors and role models. Teams also welcome graduate students, post-docs, and even faculty and staff in addition to undergraduates. This model fosters lasting friendships between segments of the University population that share few other activities, and encourages mentoring relationships that spill over from athletic to academic spheres.
In this environment of camaraderie and mutual support, Club Sports also offers unparalleled opportunities for leadership development. Athletes are wholly responsible for team management, including planning practices and competitions, hiring coaches, and overseeing budgets that can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. An eight-member student Executive Committee works with staff in the Athletics Department to direct the entire program. These roles allow Club athletes to directly shape their own experiences, and provide remarkable avenues for personal growth. They also give all athletes, regardless of skill level, the chance to contribute in a meaningful way to their team’s success.
The student-run paradigm does present challenges. Team management and fundraising responsibilities compound the stress of juggling a full course load with a training schedule that might demand up to thirty hours per week. Club teams sometimes work tirelessly one night writing letters for The Stanford Fund or staffing a football game, only to roll out of bed at five a.m. the next morning to drive to a daylong tournament. Competing pressures and priorities can make it harder for our athletes to perform at their best, but these shared experiences also foster the camaraderie, commitment, and pride that make Club Sports exceptional. As a program, we’re constantly striving to help Club athletes strike the right balance by giving them access to the resources that they need to excel – better facilities, for example, or the extra travel money that can allow a team to focus on training for Nationals rather than on running a fundraising campaign.
Our efforts and our athletes’ dedication have made Stanford’s Club Sports program one of the strongest in the nation. With our deep roster of Varsity teams celebrating a sixteenth Directors Cup and anticipating their 100th NCAA Championship, the remarkable accomplishments of Club athletes sometimes go unrecognized by. Since 1995, our Cycling, Rugby, and Ultimate Frisbee teams alone have won a combined total of fourteen National Championships. During the 2009-2010 school year, twelve teams qualified for post-season events, bringing home numerous top-ten finishes. Club Sports athletes have been named to All-American and professional development teams, and former Club team members have represented the United States in multiple Olympics.
To truly capture the legacy of Stanford Club Sports, however, I would refer not to these statistics but to the testimony of our alumni. In an online survey conducted last spring, former Club athletes responded to a simple prompt: “tell us a little about your participation in the program.” Their stories speak to a lifelong passion that runs far deeper and broader than competitive instinct. “I started the team with two friends in 1980,” reads one. “I met my wife on the team.” “Loved the sense of camaraderie, flexibility, and diversity.” “One of the highlights of my time at Stanford.” “That freezing race at Cal Poly will always be with me.” “Made friends…” “Learned new sports…” “Captain…” Co-Captain…” “Treasurer…” “Still riding and racing today…”
All Club Sports athletes strive for competitive success. But at the same time, we continually recall the fundamental enthusiasms that drew us to athletics in the first place. Our motivations vary – a love of the outdoors, a delight in the company of friends, a commitment to superior leadership – or, as in my case, a penchant for conquering the self-defined epic and ridiculous. We are united, however, by the simple delight that we take in our endeavors. We work hard. We have fun. Sometimes, we can’t tell the difference.
Kate Johnson is the President, Treasurer, and Alumni Coordinator for Stanford Club Sports.