Year after year, two of CU Boulder’s most successful sports teams also perform best in the classroom. How does that happen?
Petra Hyncicova had been in the United States two days when she dropped by the mighty CU ski team’s headquarters for the first time. It was August 2014, and the future Olympian had come to CU Boulder with two aims — studying science and racing for an elite ski team.
At home in the Czech Republic, there was really no way to do both. Universities there generally don’t blend serious academics and serious sports. Hyncicova (IntPhys, MS’18), a Nordic, or cross-country, skier, was about to give up racing for school when she learned of another possibility.
An acquaintance connected her with CU ski coach Richard Rokos, a fellow Czech, and she soon found herself on the path to a new future.
In Boulder, Hyncicova had barely set foot inside the ski team offices when she saw that the vaunted scholar-athlete was no mere catchphrase: Noted beneath photographs of CU’s many NCAA championship teams were their GPAs.
“When they come, they see,” said Rokos, who has a degree in engineering and calls knowledge “my passion.”
CU’s women skiers in particular have a two-part reputation to uphold, Hyncicova found: They’re perennially among America’s best collegiate racers and also among the top performing CU Boulder athletes in the classroom. For five years running, they’ve earned the highest team GPA among spring athletes, 3.5 most recently.
Their fall-sport rival is CU’s women’s cross-country squad, which won the Pac-12 title last season. The runners also have earned highest team GPA honors five years in a row, 3.4 last semester.
How does this happen? How is it that two of CU Boulder’s most successful intercollegiate athletics teams also consistently do best in the classroom?
If there’s no definitive answer, the athletes and coaches all have theories.
Some emphasize CU Boulder’s ability to offer both elite-level skiing and running and premier science and engineering programs — a draw for high school athletes with a scientific bent.
Others cite cultural and demographic factors, including women’s superior academic achievement on average, skiers’ and runners’ strong performance across the NCAA and their often-privileged backgrounds — white and middle class.
Still others stress team culture and healthy peer pressure.
You don't want to disappoint the team.
Everyone interviewed for this story underscored the nature of the sports, which depend on a series of exacting solo performances for team success, and the driven, self-reliant personalities they attract.
“These are not normal college students,” said cross-country associate head coach Heather Burroughs (Bio’99), a past CU All-American.
Hyncicova, who would become a two-time CU ski captain while pursuing a joint bachelor’s-master’s degree, said she wasn’t about to blow her team’s brainy reputation.
“You want to do the same and not disappoint the team,” she said in June, while wrapping up her master’s thesis and preparing to join the Czech national ski team.
The academic strength of CU’s women skiers and runners makes sense: Across the NCAA, both groups do well.
The athletic association measures classroom performance by a metric called academic progress rate (APR). While imperfect — it emphasizes eligibility to play and persistence in school, but does not factor in actual GPAs — APR offers a basis for comparisons.
For the four-year period through the 2016-17 school year, women’s ski teams ranked second nationally, tied with swimming and ice hockey and just behind gymnastics, the NCAA reported. Women’s cross-country teams ranked fifth, tied with rowing and tennis.
In more than 25 years at CU, cross-country head coach Mark Wetmore has mentored hundreds of runners, leading the women’s and men’s teams to a slew of national titles. He attributes their academic prowess overwhelmingly to the type of person drawn to a grueling, glamour-free sport.
Most cross-country runners also run distance events in spring track, which means they’re in season 10 months a year, running 10 or more miles daily.
“It’s rarely playful,” Wetmore said. “Nobody says, ‘Let’s go to the park and have a 10,000-meter race.’”
The students who pursue collegiate distance running usually arrive on campus imbued with determination, self-discipline, focus and tolerance for pain, he said.
Combined with intense competitiveness and, often, intellectual ambition, these traits serve them well in the classroom.
“I’ve always felt this need — ‘I have to be the best at it,’” said Sage Hurta (ChemBioEngr’20), an emerging women’s cross-country star and chemical engineering major from upstate New York who recently earned a 4.0 GPA, along with at least four other runners.
Hurta recalls feeling this way all her life, even about middle-school badminton.
“It would really bother me that I wasn’t good at it,” she said.
All NCAA Division 1 athletes are competitive, and it’s especially true of endurance athletes. The structure of cross-country competition further intensifies it: Only seven of the team’s 20 runners compete in most meets, so they’re perpetually competing against teammates as well as opponents.
At the meets, the team’s fate depends on each runner’s solo performance: There are no time outs and no substitutions.
“You are on your own when the gun goes off,” Burroughs said.
This reinforces the athletes’ innate determination, self-reliance and sense of personal responsibility.
“I either do things as hard as I can, or I don’t do them at all,” said Ben Saarel (EngrPhys’18) of men’s cross-country, which last spring had the highest GPA among CU men’s teams.
Saarel, an engineering physics major whose roommates nicknamed him “Bengineering,” is a two-time Pac-12 scholar-athlete of the year. He graduated with a cumulative 3.97 GPA and the CU record for 1,500 meters.
To the extent Wetmore and Burroughs help runners in the classroom, they said, it’s through flexible scheduling and by sending a convincing message that they value intellectual ambition. They routinely schedule make-up practices for runners with conflicting academic obligations, and they design efficient training programs.
“We keep our practices businesslike, so they’re out the door,” Wetmore said.
Similar traits are at play among the skiers, especially Nordic racers like Hyncicova. And like the cross-country coaches, Rokos attributes the skiers’ academic success mainly to the natures of the sport and the athletes, plus a team culture steeped in learning.
“As long as you provide opportunity for this climate,” he said, “it’s self-fulfilling.”
I either do things as hard as I can, or not at all.”
Like all student athletes, the runners and skiers ration their time.
Hurta and Saarel live by the same maxim, which Saarel put this way: “If you’re not ahead, you’re behind.”
Both said they keep a close eye on due dates for assignments, exams and projects, and avoid procrastination. This allows them psychological space to focus on running come race day. They also communicate early and often with professors about their travel schedules.
Hurta prioritizes running and school work nearly to the exclusion of all else, including social life outside the team, she said. Saarel said he generally tried to get ample rest, but pulled all-nighters — once between 12- and 14-mile runs — when necessary.
(Runners are generally fastidious about diet and sleep. “The requirements of [race day] preclude a lot of howling at the moon,” Wetmore said.)
Competitiveness drove Hyncicova, the skier said; team culture inspired her.
Her experience at the 2018 Winter Olympics underscored culture’s role.
On CU road trips, she found Rokos a versatile conversationalist with an infectious sense of curiosity. The skiers stayed together in small quarters. After skiing, eating and napping, she said, it would get quiet and they’d hit the books.
But at the Olympics, where Hyncicova was one of the only athletes with obligations other than skiing, keeping up with school was a challenge.
“It’s really tempting to focus on skiing,” she said.
CU's skiers are further motivated by the awareness that there’s almost no chance they’ll become professional racers, given how few there are worldwide.
“Everybody knows they will have to go and make a living,” said Rokos.
Hyncicova, now back in Europe, will devote the next two years to skiing full-time and proving what she’s capable of when focused solely on racing. Sooner or later, she’ll move on, likely to a career in physical therapy, she said.
She’ll have a head start, thanks to the four years she devoted to twin dreams: Earning two CU Boulder degrees while skiing her way into the Olympics.
“I would do it again,” she said.
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Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photo courtesy CU Athletics