By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
Jessica Ubanyionwu is nothing like the caricature of a single-minded, focused-on-athletics Division I student-athlete. Invited to the Division I 2010 Indoor Track and Field Championships (where she placed 16th in the triple jump), Ubanyionwu views her athletics participation as simply a vehicle to get her where she really wants to go: medical school.
Jessica Ubanyionwu in action
“I’m so into my academics, I try to deal with the fact that I’m in sports, too,” said the Baylor student-athlete. “My academics are a big focus in my life. I’m not going to go pro in sports. Academics is my ‘Plan A,’ not sports.”
Ubanyionwu’s dedication to her schoolwork and talent in the triple jump combined to earn her one of the first NCAA Elite 88 Awards. Created to recognize student-athletes who reach the national championship in their sport while also achieving the highest academic standard among their peers, the awards honored 88 individuals – one at every NCAA championship – for the first time in 2009-10.
“These exceptional young men and women come from diverse backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: a commitment to excellence in the classroom and in competition,” said Joni Comstock, NCAA senior vice president for championships.
Suzie Strickler strides on
The Elite 88 Award program worked just as Erin O’Connell, athletics director at Seattle Pacific and a member of the committee that helped create the award, planned – especially since Seattle Pacific’s Suzie Strickler won the award at the Division II Women’s Cross Country Championships.
“She’s a great depiction of somebody who should be winning the award,” O’Connell said of Strickler. “She’s a very intelligent, driven individual. It’s prestigious for any institution and individual to win.”
Strickler said her secret to being successful in academics and athletics is to enjoy what she’s doing while she’s doing it.
An exercise science major with a 4.0 grade-point average, Strickler isn’t sure what she’s going to do after graduation, though the medical field appeals to her.
Igor Martinez on skates
Igor Martinez, a civil engineering major with a 4.0 GPA at Norwich, isn’t sure what he’s going to do when he graduates, either. Martinez won the Elite 88 Award at the Division III Men’s Ice Hockey Championship.
“I was more shocked than anything else,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be me.”
“You can always work hard and be serious,” he said. “But you’ve got to take time to have fun with your teammates.”
Getting to the championship was an enormous accomplishment, but sharing it with his teammates was what made it special. The Elite 88 was a bonus, as it was for most of the recipients in the award’s inaugural year who happen to be going pro in something other than sports.
Daniel St. Jacques