Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Veni, Vidi, Vici

Q: Is it wise when athletes pursue success at the expense of their educations? Simon Cho dropped out of high school to train as a short-track speed skater, and his father sold his business to pay the bills. The teenager ended up surprising everyone -- including himself -- by making the U.S. Olympic team. Is tunnel vision a good thing in pursuit of such a demanding goal? Are extreme sacrifices necessary, or foolish?

Sue Sylvester in a habit! Sister Juanita made no apologies for her relentless, single-minded quest for success.

The "Latin nun" at my high school (Merion Mercy outside of Philadelphia) demanded that her top-flight team of Latin students --- including this scriptor -- skip sports and Glee Club practices while working through holiday breaks to prepare for the Classical Society's Latin contest each year. Caesar commanded our attention; Cicero could not wait. We resented this discipline when the other girls were out having fun, but we won every time. Veni, vidi, vici.

Becoming a champion is not a hobby; champions are almost monk-like in their single-minded devotion to the religion of success. The discipline of success requires choice and sacrifice in order to know the thrill of victory. We Latin students could have quit Sister Juanita's teams, but we wanted to win more than we wanted to go shopping with our peers. We lived for that moment each year when we could claim our trophies at the awards ceremony.

Later on, I came to appreciate the lifelong benefits of those hard Latin days. Learning to unpack the complexity of an Ovid phrase and turn it into graceful English seemed like an arcane talent at the time, but now I attribute good writing skills to "my Latin background." I developed the ability to stick with the task even when the thicket of strange words seemed an indecipherable jumble; the patient and relentless parsing of sentences taught me how to work through problems to win the prize.

Accepting the imperative of relentless focus on the task at hand in order to gain success has also served me well throughout my professional career. As Trinity's president, I have come to realize that few problems are incapable of a solution, but many require considerable effort and a great deal of time to turn challenges into success stories.

Dangers certainly lurk within the single-minded pursuit of success. The most extreme examples can be found in Olympic athletes like Simon Cho, who has put his education on hold to pursue short-track speed skating.

With very few exceptions, amateur athletes cannot earn a living from the fame that comes with victory, even with an Olympic gold medal. There is no professional future in his sport. For every Apollo Ohno who manages to make some money from endorsements, there are hundreds of Olympic medalists who earn nothing but glory.

Postponing education in pursuit of athletic success haunts many professional athletes as well. While professional contracts can be lucrative in the major men's sports -- football, basketball, baseball -- most professional athletes retire as young men in their 30's, and then they must figure out how to have real careers. Many find that their failure to take education seriously is a major challenge to lifelong success.

One of the rare benefits of the scarce professional opportunities for women athletes is the realization that they must take education seriously, since they will need their degrees once their playing days are over. When I was 17, I resented Sister Juanita's exaltation of Horace over hoops; 40 years later, I understand her discipline completely.

By Patricia McGuire  |  February 15, 2010; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Determination Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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