Athletes draw on lessons from their Jesuit education to succeed in the Olympics and beyond
Pole vaulting entered Tim Mack’s life by chance, as an alternative to long-distance running on his middle school track team. He continued to vault at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, and while he enjoyed it, he wasn’t very good by his own estimation. He never qualified for the state meet, and it wasn’t until summer track after his senior year that any colleges showed interest. Even by the end of college, despite having improved, he was still just average.
But over the course of the following decade, he would draw on his high school experience to help him earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Often alone during training sessions, he constantly reminded himself to work hard and stay focused.
“I definitely would not be where I am today if not for the education I received from the faculty and staff at Saint Ignatius,” he says. “It truly laid the foundation of who I am, and
SEEING HOW THINGS WORKED THERE GAVE ME THE COURAGE TO GO OUT AND TAKE A CHANCE, AND TRY TO DO SOMETHING BIG MYSELF.
will become, which has allowed me to reach the highest goals I could ever imagine.”
Tim Mack failed three times to make the Olympic team, but eventually, at age 31, he earned the right to represent the United States at the 2004 Games in Athens. He set the bar high, at 5.95 meters (19 feet, 61⁄4 inches); if he could clear that height, he’d set an Olympic record. He missed on his first attempt, and again on his second. On his third and final try, he launched upward, extended his legs, curled his body, and sailed over the bar, winning gold—quite a feat for someone who doesn’t even hold the pole vault record at his high school.
Today he prepares a new generation of athletes at SPIRE Institute and Academy in Geneva, Ohio, drawing on lessons he learned at Saint Ignatius. He tells himself to keep moving forward, keep his faith, treat others with respect, practice humility, and be a good role model. “I try to stay balanced in life, faith, and sport,” he says.
Notably, NCAA Division I Jesuit university athletes graduate at a rate of 95.55 percent, 5.5 percent above the national average. Currently, Boston College is tied for seventh place among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, and the BC women’s hockey team is one of the university’s 12 teams with a perfect 100 percent graduation rate. That program includes U.S. Olympian Molly Schaus.
“We were often reminded that we were student-athletes, and that the word ‘student’ comes first in that combo,” says Schaus, a goaltender who won silver medals in both the 2010 (Vancouver) and 2014 (Sochi) Olympics.
She had dreamed of playing Olympic hockey since fourth grade, when she watched the U.S. women’s team win gold in 1998 (Nagano). Playing in college had been another dream, but she got much more than hockey and a degree in education from Boston College.
“I valued the Jesuits’ commitment to ‘men and women for others,’ and was grateful for so many opportunities to volunteer throughout my four years on campus,” she says. “I worked for a few different nonprofits after college as I was training for the 2014 Olympics, and my post-hockey career has centered around community engagement and educational outreach.”
Jesuit high schools and universities have been associated with Olympians for over a century, going back at least to when Marquette University’s John Brennan competed in the 1908 London Games. Since then, nine others from Marquette have participated in the Olympics, including basketball players Dwayne Wade and Alfred “Butch” Lee, a member of the Puerto Rican national team at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
“Even though I arrived at Marquette with a lot of confidence, seeing how things worked there gave me the courage to go out and take a chance, and try to do something big myself,” says Lee, who— after a successful career in the NBA—returned to his native San Juan, Puerto Rico. He coached multiple professional basketball teams there and has opened a sign printing business.
Lee graduated in 1978, and he recalls how much he loved reading philosophy at Marquette and how naturally it dovetailed with the streetwise lessons of legendary coach Al McGuire. McGuire fulfilled his promise to Lee’s parents that their son would graduate.
“I don’t think at the time we realized the education we were getting from him,” Lee says. “You want to win games, but he told us sometimes when you lose in a certain context, it makes you better. He talked about life not being fair and the importance of being professional and respectful. You add Al McGuire to Marquette, and you have an extraordinary education.”
Michael Austin is a freelance writer based in Chicago, a national James Beard Award finalist for magazine feature writing, and a former nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.