Wake Forest has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I have always found it to be an incredibly special place. As the son of a football coach, then as a student, alumnus and eventually a staff member, I have seen and experienced Wake Forest from many perspectives. The blending of those differing perspectives has been a huge advantage in my role with the Deacon Club. For more than 17 years I have had the privilege to work on behalf of the Wake Forest student-athlete. My efforts are primarily focused on engaging and building relationships with our donors, educating them about the needs of our programs and helping connect them with opportunities that align with their individual interests and goals. Being able to speak to donors from the point of view of a life-long fan, former student, and proud supporter and employee of Wake Forest Athletics has been extremely helpful as we continue to try to address the ever-increasing needs of our coaches and student-athletes.
But this year I have gained yet another new perspective on Wake Forest, and it is already having a tremendous impact on the way I view our department and the things that set us apart and make this place so special. I am now the parent of a Wake Forest student-athlete. This fall my oldest daughter, Spencer, became a third generation Demon Deacon and joined the cross country team. In just a few short weeks, this new experience has opened my eyes to the tremendous impact that so many people in our department have on our student-athletes on a daily basis. I’ve always known that the people at Wake Forest are what makes it such a special place, but I’ve quickly gained an even deeper admiration for the people who tirelessly support our student-athletes on and off the field and truly make a difference in their lives.
Wake Forest has outstanding coaches – I’ve known this since I was a kid, and I talk about it with donors all the time. But now, as a parent, I have the opportunity to witness, first-hand, the significance of the student-athlete-coach relationship and the influence a coach has on shaping their team. Spencer’s coach, Michelle Chewens, has created a culture in which her runners look forward to 6:30 a.m. runs, 5 days a week, and they understand the importance of being committed – even on the days when they have two required workouts. Spencer is currently running 50+ miles per week, and that will most likely ramp up to 70 miles or more throughout her running career. It takes a special coach to keep the team inspired and motivated to not only wake up every morning before sunrise, but help them find the balance between training and academics while also encouraging them to get the necessary amount of sleep required to reach peak performance on the cross country trails and in the classroom.
But the coaches aren’t the only ones focused on helping student-athletes perform at their best. Strength training and conditioning is vital, not only for cross country runners like Spencer, but for all of our student-athletes. The cross country sports performance team is led by David Bass who conducts formal strength training and conditioning sessions multiple times per week as well as 30 minute core workouts each day. These workouts are specifically designed for the individual needs of a distance runner, and are often tailored to the unique needs of each team member. This requires tremendous skill and expertise on the part of the sports performance coach who spends countless hours researching, planning workouts and staying up to date on the latest news and innovations, and often must do that for multiple sports to which they are assigned. I am in awe of the passion and dedication of our sports performance coaches.
As a parent, the health of my child is of the utmost importance, and I’m grateful to know that Spencer is in excellent hands with our Wake Forest Sports Medicine team. She makes regular visits to the beautiful, state-of-the-art new sports medicine facility which is directed by Greg Collins. Under the direct supervision of Dave Chandler, Assistant Athletic Trainer for Cross Country/Track & Field, Spencer is cared for with ice baths, ultrasound treatments and various other treatments necessary for an athlete running 50+ miles a week to recover and remain healthy. Knowing that there is such a skilled and committed group of people available to coordinate any medical needs that arise for our student-athletes, day or night, is a huge comfort to parents like me.
When I was in college, it’s safe to say that proper nutrition was not necessarily a big focus for me. But for Spencer, it will be much more important. Proper nutrition provides the fuel required to run 50+ miles a week, train, study, and stay alert in class. Fortunately, Spencer will benefit from the support and expertise of Kate Ruley, Director of Sports Nutrition. Student-athletes are encouraged to have one on one visits with Kate as well as team counseling to learn how to properly fuel their bodies. Several times per week Kate and her staff of interns even prepare a breakfast for the team since they have little time to eat between morning workouts and class. These nutritious meals at key recovery times are carefully planned and thoughtfully delivered in their locker room. Like the sports performance coaches, Kate spends countless hours planning, researching and staying educated about the latest trends and advancements in sports nutrition. Nutritional programs must not only be tailored for each sport, but within teams, there can be a multitude of dietary needs that must be considered, from food allergies to weight loss and weight gain goals. Kate works tirelessly to insure our student-athletes are properly fueled and well-educated on how to best take care of their own nutritional needs.
The newest addition to the support team is Sport Psychologist Rachel Conway who is dedicated to helping student-athletes perform at their best. Spencer’s team recently had a group session with Rachel, as well as individual sessions during which Rachel provided tools to aid in the mental part of running. Running is not only physically taxing, but distance athletes have to be mentally tough to endure long runs in difficult conditions in order compete at the highest level. After only a couple of months on the job, Rachel’s impact is already being felt department-wide, and I am excited that Spencer has the opportunity to take advantage of her expertise. As with many of the other people or groups I’ve mentioned, Rachel’s work requires amazing commitment. The intricacies of each sport mean that the mental challenges vary widely from sport to sport, so whether she is doing individual counseling, conducting team building exercises, or advising coaches, she must continuously adapt her approach to best suit the needs of her clients while also staying abreast of new exercises, techniques or trends that could positively impact our programs.
Academics are incredibly important to Spencer, and I know how challenging those can be at Wake Forest, but once again, I am seeing, first-hand, that there is a team of outstanding people ready to help her excel. The academic services team led by Jane Caldwell and the academic counselor for cross country/track & field, Kristin Weisse, provide careful leadership on the academic front. They assist student-athletes like Spencer in selecting courses that not only accommodate specific schedules, but also align with their individual interests and goals. Jane and her staff also coordinate more than 80 tutors to support our student-athletes. Spencer, like all other freshmen student-athletes, is required to attend eight hours of study hall per week. This helps ensure that the freshmen are keeping up with their studies and learning to balance athletics and academics while trying to navigate that challenging first year of college. It is hard to imagine the level of coordination involved in providing quality tutors equipped to meet the needs of more than 400 student-athletes, but Jane and her staff have proved, year after year, that they are up to the task, and I am confident that, with their help, Spencer and her fellow student-athletes will have the resources they need to succeed in the classroom.
But the support doesn’t stop there. There is yet another group of people who are focused on Developing Champions off the field/track. Student-Athlete Development, led by Ashley Wechter and Brooke Thomas, offers a wide array of programming centered around leadership development, team building and career planning. Ashley and Brooke are also instrumental in coordinating community service opportunities that help our student-athletes make a positive impact in our community. As parents, we are always trying to prepare our children for the next stage in life and help them develop the skills necessary to be successful, so it’s reassuring to know that even though our children may be off at college, there are still passionate and talented people with those same goals in mind, helping our children develop, not just as athletes, but as well-rounded people and leaders.
As I said before, I’ve always known that it is the people who make Wake Forest special, and for years I’ve sung the praises of the people and groups mentioned in this article. But now that I have seen these people through the eyes of a parent, knowing the countless hours they put into their jobs, and witnessing the blood, sweat and tears they put into supporting my child and more than 400 other student-athletes like her, there is no doubt in my mind that they are the real secret to our department’s success.
To the other student-athlete parents reading this, know that your children are in good hands here. Rest assured that there is a truly amazing group of people who are supporting them day in and day out, and the rest of the staff who may not get to interact with your children as much, are just as committed to their success.
To the other donors and fans reading this, I hope this gave you a glimpse into incredible “team behind the teams” who help make it possible for our student-athletes to go out there and compete and give you something to cheer for.
And to everyone reading this – thank you! It is your generous contributions to the Deacon Club that have not only enabled the recent transformation of our facilities, but also make it possible to provide the resources and dedicated personnel that are instrumental in developing our student-athletes into champions on and off the field. As a lifelong Demon Deacon, alumnus, athletic department administrator and now, most importantly, as Spencer’s dad, I thank you for everything you do to support our Wake Forest student-athletes.
(Please note: This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Gold Rush.)