Putting the ‘student’ in ‘student athlete’: The balancing act of being a graduate student athlete

From the perfect pass to crossing the finish line, there is nothing quite like the rush of playing sports. But, hanging over it all is the knowledge that one day the lights on the field will go off for the very last time.

This sense of finality is clearest for graduate student athletes. Due to U Sports’ (the governing body of Canadian university sports) eligibility restrictions, athletes can play at the university level for five years. With an undergraduate degree usually taking up most of that time, it’s easy to see why graduate level student athletes are few and far between.

Despite that, a select group of athletes continue to push on.

Kiana Gibson is one of those athletes. The star runner led UBC to its fourth consecutive Canada West cross-country title this year with her gold medal performance. Currently a master’s in nutrition and dietetics student, Gibson recognizes the unique position she is in as a graduate athlete.

“For a lot of people, it just makes sense to transition out of varsity athletics, because taking on a graduate program is a whole new endeavour … with more time commitment and a new schedule,” said Gibson.

The immense dedication needed to be a graduate student athlete is something Brian Wallack is also familiar with. Wallack is a forward for UBC’s basketball team and a master’s of kinesiology student.

Now in his fourth season with the Thunderbirds, he is producing career-bests despite not playing any games his first season and losing a year to the pandemic.

“It’s not how you start,” said Wallack. “It’s how you finish.”

This perseverance has served Gibson and Wallack extremely well — not only in sport, but also in the classroom. Finding a balance between academics and athletics as a student-athlete is always a work in progress. With commitments often conflicting with one another, it is difficult to keep up in either endeavour.

“It is quite a balancing act,” said Gibson. “They’re like two full-time jobs.”

Despite this balancing act, Gibson sticks with sports because of the community. She said she found a strong sense of belonging in sports wherever she turned, with athletics giving her friendships, the opportunity to explore her limits and gain new skills.

For Gibson and Wallack, sports aren’t just a hobby. They’re sources of community, belonging and personal identity — which makes it harder to reckon with the looming end to their eligibility.

After all the work needed to get to this point, those five years will come to an end. As graduate student athletes, Gibson and Wallack are aware of their fleeting time.

Wallack is using his awareness of his time running out to motivate him to step up his game and hopefully win another Canada West championship, like he did in 2020. But only so much can be done before reality sets in.

“Honestly, I’m not at that point yet where I want to accept it,” said Wallack. Gibson shared similar sentiments.

“Being a varsity athlete is like a huge part of my identity. It’s a huge part of what I do every day ... and so the idea of not having that is really scary to me,” she said.

While time will eventually take away their ability to play, a strong passion will endure.

Gibson and Wallack are transitioning a loss of one outlet for their passion into new opportunities, turning what could have been a melancholy ending into a hopeful beginning.

For Wallack, new opportunities come through his program. He hopes his understanding of the human body can lead to career opportunities down the line, especially coupled with his passion for basketball, as he aspires to “translate everything [he] know[s], right into a coaching position.”

Gibson is looking to use her knowledge in a similar way. “I am really interested in … potentially [finding] a way to incorporate my running and my degree,” she said. Gibson said she aspires to become involved with sports dietetics since it would allow her to work with athletes.

There is a bittersweet sentiment surrounding graduate student athletes, knowing they will eventually have to drop the ‘athlete’ portion of their identity. However, there is hope in knowing that they don’t have to drop their passion alongside it. Gibson finds solace in that.

“When the world seems like [it’s] crashing down, you can just go for a run and sort of take a step back and realize that things are going to be okay,” she said.