The idea of appearing before the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee has terrified many college overachievers in the past 104 years. Not Ashley Nord, who prepared for last weekend's interview with the same approach she used on the pole vault runway.
Nord set the bar high, analyzed what she needed to do to clear it, then roared toward her goal with a fearless spirit. The former Gophers vaulter succeeded, as she has done so many times in sports and in academics. Sunday, when Nord became one of 32 Rhodes Scholars for 2009, she joined another impressive subset: varsity athletes who have earned one of the most prestigious awards in American higher education.
The lesser lights of America's jockocracy have perpetuated the lingering stereotype of the slack-jawed, class-cutting, paper-plagiarizing athlete. Coaches who are paid more than most professors often turn blind eyes to learning-averse players, as evidenced by the low graduation rates and GPAs in many major sports. But Cecil Rhodes believed in the saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and his ideal of the educated athlete has been forever reflected in the scholarships he funded.
Among the requirements for Rhodes Scholars, "fondness for and success in sports'' is second only to "literary and scholastic attainments.'' Nord, a senior majoring in physics, astrophysics and global studies, is among the latest winners to prove those pursuits can coexist at the highest levels.
"To do both athletics and academics well, you have to schedule yourself carefully and take one thing at a time,'' said Nord, of Rapid City, S.D. "I'd bring my books to the training room and study while I was icing, and I'd always do homework on the bus or the plane.
"Some of my teammates made fun of me, and [coaches and professors] thought I was a little crazy to push so hard in both. But I'm proud of what I achieved.''
Nord, 23, is a former gymnast who became a South Dakota high school champion in the pole vault. Her early interest in physics -- shared by her dad, a doctor and amateur astronomer, and her brother, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins -- helped her refine her technique. By applying scientific principles to her sport, Nord became one of the Gophers' top female vaulters with a personal best of 13 feet and made the academic all-Big Ten team four years in a row.
Nord's knowledge of physics gave her a feeling of control over her athletic development. Her aptitude for sport -- particularly one in which she flew upside down 13 feet above the ground -- gave her confidence that transferred to her studies. By nurturing her body and her brain, Nord discovered the key to maximizing both.
"There was a period when I had to push myself to my professors, to prove to them I was taking [school] seriously,'' said Nord, who finished her athletic eligibility last spring and will graduate in December. "But I think we're seeing a change in that more athletes are getting the support to succeed academically.''
A dozen of this year's Rhodes Scholarship winners are varsity or club athletes. Florida State safety Myron Rolle completed his interview Saturday and then flew to Maryland to play in his football team's 37-3 victory. UCLA's Chris Joseph was a three-year starter on the offensive line. Lindsay Whorton finished her basketball career at Iowa's Drake University with 1,101 points, was the most valuable player of the 2007 Missouri Valley Conference tournament and was an academic All-America.
Despite the endurance of the dumb-jock stereotype, Rhodes winners provide ample evidence that sports and smarts are not mutually exclusive. Nord joins a group that includes basketball legend and former U.S. senator Bill Bradley; Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, a football star in college and the NFL; and Pete Dawkins, a Heisman Trophy winner and Army brigadier general.
During her time at Oxford, Nord plans to study biophysics, a field that captured her fancy when a sports injury gave her firsthand knowledge of the medical applications of physics. She also will continue pole vaulting for the Oxford University Athletics Club, an English institution since 1850.
"This is something I'm very proud of, and I think it's something good for younger girls to see,'' Nord said. "To get them involved in sports and science can give them so much confidence. You can excel at both.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org