JHU’s student athletes balance rigorous academics with demanding sports… and they love it.
By Gary Lambrecht
Photography by Will Kirk
rom the sweat of the wrestling mat, to the grass and mud of the lacrosse field, to the vastness of the cross-country course, to the chlorine-scented pool, Johns Hopkins student athletes are making a name for themselves. For two years in a row now, 10 of Hopkins’ athletic teams have won national or divisional conference titles, and the university capped the last school year with a seventh-place finish in the coveted Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings—the highest Johns Hopkins has ever placed. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that the cumulative grade point average for all of Hopkins’ athletic teams is 3.29.
How do they do it? How do these young scholar athletes take on the rigorous academic experience of Johns Hopkins and still have the time (and enthusiasm) to excel at athletics? Their days often start before dawn with team practices and extend well into the night as they write papers and study for exams. They juggle stacks of homework, long classes, and research in the lab with team practices, games, and attention to their physical health. And why? For the sheer love of the sport.
All our student athletes excel in the classroom and on the athletic field—they have to or they aren’t allowed to play. But we chose four of them to highlight here, so our readers can learn what makes these athletic scholars tick.
Taylor Kitayama ’14 has always been something of a “water baby.” While growing up in Boulder, Colo., she took to the sport of synchronized swimming with startling ease and became a teenage star with the nationally renowned Santa Clara Aquamaids.
When it came time for college, Kitayama said she knew the Krieger School was the place for her. “The Hopkins name and the research focus here is what drew me. I knew I had made the right decision, and I knew I couldn’t stay out of the water. The pool is what gets me out of bed at 5:30 every morning.”
The Blue Jays certainly haven’t suffered because of that. Kitayama, who holds the school record with 25 career All-America honors, was the Bluegrass Mountain Conference swimmer of the year as a sophomore. She capped her senior season as a member of four championship relay teams that helped the Blue Jays finish third at the NCAA championships.
All of that success in the pool hasn’t dimmed her academic pursuits. Kitayama, a neuroscience major who plans to study nursing as a graduate student, is holding a 3.6 grade point average.
George Kennedy has been coaching swimming at Johns Hopkins for 29 years and says Kitayama has set eight school records by flowing through the water with an efficiency unsurpassed by any other swimmer he has coached.
“Very few kids come in as freshmen and are as fast and talented as she was,” says Kennedy. “She just took off, and she’s gotten better every year. That is particularly hard for college swimmers. I think you thrive at a place like Johns Hopkins because you’re surrounded by a lot of kids who are driven. Taylor is amazingly driven.”
Kitayama credits proper nutrition and rest for helping her maintain a hectic schedule. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and poultry dominate her plate, though she does admit to having the occasional Oreo cookie. Power napping between daily destinations is part of her schedule that includes two practices four days a week and a rest day that staves off burnout in the pool.
“Everything is very structured during the season,” she says. “In the off-season, if I have lots of [free] time, I feel like I’m not very productive.”
“Nobody comes [to Johns Hopkins] if they want to skate by,” says John Arena ’14, reflecting on the 4.0 grade point average he achieved while earning his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience awarded last December. In addition to earning his degree, Arena was concluding a stellar football career as an outside linebacker with a senior class that, over four seasons, won 38 games and appeared in the last three NCAA tournaments.
2012-13 JHU Conference Championships
2013-14 Conference Titles (as of press time)
“I didn’t perceive it as some sort of juggling act [between studies and football],” he says. “We’re doing what we want to do and loving what we do. I chose a place where I would get a great education and play great football. I had to be in charge of my academics, and playing football was fun.”
Even though Arena has no more pre-med class schedules weighing on him as he prepares to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, he is not exactly taking it easy.
The recipient of an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship from the National Football Foundation, Arena is spending lots of time as a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Division of Neuropathology, where he has worked on projects focused on traumatic brain injury for more than a year. His interest in brain trauma is due in part to recent findings potentially linking concussions in football players to long-term brain injury. “If the sport is to overcome this, it needs to be addressed with sound medical research,” says Arena. The first-team All-Centennial Conference linebacker and three-time conference Academic Honor Roll member aspires to be a neurosurgeon.
Jim Margraff, the Blue Jays’ head football coach for the past 24 years, says he will miss working with Arena. “John pushes himself so much. I think he missed only two or three practices because of medical school interviews. He’s so unassuming, so measured.”
Wrestling is a grueling sport, and Paul Bewak ’15 fights through in-season fatigue on a regular basis. He’s a 125-pound killer on the mat, and at the end of February he was the No. 2-ranked wrestler in Division III in his weight class. He earned the No. 1 seed at the NCAA championships—his third consecutive trip—and took a 32-1 record into the national tournament, where he wound up seventh. Bewak has set Hopkins records for single season victories (36) and career wins (100). Oh, and he is right on schedule to receive a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in mathematics in May 2015.
“I think I’m strong academically because of wrestling,” says Bewak. “That has taught me how to be a better student. It showed me what discipline and hard work can do for you.”
He admits that balancing academics with athletics is not exactly a cakewalk. “Last semester my papers and projects were always due on Thursday and Friday. I was always up late the night before, tired and starving and working to get it done. The biggest challenge is to bang through it all without taking shortcuts.”
Bewak’s resolve has been tested deeply this year, which has been marked by serious hip problems. He developed bone bumps on the heads of both femurs, which have caused searing labrum pain when he performs certain leg-driven moves. Before winning the 125-pound title at the NCAA East Regional Championships, Bewak had to shut down practicing for two weeks.
“I want to sweat like hell for two hours, and I want everything to hurt, because I want to get my hand raised [in victory],” he says with a smile.
Richard Brown, an associate professor in the Krieger School’s Department of Mathematics, has taught two courses to Bewak—including an honors calculus class—and says he loves the wrestler’s sense of fearlessness.
“Paul has this tenacity,” says Brown. “He’s more interested in the educational aspect than he is in getting an A. As a teacher, I love that. Paul gets excited when you present something new and unknown to him.”
Lacrosse player Taylor D’Amore ’14 will go down as one of the greatest scorers—not just in Hopkins history but in Division I women’s lacrosse history. And in the classroom? Well, let’s just say her performance is equally impressive.
Last March, D’Amore was simultaneously carrying the undefeated Blue Jays’ offense and a 3.8 grade point average in biology. And she was preparing to compete at the World Championships as a member of Team USA last summer.
Between semesters, D’Amore has studied tropical biology and evolution in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, examined environmental issues in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, helped set up a field clinic in a remote area of Honduras, and shadowed surgeons at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
“I wake up about 6:45 a.m., I go to the library, go to classes, go to practice, go back to the library or the dorm to study, go to bed, and do it all over again,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes I have a test and a game to prepare for on the same day.”
How does she do that?
“I’m definitely huge on planning,” says D’Amore. “My day is planned out the night before. I can’t imagine not studying for a big test two weeks before the test.”
D’Amore says she has also learned the art and value of the power nap. She admits that she has had to learn to manage stress better. She recalls a particular “hell week” during her sophomore season, when she dealt with a bit of a “meltdown” while preparing for exams in organic chemistry and cell biology sandwiched between huge lacrosse games.
“You learn to deal with so many situations,” she says.
D’Amore’s organic chemistry professor, Christopher Falzone, says playing sports helps students gain perspective on what it takes to succeed in academics. “You know students who come [to Hopkins] are motivated, but athletes seem to know more about teamwork and discipline, and they understand goals and how to take care of them.”