Training For The Olympics Is Hard Enough. Try Doing That While Earning A Degree : NPR Ed Olympic athletes struggle to balance the demands of their sports with college.
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Training For The Olympics Is Hard Enough. Try Doing That While Earning A Degree

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Training For The Olympics Is Hard Enough. Try Doing That While Earning A Degree

Training For The Olympics Is Hard Enough. Try Doing That While Earning A Degree

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Next month, athletes from around the world will meet in South Korea at the Winter Olympics. A spot on an Olympic team is the culmination of years of hard work. But what happens to an athlete's college education during all that training? NPR's Elissa Nadworny went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to see how they balance it all.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The world arena ice hock (ph) - this is sacred ground for figure skaters. And the Olympics are just around the corner. On the ice is Max Aaron. He's a muscular former hockey player who's working on his finesse needed in the world of figure skating. Max has been a U.S. national champion but fell just short of going to Sochi in 2014. This year, at 25, he's looking for a final shot at the Olympics. He's had a shaky practice today, but his coach wants him to leave the ice on a positive note.

TOM ZAKRAJSEK: All right, Max, finish with a good rehearsal. That's all you've got.

NADWORNY: Max goes through his long program with Andrew Lloyd Webber's music from "Phantom Of The Opera" echoing across the rink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world...

NADWORNY: There are just weeks left - crunch time. But it's also crunch time in another arena for Max - professor Kuppenhiemer's lecture hall at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. It's the week before final exams.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hedge funds and aggressive investment strategies...

NADWORNY: While he's been training, Max has been working towards his degree in finance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's changing the entire world of finance.

NADWORNY: Think of it as a main course in quad Salchows, choreography and blade work with a side of hedge funds.

MAX AARON: It's two different worlds. You go in and you're in school, and no one knows who you are.

NADWORNY: A typical day starts with an 8 a.m. finance class, then three hours at the rink plus warmup, strength conditioning, physical therapy and dance class. Sometimes there's a night class thrown in, too. Max says he's having the time of his life skating, but he knows that's not his whole story.

AARON: I hope I'm very successful in the sport of figure skating. But it eventually ends. And that's what I think a lot of athletes forget - is that once sport ends there's more to life. Life doesn't just stop.

NADWORNY: Leslie Klein sees this all the time. Klein works for the U.S. Olympic Committee helping athletes transition to life after sport.

LESLIE KLEIN: They go into this retirement phase, you know, in their 20s or 30s. And if they haven't gone to school, they have nothing to lean on to move onto a career in something beyond sport.

NADWORNY: Beyond the hours and hours of training commitments, there are other hurdles, too - the big one, money. A pair of ice skates alone costs nearly a thousand dollars.

MIRAI NAGASU: My parents spent all my college money on skating, so (laughter) it's on me to get my education.

NADWORNY: That's figure skater Mirai Nagasu. She's from California, but she's taking advantage of a law in Colorado that gives in-state tuition to athletes training for the Olympics. She's studying international business at the same college as Max Aaron.

NAGASU: The secret to success is coffee and caffeine.

NADWORNY: She's hoping for a return to the Olympics. She came in fourth in Vancouver in 2010 when she was just 16.

NAGASU: And I tell myself - every single time I go through finals, I'm like, this is it. Like, I need a break. And I can't do this anymore. But as soon as finals is over and I get a decent score, I'm like, oh, I'm, like, ready and pumped to do this again. And that feeling of accomplishment is always (laughter) something I can't get rid of.

NADWORNY: Mirai is signed up for a full course load next semester, but a big part of her is hoping she'll have to withdraw because she'll be in Pyeongchang skating for Team USA in the Olympics. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Both skaters are currently competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. It's their last shot to help secure a spot on team USA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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