Ahead of the Curve
Though UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletic department released a new strategic plan for redefining the interaction between collegiate sports and academics Wednesday, several Carolina athletes have been ahead of their time in this regard.
Tony Waldrop provides a particularly sterling example.
A former NCAA and World Record holder for the indoor mile (a blistering 3:55), he competed, coached, earned a degree in political science at Carolina before completing his Masters and Ph.D. in physiology. He went on to serve as vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois-Champaign before returning assuming the same post at UNC in 2001. He left UNC for his current position of provost at UCF in 2010.
While I’ve seen his picture on countless trips to the Carolina Track and Field “Hall of Fame” room, those of you less familiar with his story will soon understand his relevance to the ongoing dialogue concerning the intersection of big-time, collegiate athletics and academics.
After a gold medal in the pan American games in 1975, you walked away from running in the 1976 Olympics to pursue a PHD. Which meant more to you, the PHD or world record?
They are both separate things, from different parts of my life. I will say that the transformation from being an undergrad studying political science to completing my Masters and PhD [in Physiology] was a bit of a transition, but it helped prepare me so much more for the rest of my life. You can only compete for so long – but don’t assume that your life is all planned out. Go through whatever door is open at the time.
Did you, as a record holder, pull for other kids to break it later – or were you hoping to hold on to it for as long as possible?
No – I was delighted when someone else got [the record]. I was actually the NCAA record holder for thirty-some years, and kept hoping – every year – that someone else would get it, so they could have the enjoyment of having done that.
During an incredible stretch of sub-four minute miles, you never once used a rabbit, or a pace-setter of any kind. Simply put, how did you manage that?
Rabbits just weren’t as common back then – I never did that much European running. You just didn’t see that many of them, and so it just happened without one.
Tell me about your stance on running for fun. Do Americans in particular take sports too seriously?
Well, on the one hand, it was nice to have the records, but it was never really about that for me. On the other hand, I don’t know that [taking sports too seriously] is a problem of just this day and age. I feel disheartened when I see people who are high quality athletes that feel their life is over when they can no longer compete. Life goes on, and there are certainly more challenges that lie ahead beyond what [it takes to be] an athlete.
There’s been a lot of soul-searching in the NCAA the last few years regarding the balance between academics and big-time athletics. Would you have made the same choice – to retire early from the sport – were you a runner in today’s world?
I would have made the same choice without a doubt.
You’ve competed, graduated, and working at UNC. What’s something new you’ve learned from each vantage point?
I’m going to answer that question in a slightly different sense. What I’ve learned as an athlete I’ve utilized in every phase of my life, but you don’t stop learning things after you stop competing.
Will Carolina ever be on your horizon again in terms of academia? Word is out that we need a new chancellor.
One never knows. I would have never imagined I’d get the possibility of coming back (to UNC) to work after twenty years away for the first time [after graduation], and while I’m not returning in the short-term, I can’t say. I’ve learned not to ever think your life is panned out for you – I take it as it comes.
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @jt_gerlach