For DU student-athletes, peak performances extend to the classroom

Will Palmquist doesn’t follow the typical schedule of many college students.

Most days, his alarm goes off by 6 a.m. Thirty minutes later, he’s in the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness, receiving treatment so that he’s ready for a two-hour practice on the soccer fields. Practice wraps up around 10 a.m., but that’s followed by an hour of weightlifting and another hour of film study.

With the day half over, it’s time to focus on academics. Depending on the schedule, he faces between four and six hours of class before heading home for an evening of studying and homework. Then it’s off to bed, so that he’s ready for another early start the next day.

So goes the difficult balancing act of being a student and an athlete at the University of Denver.

“It starts in the recruiting process. [Coach] Jamie [Franks] wants good students and guys that are going to care about their academics as much as they do about their athletics,” Palmquist says. “Then, once you get here, if there’s a freshman who shows up thinking they are an athlete first, that gets straightened out pretty quick.”

This academics-are-essential message resonates with student-athletes. So much so that the men’s soccer team has achieved the top grade point average in the country among all men’s soccer programs four out of the last five years. That’s just one example of the culture that has been established in DU athletics.

“It all starts with the University’s national ranking and national reputation. That sets a very clear standard for us to follow,” says Karlton Creech, vice chancellor for Athletics, Recreation and Ritchie Center Operations. “We only want to bring people to campus who we are confident can be successful here, and that has a lot to do with not only their athletic fit, but also their academic fit.”

Gymnastics, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s golf also rank among the country’s top 10 for overall GPAs. 

Mary Weinstein

“That’s a testament to my coach’s encouragement for our success, not only on the golf course, but also in the classroom,” says Mary Weinstein, who competes on the links for the Pioneers. “We are student-athletes for DU, but we have to be successful in all areas of life, not just on the course or on the field, but also in the classroom.”

DU student-athletes demonstrate that excellence every year. The program has 33 NCAA Division I team championships—only 13 schools have won more. In the classroom, the student-athletes combined for a graduation success rate of 96%, which ranks 30th in the country.

“It requires a lot of discipline by the student-athletes to have this kind of success,” Creech says. “During the competitive season, with our location and our conference affiliations, there’s a lot of travel, and it’s very time-consuming. It requires an awful lot of organization by our students.”

Traveling for competition is not the vacation some might expect.

“If we play 36 holes, we can be at the course from sunup until sundown,” Weinstein says. “Then you get back to the hotel, eat some dinner and you’re exhausted, but you still have to use the time wisely and do your homework, take some tests.”

All student-athletes connect with their professors at the start of each quarter to discuss the impacts of their practice and game schedules on their class schedule.

“The teachers are always very good about being willing to work around the conflicts,” says Palmquist, who was named the 2020 Summit League Scholar-Athlete of the Year. “I’ve always taken my academics seriously along with my athletics. That award is a product of what the program has to offer. It’s engrained in the culture to perform well.”

Although the athletics division offers some support for students, they are largely expected to take ownership of their academic experience and be proactive in the way they communicate with faculty. The coaching staffs are also expected to make sure there is time on the road to study.

“We are a model institution for this idea that student-athletes are students first,” Creech says.  “It starts at the top with the head coach and their standards and expectations with how they recruit. Then, once we get student-athletes here on campus, we prioritize that academic achievement. I’m very proud of it, and it’s the reason why I want to work at the University of Denver.”

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