By Mina Johnson
The existence of two-sport athletes is becoming a rarity at the collegiate level as athletes are beginning to specialize in just one sport at a younger age with the hopes of competing at the professional level. Those gifted and talented enough to play two college sports are often discouraged from doing so if they want any chance at future success. Furthermore, many athletes are just not willing to dedicate the time or fear their academics will suffer if they do so.
As sport specialization has increased, SUNY Geneseo junior Alexa Wandy has been defying the odds ever since she arrived on campus as a first-year. For the last three years, Wandy has been competing in, and excelling at, both women's soccer and track & field.
A two-time State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Women's Soccer All-Star, Wandy and the Knights advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament in 2014 and have recorded double-digit wins the last two seasons. Consistently one of the conference's toughest defenders, she's started in 55 of the 57 games she's played in, oftentimes logging a full 90 minutes of action.
Wandy began playing soccer at a very young age, but didn't begin competing in track and field until her final year of high school.
"I've been playing soccer since I was little. I was probably around five when I started playing in the town league," said Wandy. "I actually didn't pick up track until my senior year of high school when one of my friends kept telling me how fun it was and convinced me to try out."
Despite having only one year of track & field experience under her belt, Wandy couldn't stay away from the competition.
"I initially came to Geneseo just to play soccer, but I really wanted to see what else could come of track & field because it really was a lot of fun," recalled Wandy. "I met with the coach at the time, Dave Prevosti, and everyone seemed really nice and inviting so I figured why not? It could be fun!"
In three seasons with Geneseo's indoor and outdoor track & field teams, Wandy has proven herself to be one of the top student-athletes not only in the SUNYAC, but across Division III as well. This past May, Wandy finished second in the triple jump at the SUNYAC Outdoor Track & Field Championships to help lead the Knights to their first team title since 2010.
Wandy experienced winning two conference championships in just one academic year, a remarkable feat that, when she looked back on it said, "It was really kind of mind-blowing. I didn't realize how hard it was to win SUNYACs in both sports until we actually got there and accomplished that. It was just so exciting."
Wandy jumped a then school-record 11.57 meters to capture second place with what was the sixth-best performance in the nation. Typically a competitor in the long jump as well as a contributor to the team's relays, Wandy was only introduced to triple jump just a week prior to the conference championships.
"I got involved in the triple jump one day at practice. We were doing long jump drills and the thought of practicing the triple jump came across my mind because I love to try different events. When practice was wrapping up, I mentioned to (head coach Chris Popovici) that I was seriously interested in trying the triple jump. So after doing one or two warm-ups and drills, coach said, 'let's just go for it and see what happens.' I did the first jump and, without much of a response, he had me do it again. At the time, I wasn't aware of triple jump marks so I didn't realize how strong of a jump it was."
For those unfamiliar with the triple jump, your goal as a competitor is to cover as much distance in three steps (or jumps) as possible. It's two jumps off one foot then one off the other, or as it is often called a hop, a step and a jump.
Popovici remembers that practice like it was yesterday. It was a Tuesday on the week of the SUNYAC Outdoor Championships and he met Wandy out on the track around 7 p.m. following her class. He admits he had no intention of working on triple jump with her, but after much persistence from Wandy, he gave in.
"When Alexa asked if she could try triple jump and I said, 'It's the week of SUNYACs. Maybe next year.' But after a please or two, I agreed we could start with a basic drill."
The first drill was a hop-phase drill that requires you to run, hop and land on the same foot and then try to continue running, which Popovici said, "Wandy crushed after three attempts." He then had Wandy string two phases together.
"I wish I taped it. The second phase is the hardest to execute and it looked like she'd been doing it for years. She looked at me for feedback and in my head I was thinking, 'that was insanely good' but all I could say was 'OK, you can try a full jump. You've got three attempts from a five-step run up.' Wandy took her jumps from a triple jump board that is 20-feet back from our long jump board. We have a marker on our sand pit to indicate a distance of 17-feet to the long jump board and on her second jump, she landed just in front of that piece of tape."
Wandy could have never anticipated all of the success that ultimately followed when she first began triple jumping that Tuesday night.
"The goal was to just see what happened at SUNYACs and try to gain extra points for the team wherever we could because our priority was to win it all. Once that was accomplished, I mainly focused on triple jump because I had qualified for nationals," said Wandy.
Wandy remembers that she was very nervous prior to competing at the NCAA Championships and admitted she really didn't know what to expect heading into the meet, hosted by St. Lawrence in Canton, N.Y.
"I had in my head that my recent performances were just a fluke, but we kept practicing and I kept getting reassurance from people that I was going to do well. I didn't know many of my competitors at nationals besides those who had also long jumped, which kind of helped me focus mentally."
Wandy went into her final jump at the NCAA Championship knowing she'd be pleased with her result as long as she gave it everything she had, adding, "Coach Popovici just told me this is your last jump so go out and leave it all out there. I knew it was the last chance I had, so I put everything I had into it knowing, even if I fouled, I would have given it my best shot."
Wandy went on to secure third place and All-America honors with her final jump of 12.47 meters (40 feet, 11 inches), just .02 meters short of second place. She became Geneseo's first outdoor triple jump All-American, beating her own school record by .39 meters and becoming the only athlete in program history to eclipse the 12-meter mark.
Despite all of her achievements, Wandy faces many challenges by competing in intercollegiate athletics all-year round, including having to balance a rigorous course schedule around her practices, games and meets. It was a difficult adjustment for the chemistry major at first, but she's gained time management skills that many college students struggle to acquire.
"Jumping back and forth was really tough at first because I don't really have a lot of free time. Most of it is spent at practice or doing work so I don't have much time to hang out with friends, although many of them are also my teammates. It's also certainly influenced how much I sleep a little bit too," smiled Wandy.
The only real "down-time" Wandy has is between seasons. But even that isn't a guarantee if the soccer team advances far into the postseason like it did last year. However, her coaches have been more than accepting of her two-sport lifestyle.
"Both my coaches have been really supportive and, while many other programs might not allow you to play two different sports, they encourage me to. They are also great about allowing me to stick with the team that's still competing, like last year when I didn't practice for track until the soccer season was completely over."
Geneseo women's soccer head coach Nate Wiley sees only benefits from the arrangement.
"I always encourage my student-athletes to pursue what they enjoy and Alexa is doing something where she's not just having fun but has been successful," said Wiley. "She is just a phenomenal athlete and I think it's been beneficial to our program as well because I know she's staying fit. We have excellent track coaches that keep the athletes in great shape throughout the season."
Wiley encourages participation in other extracurricular activities because he is a big proponent of ensuring his student-athletes make the most of their college experience and knows Wandy's two-sport experience has been a major contributor to her personal growth.
"Being both a soccer and track student-athlete just adds to her experience in college and so much we do here revolves around that," added Wiley. "What really stuck out Alexa is that, when she first arrived on campus, she was really kind of quiet and reserved. However, we noticed last spring that she was beginning to come out of her shell and becoming a leader within our program. She was also taking a lot of responsibility for her success and the team's success. I'd like to take some credit for it but I really think it's her experience in track that has opened her up."
Along with the support of both her coaches, Wandy also attributes her accomplishments to her teammates, who she relies on whenever she needs that extra push.
"My teammates are really supportive," added Wandy. "You're just going non-stop for so long that sometimes it's hard to stay mentally motivated. However, I have a bunch of friends that help me keep on track."
Additionally, suffering injuries in one sport that may affect her performance in the other is also a major concern for Wandy, who must take extra care of her body to keep it running throughout the year.
"Recovery time is such a big factor in both sports that it's hard to stay healthy through three-straight seasons and then summer training, but both teams do a good job of setting aside recovery time in-between seasons," said Wandy.
Whether dealing with an injury or facing limited study time, Wandy knows that all her dedication will pay off in the end. She credits her competitive nature and constant desire to improve as the motivation behind getting through those long days and late nights.
"There's really no feeling like the one you get after you win a race, record a personal record or win a conference championships. Those are the memories you're going to remember for the rest of your life. So on the toughest days I just remind myself of that."
Why else does she keep doing it? Wandy just simply enjoys staying busy. She often finds herself running from practice to class or a review session so staying organized is a priority. Without sports all-year round, Wandy truly doesn't know what she would do. Her routine keeps her busy around-the-clock and, while some nights are longer than others, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I really like being busy because it keeps me on a schedule and my studies on track. If I played just one sport and had all that free time, honestly, I'd probably waste it. I like to be busy and competing all-year round helps. Playing two sports, you're always going to practice and you don't really have an off-season to solely focus on school so I think having a set schedule ensures you're on top of things."
There are many differences between Wandy's two intercollegiate sports. Soccer is a team sport while track & field is mostly comprised of individual events. Soccer is a game of two 45-minute halves that requires Wandy to be in constant motion when she's out on the field. Track & field meets last over a couple days with Wandy competing for just a few minutes in her events. However, Wandy has been able to work around the different nuances and conditions.
"The main difference to me is mostly how much pressure I put on myself. I know with soccer, I'm helping defend a team and it's a team effort. I also know that if I do make a mistake, one of my teammates will be there to back me up. In track, it's mostly just me so sometimes I tend to psych myself out.
"For track, I try mostly to just calm myself down when preparing for an event but with soccer we psych ourselves up by playing music in the locker room and out on the field - we'll feed of each other's energy to really pump ourselves up."
Despite the challenges, the success Wandy's had with both teams has made it all worthwhile.
"The biggest reward has been being a part of two really great programs and experiencing all the successes we've had," said Wandy. "Both teams have the same goal so it's been rewarding pushing towards that. Plus, coming to practices or games never feels like a job. It takes me away from the stress of academics."
Despite the continually decreasing number of multi-sport athletes, especially at the collegiate level, Wandy has found tremendous success by disregarding society's ideology of sport specialization or bust. She is someone to truly admire for all her hard work and dedication and it's not hard to see how beneficial these programs have been for her.
We may not be able to relate to Wandy, but we can certainly join her teammates in giving her credit where credit is due.
"My soccer teammates just asked me the other day if I was excited for track season to start. They also said they 'don't know how I do it, but good job!'" laughed Wandy.
Following graduation, Wandy plans to pursue a master's degree in teaching, which she anticipates will keep her just as busy as she is now.
Mina Johnson is the Assistant Director of Athletic Communications and Media Relations at SUNY Geneseo