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Sports Is Life: How Athletics Makes Us Stronger

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 31, 2014 | Inspiring Stories

Whether it’s your five-year-old scoring his or her first soccer goal, a friend’s kid winning a high school track meet, or watching Miracle on Ice for the fifth time, sports has one constant: It inspires. Being involved in sports—either as a participant or spectator—can ignite something that makes us want to try something new, be someone better, or be inspired by and be an inspiration to someone else.

Finding Inspiration in a Humbling Experience

Clair Ruhenkamp learned about overcoming adversity through athletics. She had always been a natural at volleyball. Her freshman year at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, she made the position of starting setter. Over the next two years, she became one of the few players to be in every play during every game.

Clair Ruhenkamp, Brian Potocnik, and Paola Rodriguez

Despite her excellent record, when her junior year began, a transfer student won the starting setter spot. For someone who was used to being in the game, it was devastating. “I felt as if I had just been kicked right in the gut. I stood on the sidelines the entire game, holding back tears of confusion, anger and disappointment,” Ruhenkamp remembers.

Ruhenkamp faced a choice. She could be angry that she didn’t get what she wanted, or she could take on her new role to the best of her ability. She chose the latter and learned an important life lesson that helped her to look at the world from both sides. “It gave me the humbling experience to understand the feelings of those players that ‘sit the bench.’ Until you have to experience it, you can’t understand how hard it is to know you put in so much work but do not get very much playing time during the actual game,” Ruhenkamp said.

Never Being Held Back

Brian Potocnik is a pre-medical-school student and midfielder on the men’s soccer team at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. He was not a natural athlete. “From the time I was born, I was consistently in the lowest percentile for height and weight, far from ‘normal’ for my age group,” Potocnik recalls. He never let it hold him back. He just worked harder to stay ahead of the kids who were bigger than him. By the time he caught up in size in high school, Potocnik says, “the skills that I had developed over the years could be matched by only a few.”

Balancing the Demands of College Sports with Academic Life

Paola Rodriguez says she had two loves in life, sports and school. In the end, school won. She’s a doctor today, a dermatologist in California. She managed to become a doctor while balancing playing collegiate sports. “I had fleeting thoughts that maybe I should pursue professional volleyball, but medicine was calling,” Rodriguez said. During her senior year at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, she was the captain on a team that finished sixth in the country and made it to the Quarterfinals in the NCAA® Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

How did she balance her time? Rodriguez recalls, “I just did the work. I don’t see myself as the most brilliant person, but I went to every lecture, I went to school every day, and I listened. I didn’t have to pull all-nighters because I had already done the studying in the classroom. I listened and took notes and didn’t put things off until the last minute.”

In all of these examples, collegiate sports have improved lives and built character. Inspiring stories like these are repeated every day all over the world. The athletes involved and the families, coaches, friends and teammates who support them are an inspiration to all of us.

Ruhenkamp, Potocnik, and Rodriguez were a part of the Rose Parade on January 1, 2015. Click here to see more inspiring stories from athletes who were a part of Northwestern Mutual’s floats in the Rose Parade.

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