It’s 6 a.m. Tuesday and Long Beach State men’s basketball player Kris Gulley walks onto the Walter Pyramid court with his teammates for a three-hour practice.
Soon after, women’s soccer captain Alex Balcer leaves her four roommates—all former or current 49er soccer players including her younger sister, Lara—at their apartment near campus to work out in the Athletic Department weight training room. That’s after a late Monday afternoon physics tutoring session in CSULB’s Learning Assistance Center and prior to a Tuesday afternoon genetics lab.
Being a student-athlete always is challenging, but it’s even more so for people like Balcer, a senior biology–physiology major; and Gulley, a junior psychology major, both of whom aim to become physicians.
Several universities recruited Balcer, a Tucson, Ariz., high school soccer standout. “I chose Long Beach State because it was the best of all worlds, in my opinion,” she said. “It’s a good school and has great academics, because we’re student-athletes before athletics. The location is prime and the soccer program in general was very good. I knew it to be up there and top-notch, so there were pluses all around.”
This is the first Long Beach State playing season for Gulley, a top academic and athletic high school graduate from Madison High School in Dallas, Texas, who redshirted with the 49ers in 2011-12 after being recruited from Independence Community College in Kansas. At CSULB, he was named to the National Society of Collegiate Scholars honor organization.
Like Balcer, he’s found a home at Cal State Long Beach. “Sportswise, I simply fell in love with the family environment,” he said. “I’m a family-oriented guy, so when I came out here and it really felt like family, I knew this was were I should be. Then schoolwise, I liked how the scores of CSULB were up there with the other top schools in California.”
Everyone thinks that since we’re athletes, passing grades are just given to us when in reality we have to work just as hard as the normal student, if not harder, in the classroom.
A Balancing Act
During playing season, “The biggest thing that comes to mind is time,” Balcer noted. “We’re just very strapped for time because we have to dedicate on average two hours every day for practice, then on game days we show up two hours early plus a two-hour game, and if you have to come in for post-game treatment, you end up on the field or on campus for six hours. If you wake up at 7 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m., it takes a huge chunk out of your day.”
Gulley agrees it’s hard to maintain work-life balance. “It’s good until you let it get to be overwhelming,” he said. “You have to tackle everything head on. You’ve got to try to do your best in every aspect because once you’re doing badly in one aspect, it can transfer over to the other ones. For instance, if you’re doing badly on the court, then it affects your schoolwork because you’re more focused on getting better on the court and you might slack off on your schoolwork a little bit. It’s all about balance and hard work. Everyone thinks that since we’re athletes, passing grades are just given to us when in reality we have to work just as hard as the normal student, if not harder, in the classroom.”
Additionally, Balcer and Gulley represent their sports and Balcer serves on the board of CSULB’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), which has members from every team. “Essentially, we represent the athletic community to the NCAA, so we’re in charge of any general communication between athletes and the NCAA so that the athletes are informed of what their rights are under NCAA laws as well as making sure that those laws aren’t hindering what we do as athletes,” she explained. “We actually have a rather profound effect on athletes even before they get to school in terms of recruitment.”
The SAAC also builds camaraderie. “At every meeting we show up and tell each other how our teams are doing and applaud other teams if they came to support us. Men’s water polo always comes to our games, so we in essence applaud them for supporting us,” Balcer said. “Then we talk about things that are happening on campus not specifically related to athletics, and community service options we may have in general. Often, as student-athletes, we’re almost in a niche. We’re only around each other and often only with our teammates, so we often miss things because we’re so busy.”
In recent years the NCAA strengthened its academic emphasis to ensure that student-athletes are prepared for life after college. “Because of those rules, we have to complete so much of our major by a certain point and maintain academic eligibility. There are percentages that we have to meet,” Balcer said.
“It’s really interesting,” she continued. “I’m always coming from a place where I try to do my best, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field, so I’m not as mindful of these expectations because I’m always trying to achieve anyway. But, for student-athletes across the board, I think it really helps because I think a lot of people get lost in our sports or the new environment of college, especially new freshmen. It helps to have a goal to meet. All of us are very goal- oriented and very competitive, so I think it helps to guide us to meet a standard.”
I’m always coming from a place where I try to do my best, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field.
Her commitment to academics, sports and service led the Big West Conference to twice name her an All-Academic honoree and she was one of 30 national women’s soccer players selected as 2012 Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award nominees who exemplify excellence in community, classroom, character and competition.
Meanwhile, Gulley has a few more years to prepare for a medical career. His grandmother was the head nurse of Dallas County and his uncle is a psychiatrist, “so I’ve thought a lot about the psychiatric field,” he said. “If not, I want to think about doing something with surgery, or perhaps general medicine. I just want to help people become better people, whether it’s mentally or physically.”
Like everyone, student-athletes take advantage of their personal time, which is at a premium during competition season.
“I enjoy reading, listening to music and I’m a movie fanatic. I have hundreds of movies,” Gulley said. “They really help me calm down and relax and sort of enter a new world. When everything seems to be too much, it’s best to just put it all down and clear your head. Reading allows me to do that.”
For Balcer, “We try to relax as much as possible, whether that means everyone getting together and watching a silly movie or having a barbecue or just jumping in the pool.” Being near the beach appeals to the Balcer sisters, who took surfing lessons last summer.
And commonly, student-athletes say they put sleeping first, then eating, since rest and proper nutrition are essential.
But no matter what they’re doing, 49er student-athletes exemplify the Go Beach attitude, trying their best to represent their university.