My Summer Job?
Work Up a Sweat!
By Bethany Bradsher
Illustrated by Mike Litwin
heir minds might get a vacation, but Pirate athletes have a detailed summer syllabus with assignments for weightlifting, conditioning, pliometrics and nutrition. Keeping in top physical shape is the way to pass this course. Want extra credit? Join a summer league to keep your competitive edge sharp.
Some East Carolina athletes don’t even go home for summer. Football players stay on campus and train under the watchful eye of their strength coaches. Some take courses to ease the academic load during the season or to get a poor grade off their transcript.
But the great majority of athletes, especially those in the Olympic sports, go home to chill out and maybe get a summer job. NCAA rules prevent a coach from requiring athletes to work out or play during the summer, but players know it’s important to exercise more than just their elbows from now to September.
Danny Wheel, a member of the sports and conditioning staff, oversees the health of members of five different Pirate teams. He said one of his most vital responsibilities is crafting the summer fitness programs he sends players home with. But all he can do is hope the athletes have enough inner drive to stick to it.
“To some I give out a packet, and that packet will probably sit on the front seat of their car for the whole summer,” Wheel said. “You can tell the ones who don’t do it because they’re out of shape [when they return in the fall], and it’s almost like they have to start back from square one.”
Last summer, Kelley Wernert was heading toward her final season as an ECU volleyball player. She decided that the best way to prepare for that challenge was to stay on campus and follow her coaches’ program as closely as she could.
By implementing that plan, Wernert became a poster child for the benefits of summer training, Wheel said. Despite battling an injury early in the season, Wernert finished her career with a bang—14 double doubles (kills and digs) during her senior season, a new ECU record for digs with 30 against Memphis, and, in September, National Player of the Week honors.
“She was in here every day trying to get stronger, and it carries over,” Wheel said. “She even started off the season with an injury, she had a broken hand, and she was still beating everyone’s lights out.”
Wernert tried it both ways during her ECU career. She went home to Illinois after her freshman season and fought a losing battle with her training packet from Wheel. For the next two summers, she stayed in Greenville and went to the weight room every day to be challenged by Wheel in person.
“My main things through the whole summer were summer school, lifting and running and playing sand volleyball,” said Wernert, who graduated in May and will head to Europe this summer to try out for the professional volleyball league there. “That’s all I did, really.”
Wernert’s coach, Chris Rushing, has a natural coach’s desire to manage the training routine of his athletes. But when summer rolls around, his control disappears and he can only check in with his players from time to time and encourage them to stay in shape. Then they come back for the fall semester, scant weeks from their first match, and he can distinguish the idle from the driven from the first time they take the court.
“Some go home and don’t do anything, and those are the ones who kind of irritate us,” said Rushing, whose team will compete in its first match in late August. “You can tell who’s been working hard and who hasn’t. The girls who are in better shape, you can tell by their face and body language. They just recoup so much faster.”
Leaning on fall athletes
Jennifer Kurowicki competes in the Strong Woman games held each summer. Football players spend summers working out in the Murphy Center.
If the coffers for Rushing’s sport were deeper, he would mandate that his players come to campus for part of the summer—ideally to stay for the second summer session, as the football players are required to do. But under the current system the volleyball athletes only stay on campus when they opt to do so independently and pay their own room and board.
The pressure is highest on athletes who play fall sports, like volleyball. Those coaches strongly urge their players to do as much as possible during the summer with weightlifting and conditioning. But as this emphasis on structured fitness has increased in recent years, Wheel has found one down side: athletes who think the barbells and the track are a substitute for the playing field.
“Kids are coming in so in shape, so well-conditioned they know about weights and things like that, but they lose track of, ‘Am I a good player?’” Wheel said. “When I was growing up, we were physically strong just by playing sports. We call it country strong. I’d definitely take a kid who’s country strong over someone who’s been in a weight room all their life.”
For Kurt Craft’s athletes, the track is the playing venue, and as the head coach for track and field he is charged with finding ways to challenge throwers, sprinters, jumpers and distance runners to keep up with their specialized skills and also stay in prime condition through the summer.
“It’s kind of like a recipe,” Craft said. “It’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
The track coaches also encourage players to enter open meets on the amateur circuits, so that they don’t lose their competitive edge. Before they leave him for the summer, he reminds them that they are competing at a high level and should keep their training at an equally high standard.
“By NCAA rules, we cannot require anybody to do anything. We can design workouts, we can highly suggest that they do it, but we can’t make them.” Learning good nutrition
The last section in the athletes’ summer packets deals with nutrition. It provides tips how much of their diets should be made up of carbohydrates (60 to 70 percent of the overall caloric intake) and how much water an athlete should drink each day (10 to 14 glasses). Pushing good nutrition is a tough job for Wheel.
He rails against the typically unhealthy diet of a college student—donuts, late-night pizza. But he saves his sternest advice for another dietary no-no—athletes who exert themselves during workouts and then rush off without eating.
“I’m fighting the people who don’t eat breakfast, don’t eat lunch because they’re hurrying from class,” he said. “I’m fighting that person who doesn’t eat on a regular basis. If a person doesn’t eat a recovery meal after every workout, their body will only make it 10 weeks into a 12-week season.”
But football players don’t have those issues. They stay on campus all summer under the watchful eye of head strength coach Mike Golden. In his three years at ECU, Golden says has seen athletes reach lofty fitness goals. He draws direct parallels between the intensity of summer conditioning with greater accomplishments on the field in the fall.
“If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to keep up,” said Golden, who holds a Strong Man Competition for the football team every summer and calls it the “only fun day” of their vacation. “In years past, that’s what training camp was for, to get ready for the season. And now, you’ve got to be in shape to go to training camp.”
And for football players and other athletes who stay on campus to reap the training benefits, there is another advantage: Many take full summer school loads, since they’re there anyway, and some collect enough credits to graduate early or carry lighter loads during their competitive seasons.
All of which begs the question: When does an athlete take a holiday? Wheel encourages the players in every sport to take a chunk of time off from training, usually right after their season ends, to stave off burn-out.
“We’re trying to work out where we at least give them six to eight weeks where they don’t have to see us, and they recover mentally and physically,” he said. “Your body has to recover somewhere in there.”