Being a student-athlete in college means that an individual is a part-time or full-time student at a university and also a member of an athletic team offered by the school. Usually, these individuals solely do one sport but Flyer Jamie Poppen is one of the few exceptions.
Poppen has been a libero for the women’s volleyball team and a pole vaulter for track & field for almost five years. Having taken advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic, Poppen extended her undergraduate degree so she could participate in both sports for one final season. Playing college volleyball was always her plan from a young age, yet pole vaulting was not on the radar until her late teens.
“I started playing volleyball when I was in second grade because I started going to volleyball camps,” said Poppen. “But I joined an actual team in third grade and started playing club in fourth grade.”
According to Poppen, her parents always encouraged her and her siblings to do sports growing up without pressuring them to pick one. Nonetheless, Jamie admitted volleyball was one of the sports in which she was always excited to go to practice.
While developing herself as a volleyball player in middle school, Poppen joined intramural track as a runner. Then in her freshman year of high school the pole vault coach saw her doing one of the workouts and spotted the potential she could have in the event.
“He [the coach] had me try it and I ended up liking it,” said Poppen. “But as the years went by and school was getting harder, I just couldn’t pick one; I just enjoyed both of them a lot.”
Poppen started taking off as a skillful pole vaulter during her junior year, and that was also the time she started looking for colleges. “My whole life I dreamed of playing volleyball in college, I never anticipated doing track at all,” said Poppen.
Everything changed when she visited DIII school Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. During the campus tour, Poppen saw that there was a pole vault club and wondered how cool it would be to still get to do that while playing volleyball.
From then on, Poppen started considering continuing with track as well, but quitting volleyball was not an option. She had never heard of anyone being a two-sport athlete in college before. While some schools would tell her that it could be a possibility, the coaches seemed doubtful; others would not even contemplate it. However, when she started talking to Lewis head coach Lorelee Smith, she mentioned to Jamie that the seasons would not interfere with each other, so she could definitely make it work.
Five years later, the GLVC’s Libero of the Year and a top pole vaulter for the Flyers, Poppen has certainly made it work. Yet, she acknowledged that being a member of two athletic teams in college was challenging at the beginning.
“During the spring semester of my freshman year I was mentally in a very bad place,” said Poppen. “In the fall I didn’t have a lot of commitment with track, but then in the spring, since volleyball is so much more team oriented and we have to go to all of the off season training, it was a lot of double full practices of two completely different sports and I just didn’t know how to say no.”
As time went on, she realized that she would have to listen to her body and figure out what was best for her, so that she could benefit from both sports and perform her best for each of them. Officially, women’s volleyball is a fall sport and track is a spring sport, but last year women’s volleyball was moved to the spring, so there were many instances where Poppen had to miss a team practice to attend a meet or game of the other or vice versa. Yet, she was able to confidently make those decisions and not feel guilty about being absent.
Despite all the hardships and time constraints that it entailed, Poppen is grateful for having chosen to be a two-sport athlete, especially because of the relationships she was able to build along the way.
“I would say having so many friends and experiences in two very different sports has been really memorable for me,” said Jamie. “I am very happy I did choose to do both, it is just so cool because you feel like you are a part of two different families and that is probably my favorite part.”
With just a few months left of her career in pole vault, Poppen is looking forward to retiring from the sport after the season is over. On the volleyball side, she is in the process of getting recruited to play professionally. “I really don’t know if it will work out but I am trying to, I’ve signed with an agency already, I am just waiting to see if they have opportunities that will open up for me,” said Jamie.
Not many people commit to a sport during their collegiate career and far less people commit to two. Poppen has opened the path for others who might be in situations where they feel the need to choose between sports. It might not be easy, but it is doable indeed, and after she graduates, Poppen’s legacy will remind us all of it.
Photo Credit: Luis Chavez