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Spelling Bee

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Pressures mount for student-athletes**

Most college sports fans probably haven't heard of Sarah Devens. But they should have.

Devens was a three-sport star in field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse at Dartmouth. She not only played three sports, she played them well. She was an All-American in lacrosse, and was named to the first-team All-Ivy League in field hockey and second team All-Ivy League in ice hockey. From a sports standpoint, she had it all together.

What she didn't have was her life together. This past summer, Devens committed suicide, taking a .22-caliber rifle and shooting herself in the chest. The pressure had gotten out of hand. She had always lived up to the expectations of her coaches, her teachers, her friends. Now, she's not even living.

Devens' tragedy reminds us of the pressures student-athletes face when going to a top academic university. They have to meet the demands of not only their coaches, but also their teachers. And that's not even including trying to fit in a social life with friends outside of the sports community.

There are student-athletes here at Duke who can sympathize with Devens' plight. Many of those athletes are either not on scholarship, or playing a non-revenue sport that doesn't get the attention of football or basketball.

Two of those athletes are juniors Darin Mellinger and Raquel Salume. Like Demers, Mellinger and Salume are varsity athletes year-round, running cross country in the fall and track in the spring. And both are non-scholarship athletes, competing just because they like to run. They don't get paid for their efforts.

So logically, if Mellinger isn't on scholarship, it seems reasonable if he would skip practice to study for a big test. But that's not the case.

"The two have to be done," he said. "You can't skip athletics for academics."

Salume says the biggest thing is communication. Before each season, the coaches tell the runners to tell them when they have big tests and big papers.

"The coaches are very understanding," Salume said. "They know that we're not on scholarship. If you have to study, they will adapt our workout to that day."

Some athletes are more flexible than others. Salume said her coaches will allow her to work out by herself instead of running with the team. But for Mellinger, he knows where he will be every day from 3-6 p.m.--practicing at the track. But even during those three hours, he makes decisions. Mellinger doesn't always do additional conditioning he knows would make him a better runner. He doesn't do the cross-training that he would be able to do if he didn't have classes. He does what he can.

Of course, Mellinger knows that he didn't have to chose a school with such a high academic reputation like Duke. He said the standing joke among his teammates is that if he went to State U that he'd have plenty of time to work out and become a top runner. But then he would miss out on the great academic opportunity that a school like Duke provides.

"As far as academics, that's where your future is made," Mellinger said. "What you do [academically] affects the rest of your life. There's not a professional option for cross country. There are no big dreams. Your career ends in four years."

Mellinger wants to make the most out of those four years. So far, he's done that, becoming one of the top runners for the Blue Devils. But being one of the best only means more pressure. For others, it's not being the best that brings the added pressure--the perfectionist in many athletes that forces them to work harder.

"A lot of people came from backgrounds where you're big in high school," Mellinger said. "Some people can't stand being the third-best. They think, `I have to do what I did in high school.'

"For me, that was the biggest challenge. You have to find some way to rationalize that you're in it with everyone."

Devens suffered from the perfectionist bug. A Sports Illustrated article, written after her death, describes how she was always the last one off the field after practices, spending extra time improving her game. Salume says that athletes can't be too hard on themselves when training.

"Some people get upset when they don't meet a time," Salume said. "What you have to learn is that you can't have a perfect day all the time. Your body gets tired."

The article also describes how Devens wanted to be the best at her off-the-field activities, ranging from seeing friends to visiting patients at the hospital.

Those extra things are what Mellinger misses about being an athlete year-round. As a member of the Catholic Student Center, Mellinger was supposed to coordinate an Hispanic tutoring program. But he had to say no to that early in the year when he realized he wouldn't have the time.

Salume said that sometimes she wants to do other things when she comes home from practice. But she can't. She knows she has to hit the books.

The key for both Mellinger and Salume is that they love what they are doing. They have fun running. Fun was one thing that Sarah Devens wasn't having in all of her sports. According to Sports Illustrated, when one of Devens' friends asked about playing three sports, Devens replied, "No way. Don't do it. It's just not fun."

The question that remains is what can be done in order to prevent the tragedy of Sarah Devens?

"You can't put too much pressure on your athletes," Salume said. "You can't push them over the limit."

Unfortunately, that lesson had to be learned at the expense of a great athlete.