In most athletic programs at most universities, athletes graduate and finish their playing career simultaneously. However, due to the popularity of five year programs at Northeastern, several athletes experience their fifth year of college away from the sport they love, despite the fact that they are still full-time students. The Red & Black sat down with four former student-athletes to discover what it means to make that adjustment.
Kristen Walding, volleyball: “I honestly thought I would have more free time but I feel like I don’t at all, it’s just being used in different directions. So before I was just volleyball but now it’s in pursuit of different things, like I started commentating for the girls’ volleyball games. I joined the club triathlon team to try something new, just trying different things outside volleyball.”
Texas Lawton, men’s rowing: “It’s clarity. I feel like I can think about other things because you are sort of living day to day and in the moment when you’re doing a sport. But now I can think bigger picture. I can notice things. I can explore other passions I have, which is pretty exciting because I haven’t done that in 10 years. I mean just my major, I’ve only ever been able to put 50% of myself into it in terms of time requirements. So, I’ve gotten good at making that 50% count, but it’s cool to keep pushing things.”
Hannah “Loppy” Lopiccolo, women’s soccer: “I don’t even know if I would have been able to play soccer this semester and be able to balance everything [looking for jobs, overloaded school schedule].”
Jonathan Thuresson, men’s soccer: “I was kind of like Kristen where I thought I was going to have more free time. Like last season I thought ‘next fall is going to be really, really nice’ because I’m going to have all this free time to explore Boston and do this and that, but I feel like I just put more work into school. Now I can devote all my time towards my studies, which is nice.”
Walding, Lawton, Lopiccolo and Thuresson are four of Northeastern athletics’ most distinguished recent alumni. Walding was an All-CAA volleyball player who ranks fourth in sets played and third in career assists with over 3,000. Lawton was a standout rower who received a bronze medal in the Under-23 world championships for Australia. Lopiccolo was a four-time first team All-CAA performer while Thuresson was Northeastern’s student athlete of the year in 2016-2017. With those level of performances over four years, one would assume that they would want to be able to continue playing at the professional level.
Lawton: “I did [have aspirations of playing professionally] before I came here. I sort of just got burnt out. I mean I don’t publicize that, I don’t tell people that, but I sort of…I don’t know. It’s a lot. College sports is a lot. In whatever capacity you can take that, but it’s a lot.”
Lopiccolo: “I realized that soccer doesn’t pay a lot financially and it seems that the collegiate level is the pinnacle of how well you’d be treated as an athlete. So I didn’t want to pursue that afterwards, and I kind of came to terms with that my sophomore year in college. So I kind of was slowly having that mindset and coming to terms with it and by the end I was pretty content with it being over and I didn’t feel like I had any regrets.”
Thuresson: “It’s not like I regret coming to Northeastern, not at all. Its by far the best decision I’ve ever made, but obviously you catch yourself thinking sometimes ‘what if?’ What if I had gone to that school instead or what if I had chosen to stay [in Sweden], but life is full of what ifs, everything is a what if. So I don’t regret it, I’ve gained so much more than anything else could have given me.”
Lawton: “I would never say I wished I didn’t come to Northeastern. I would say that if I wanted to continue down that route [to the Olympics] I would have just stayed in Australia, I wouldn’t have come here, but I feel like I would have just become a one faceted person. And that’s why I came here. Because I was sick of being in the same routine, of just being a number in the system. And then when I came here, yes my rowing plateaued a bit, because I had other interests, but also I feel like I’ve learned a lot in a leadership capacity here, because it wasn’t the best team, so in order to go to the next level you had to take it upon yourself. And then reflecting back on my time here with rowing I learned a shit-load that I’m realizing now that ‘oh cool, well I can apply that to life now.’”
With none seeking to perform at the professional level, it provides a contrast to the childhood imagination of playing in World Cups and winning Olympic medals.
Lopiccolo: “I think I imagined bigger things for myself within the sport, maybe naively. But definitely have come to terms with it and I’m ok now.
Walding: “I only started playing volleyball in middle school because my friends were doing it. I didn’t care that much and then I really started to like the sport in high school, but I never would have pictured myself at Northeastern when I was a freshman in high school or something.”
Lawton: “I didn’t start rowing until I was 15, I swam before that. I guess the ultimate goal is, as you said, ‘I’m going to be the best in the world. I’m going to be the Lebron James of rowing’ [everyone laughs]. But there’s nothing other than committing time and effort for rowing – there’s not much money – at that level and I could keep going until I was 30 and I would still not have a job. I’d still wouldn’t have used my degree and I’d be training full-time. I’d have done many incredible things but for me that wasn’t the path I wanted to go down. Instead though, I’m extremely grateful that I’ve gotten a $400,000 scholarship. I don’t have any student debt. I don’t have any loans. I’m incredibly grateful to have had that opportunity and just ran with that.
Thuresson: “I mean I always pictured bigger things. As a kid I started playing soccer when I was six or seven. Like at this point [in my life] I was going to play at Old Trafford for Manchester United. That was always the goal and the dream, but I think without that passion and that dream, I wouldn’t be here. It didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to but… that’s ok, I’m more than happy with the way it’s turned out.”
Lopiccolo: “I think what’s cool is between all of us – I think the most dangerous thing to be is one dimensional and just tie your entire identity into your sport – and I think as kids we kind of have that. That’s your one love and passion is your sport. But now, I think its really cool that Northeastern has allowed me to develop into a very well-rounded and cultured person. And I’ve definitely grown in just general knowledge than I would have if I had just been a student athlete at a big program and invested my entire life into that.”
Among the ways that these athletes used Northeastern to develop personally was to study abroad and co-ops.
Walding: “I think just the fact that we are able to do co-op and that our coaches structure practice around our working times is so cool because when I talk to my friends that are playing at different schools, they can’t even do summer internships because they are training all summer, so they have no work experience by the time they graduate and we have at least a year and that’s huge when you’re starting your career.”
Lopiccolo: “I forced myself to study abroad after I finished soccer because I think I needed some separation from Northeastern and the sport and I wanted to just distract myself from soccer being gone and that’s probably one of the best things I could have done for myself, but it definitely was really dark and challenging at some times, being away from my friends and kind of mourning soccer. But I was there [England] for four months the semester after I finished soccer and then I was able to go back home and do a summer internship, so that was nice having that long period of time to be away from everything and it was definitely a growing and learning process for myself away from the sport.”
So after four years of blood, sweat, and tears, do they miss it? The answers, while unanimous, may surprise.
Lawton: “Honestly? No, I don’t miss the sport. The thing I miss the most is my teammates. They became my best friends and I have 30 best friends now, which is pretty sick. But then you don’t get to see them every day, which is the hardest thing. No way do I miss getting up at 6 a.m. in this cold weather.”
Walding: “I definitely miss the team the most. When I was working the games this year, when they were having a really good game, I miss that part. But then literally the next game they would get swept and I don’t miss that at all. I definitely miss the team culture the most.”
Thuresson: “I don’t miss the sport whatsoever. I think my last year here was just a…I mean we weren’t doing well, we haven’t been doing well for four years. So it was tough, we were always the underdog, so I don’t miss the sport whatsoever.
Lawton: “Do you feel like you left something behind though?”
Thuresson: “Do I feel like I left something behind? I hope so. I mean I’d like to think that I did. I think my class we sort of set the standard for this season and for the coming generations too – I hope.”
Lopiccolo: “You did.”
Thuresson: “I mean, we were a hardworking group of guys, and I think that before we came here this program was kind of like a joke, like a Sunday league men’s team that just got together for fun, it felt like. So I hope we left something behind. But I felt like I left it all out there, I don’t have any regrets about anything. I don’t miss the sport, but I miss the teammates, I miss the locker room.”
The transition from Division I collegiate athlete to normal, everyday exercising human beings has also been a transition.
Thuresson: “It wasn’t that my body necessarily needed a break, although I have pretty bad knees, but I think just mentally I needed a break. This semester I have been focusing on school, but not because I’m tired, it’s because I want to prioritize that now.”
Lopiccolo: “I think I’ll want to push my body that hard at some point, but right now I’m just doing whatever the heck I want. If I want to go on a long leisurely run, I’m going to do that because I want to do that and do it because I enjoy it. It’s not like I’m pushing my body to the max anymore, I’m not trying to max out on trap bar. I’m doing the [strength coach] Dan Sanzo lifts from his packet that I enjoy doing and that’s about it. Every single workout we did, we are working out as hard as we can until we puke, so it’s nice to do something where you don’t have to push yourself that hard because you don’t want to – and that’s OK.”
Lawton: “That’s so true. I feel like only now, since July, have I come to the point where I want to be able to push myself again. I needed that time to recover. There was definitely a period where I didn’t know how else to push myself other than rowing. So I would go to a group fitness class and I would end up vomiting afterward and everybody looks at me like ‘what’s wrong with this person?’ There’s a transition of how to be a normal person. I seriously vomited in a group fitness class.”
All four had different paths to get to Northeastern as freshmen. Thuresson and Lawton both came from outside the country (Sweden and Australia, respectively), with little expectations of what was to come. They came to reinvigorate a dying love for their sport, over their distraught over the lack of harmony between school and sport in their home countries. Lopiccolo and Walding (California and Chicago, respectively) came here as the pinnacle of the American athletic model, looking for the college sports experience. But it never was a smooth ride, which while unforeseen, made all of them into who they are today.
Walding: “My first two years we weren’t very good, so I definitely thought about ‘do I want to transfer?’ Do I want to quit in general?’ But I stuck it out and I’m so happy that I did. I think Northeastern provided the best experience between volleyball, co-op, and class, I think it’s just awesome.”
Lopiccolo: “My freshman year, another reason why I wanted to work so hard and kick butt, was because I wanted to look into transferring maybe. Which, I had the best season of my life, but I realized, I think I belonged here and God put me here for a reason and literally put so many obstacles in the way to lead me here. This is the happiest I could possibly be.”
Lawton: “I’d say I had some pretty high highs here and I had some very low lows. There were times I hated being here and I wanted to go home and there were times that I loved it here. But if I’m honest, I think I’ve done here more than I could have ever dreamt of before coming here. And I think I’m at my happiest I’ve ever been, right now. Which is a pretty cool feeling to have when you’re going out to then explore something which is so unknown. So I think, am I prepared to go out and do that? Oh God, yeah.”
Thuresson: “Sort of similar, definitely some high highs, but definitely low lows too. My sophomore year was really, really tough. We had a very turbulent season for many reasons and our coach got fired and our whole team was divided. I had just become a captain then and was sort of in the middle of all of it. There were times when I just really wanted to go home and quit this altogether. I had some coaches reach out and were offering me a chance to transfer. My roommate and I had some friends at other schools that were saying ‘you can come here, I’ll talk to our coach.’ And some of those teams made it to the final eight of the national tournament. But I don’t have any regrets in staying here, it’s been the best four and a half, will be the best five, years of my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Lopiccolo: “I think it’s tough when you’re making the decision of where you want to go to school. You’re a kid and I just knew I wanted a big school, with a big football program, best soccer, best academics…”
Walding: “Big name too, you want people to know where you’re going.”
Lopiccolo: “Yeah, exactly. And that was a huge thing of insecurity for me. People would go ‘oh, what’s Northeastern?’ And in California, no one knew. So I think it was a very humbling process, but overall I’m such a better person for it and I love this school and I’m such an advocate for this school.”
As the proverbial ride ends, Lawton and Lopiccolo are due to graduate in December, Thuresson and Walding in May, all four look back fondly on their time here, even if it wasn’t necessarily what they were expecting when they arrived as wide-eyed freshmen. Which is exactly what they would tell incoming freshmen.
Lawton: “Don’t have expectations, just keep an open mind. The moment I gave in, literally said ‘I have no idea’ and gave in to the universe, and I know it sounds cliché but I did, and then all of a sudden, things just started popping up where I’m like ‘Boom. Boom. Boom.’ And because I had such an open mind it resonated with me so strongly that it had meaning. I think it was November or December of my senior year. I just fully gave in and I shaved my head and I’m like ‘I’m starting again from the beginning.’”
Walding: “I completely agree with having an open mind, maybe not shaving the head [everyone laughs]. I think my first two years here I wasn’t totally happy because I wasn’t letting myself be happy here. I always thought I wanted to go home and I wouldn’t kind of give Northeastern everything that I had. After my sophomore year I’m like ‘screw it.’ I want to put everything that I have into what I’m doing and once I figured that out I feel like everything changed and got a lot better. So, having an open mind and just having passion for whatever you’re doing.”
Lopiccolo: I would probably tell my freshman year self to be thankful for everything you’ve been given and don’t look at what other people are doing and their successes. The grass will always be greener, be kind of just live in the moment, be where you are now. It’s easy to rob yourself of your joy if you’re seeing ‘oh my friends from club are playing at Penn State and killing it and won the national championship’ and stuff like that. But it’s your path and your journey is a lot different than everyone else’s.”
Lawton: “I fully agree with that. Because the grass is always greener but if you’re focusing on the other side, no one is caring for your own grass so of course it’s going to be greener.”
Walding: “Also we live in a society where social media only promotes the good stuff. So I remember that was really tough because my first year, I saw all my friends loving the schools that they went to, Big Ten schools or whatever. And then when I actually talked to them they were like ‘Oh it’s not that great.’ I’m like ‘oh well you make it seem like it.’”
Lopiccolo: “Just freshman year, girls especially, just want to hide all their insecurities by trying to show they’re having the best time ever on social media.”
Thuresson: “You can’t focus too much on what everyone else is doing. Stop comparing yourself to someone who plays at a better school or is on a team that does better. There’s more things to life and to college than just soccer.”
So where does the story arc for four of Northeastern’s most successful athletes ever actually end? With a little love and gratitude.
Thuresson: “It’s funny because when I first came here, I was always going to stay. I was always going to find an American girl and get married to her and stuff [Loppy laughs] but you end up with a best friend from Norway and a girlfriend from Denmark that I met while on co-op in New York City, so its kind of ironic.”
Walding: “I always thought I would go back home when I was done, but I just accepted a job in Framingham so I’m staying out here in Boston. And I never wanted to find something here because I wanted to go home and then… yeah, my boyfriend’s from Boston [laughter]”
Lawton: “I was the complete opposite, I was so set on going home, but the opposite thing happened to me. I met my girlfriend at the national championships for rowing. She just graduated from Georgetown so she’s just hanging around for me. I’m pretty grateful for that.”
Thuresson: “[You know] We never had any success as a team, but I think [the best moments] were just the people that I met. I have friends all over the world. I have friends in Japan, in Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Norway, the US, Venezuela. And I think just realizing that going through all the people that I met and all the people that I will know in the future and all the good times that I’ve shared with them that I will also share with them in the future. Like Lewis [Aird, former soccer player] is getting married next year and I get to go to his wedding and none of that would have happened if I hadn’t come here or stayed on the team.”
Walding: “It’s hard to come up with a specific moment, but I think that’s the whole point is that for me, it wasn’t necessarily a moment, but sticking through all the ups and downs, because there are so many in sports. And then coming out, now that we are done, and looking back at it, it is a really cool thing because you see how much you grew as a person throughout all that just by sticking with it.”
Lawton: “In a way, if you group everything I said, I came here to find myself and I think I did. I think I lost myself while I was here and then found myself again. But it had to happen. How do you know who you are unless you know who you aren’t? You have to get to a point ‘who am I?’ to then realize, ‘oh, that’s who I am.’ I moved away from home, I moved away from anyone who I ever loved or been a part of my family and I’m put here with no friends, I don’t know anyone, anyone I meet is ‘hey, that’s the first interaction we’re having.’ So, it’s sort of scary, and you have to go right into your shell and come right back out again.”
Lopiccolo: “It seems like we’re all in a very good place right now though, good for us… now I just to need to find a significant other and I’ll be on the same level as them [everyone laughs].”
Featured photo illustration by Brian Bae. Photos by Audrey Lee.