Lindsay Cannon couldn’t make up her mind, and for that blessed bout of indecisiveness, Holmdel High’s coaches are forever grateful.
Her father had sat her down before she entered the ninth grade and offered some advice. Pick one sport, he told her, and focus on that to have the best shot at earning a college scholarship in four years. She knew he was probably right.
But which one?
Soccer? Basketball? Lacrosse?
“I honestly couldn’t think of a sport to pick,” she said. “I love all of my friends and all my sports. I like changing it up, going from one sport to another — different rules, different muscles being used, different running styles. So I decided to try them all.”
She became a three-sport athlete. And now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — those are five words not often used together in the same sentence, am I right? — she had an opportunity to become the rarest breed of high school star in this era of increasing specialization in youth sports.
The four-sport athlete.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association created a second “winter” season this year, moving girls volleyball and gymnastics from the fall and shifting wrestling back a few weeks because of the restrictions on indoor gatherings. The goal was to make sure all athletes had a fair chance to compete.
The unintended consequence, however, was giving a handful dedicated athletes around the state an opportunity to compete … a lot.
Cannon already was set to become just the 19th athlete in a half century at Holmdel High to earn 12 varsity letters. When she squeezed volleyball onto her insane schedule and made the varsity despite learning the new sport on the fly, she’ll graduate as the first and only one with 13. That’s quite a legacy, and one that bucks the trend.
Three-sport athletes are vanishing with the pressure from club-sport programs to play year round and the misguided belief from parents that specialization will give their children a better chance at a college scholarship. This, most experts agree, isn’t just unnecessary but also unhealthy, leading to burnout and overuse injuries.
“When you commit yourself to one sport at such a young age, you lose who you are as a person,” said Point Pleasant native Christie Pearce Rampone, who became one of the most decorated soccer players in U.S. history despite — or maybe because of — her decision to play three sports even during her college career at Monmouth.
The pandemic helped make high school sports a little smaller — less travel, shorter seasons, emptier gyms — and maybe put the focus back where it belonged. The obsession with scholarships and championships were lessened while the importance of exercise, activity and camaraderie were emphasized.
That’s how Joanna Baldwin and two of her best friends, Alexa Bigler and Nevaeh Cabrera, ended up picking up tennis racquets for the first time in their lives when volleyball season was pushed to the spring.
“We’re not sitting around and doing nothing,” Baldwin said. “We looked at each other, and the next day, we were on the tennis courts. The first week was like basic training for the army. We had to learn everything.”
The three had the eclectic quadruple sport experience of tennis, bowling, volleyball and softball, which Baldwin described as “very taxing on your body” … with one exception. “Well, not so much bowling, but my arm was a little sore.”
The schedules, despite the best efforts of the NJSIAA, did not align perfectly. Hannah Doyle, a junior at High Point Regional High, added tennis to her three-sport slate of basketball, volleyball and softball, but it was the latter two that overlapped this spring.
Doyle would bolt out of volleyball practice, slipping into her softball pants and sliders, to hustle over to the softball fields “to get a few reps in” before sunset. She also kept playing on a club volleyball team, adding to the time crunch.
“One of my best friends thinks I’m absolutely insane,” Doyle said. “It’s tough, but I credit my work ethic to sports. I know I have a certain amount of time to get stuff done because I’m so busy. That makes me work hard. It’s crazy, but it’s so worth it.”
These athletes, not surprisingly, are wired differently than most students — each one interviewed here has an academic workload that would put sweat beads on the foreheads of us normal folk. They find something in sports that has added structure and kinship to their lives.
Cannon, the Holmdel star, is heading to the University of Tennessee in the fall to study nursing. She plans to scale back on athletics to focus on her studies, and with graduation still about two months away, already sounds like she misses it.
Athletic directors may want to pin this quote on a bulletin board:
“With senior year coming to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot about sports and what they’ve meant to me because pretty soon I’ve not going to be an athlete anymore, and that’s kind of crazy to me,” Cannon said. “I’ve always been an athlete. The best thing that sports have given me is family. Every team is a different family.”
She had her first day off from sports in almost a month recently and spent the hours babysitting a pair of pre-school kids. Lacrosse was her only sport this spring, but suddenly awash with time, Cannon found a fifth sport to fill her days.
This one isn’t an NJSAA sanctioned activity — or isn’t yet, at least. Cannon is a slot receiver and linebacker in a new girls flag football league that has the support of the Giants and Jets. The championship game will take place in MetLife Stadium later this spring, and Cannon thinks Holmdel has a shot to get there.
Just one concern: Could she possibly have shelf space for another trophy?
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Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.