The club-sport experience: Score a goal, drive the van

ILLUSTRATION: RON BARRETT

Emilie Burke ’15 has no problem calculating the time she spends training for rugby — about 12 hours a week. But when she tries to add up the time spent reserving practice fields, ordering ­uniforms, coordinating travel plans, and shopping around for affordable hotels, the math gets a little hazy. Rugby, she laughs, “has pretty much taken over my life — in a good way.”

Burke, the team’s vice president, never had seen a rugby ball before coming to Princeton. (She suits up for the B-side, the club’s equivalent of junior varsity.) But off the pitch, the Newark, N.J., native is a valuable asset for a team that takes about eight road trips each year. Midway through the championship game at a tournament in Virginia, she learned that the team’s bus had a dead battery. By the time the final whistle blew, Burke had lined up three locations where her teammates could rest indoors while waiting for the bus company to send help.

Princeton supports more than 30 sport clubs — from badminton to ­volleyball — and while the level of competition varies, the clubs share one bond: a reliance on student leaders such as Burke to keep things running. Students serve as bookkeepers, equipment managers, recruiters, fundraisers, and in many cases, coaches, too.

The varsity programs’ motto is “education through athletics.” For club athletes, it’s education through balancing the budget, painting the sidelines, playing the game, and driving the van home.

Of course, Princeton’s football captains probably would paint their own sidelines if they had to, and a club ­athlete’s time commitment usually is nowhere near that of a varsity player. But there is something commendable about the do-it-yourself ethic that drives the club model. It’s a throwback to the earliest days of intercollegiate sports, when student-organized groups like the Nassau Base-ball Club (est. 1860) and the Princeton College Boating Club (est. 1870) laid the foundation for varsity teams.

The clubs’ training trips often become valuable leadership experiences for club officers. Gavin Schlissel ’13, a fleet captain for the sailing team, helped organize a team trip to Florida during his junior year. Schlissel (who writes for PAW) says he learned more about group dynamics on the sailing team than he did in any Princeton class. The details may be trivial (figuring out how much lunch meat it takes to feed 25 people, for example), but the lessons are meaningful — sharing responsibility, thinking about the needs of others, anticipating the inevitable logistical hiccups. Says Schlissel: “It really is a team sport, making sure that everything functions.”

PHOTO: JOHN O’NEILL ’13

Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor and writes frequently about sports.