Health & Fitness

The Life of a University Athlete – Featuring Katie Gay

Are you an athlete considering joining a sports team at your college or university? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Read along to learn more about the full-time job that is varsity athletics.

Being a varsity athlete is not easy! You have to endure long hours of practice and fitness training almost every single day. There’s also the time management aspect. Balancing your sports team with classes, a social life, and other extracurriculars can be very tough at first. Although I wish I could provide insight on this topic, I don’t play any sports at the university level. That’s why I asked one of my good friends, Katie Gay, to share her expertise on the life of a varsity athlete on Big Sister Blog.

Who is Katie Gay?

Katie Gay, captain of the women’s varsity rowing team at the University of Toronto

Katie Gay is one of my best friends at university. She is currently a third-year student in the Rotman Commerce Program at the University of Toronto. Katie is specializing in management and majoring in environmental studies. We initially met in first year because we were both interviewing to become interns with the Rotman Commerce Innovation Group at UofT. Katie and I naturally gravitated toward each other, seeing that both of us were the only females in the room at a height of 5’11”. We chatted a bit, but it wasn’t until both of us were selected as interns for the club that we became as close as we are. Ever since we’ve been great friends! We live only a block away from each other in Downtown Toronto.

Originally from Ottawa, Katie is 20 years old and loves spending her spare time being outside in nature. She is interested in personal finance, loves to bake, and enjoys running outside (and that’s on top of her varsity training schedule!!).

Katie has been rowing on the University of Toronto team for 3 years now. Having no prior experience in rowing, Katie started by trying out for the novice team in her first year. The novice team is designed for athletes who have no rowing experience, as rowing is often a late-entry sport. Novice had a very similar schedule to the varsity team, but it essentially acted as a prep team to eventually try out for varsity in the future years. After a successful year in novice, Katie officially joined the varsity team at the end of her first year. She is now entering her fourth year of university as the Captain of the women’s team! Katie rows in the stroke seat of both the women’s eight and the women’s pair.

Time Commitment for Varsity Athletes

Katie (right) and Claire (left) rowing the women’s pair

“Before COVID-19, our team would row 6 times a week – which was… a lot! These practices would start at 5:15 am, Monday to Saturday. Because we needed to be at the waterfront by 5:00 am, my roommate Hannah and I would wake up at 4:00 am. We would get ready quickly, hop on our bikes, and meet our other teammate Claire to do the 30-minute bike ride together. We would get off the water around 7:00 am. After putting the boats away we would be ready to head back by 7:30 am, meaning we were back home around 8:00 am.”

“We practiced 6 days a week on the water (1.5-2 hours each time) and had 2 additional gym workouts every week (1.5 hours each session). During the winter months, because we aren’t able to row on the water, we would substitute these practices with erg (rowing machine) sessions that took place a bit later in the morning. Although this schedule is unique to rowing, every team puts in numerous hours of fitness training and team practices each week. The schedule sounds aggressive, but if you’re passionate about your sport then it’s very doable.”

“It was honestly really hard adjusting to this schedule at the start! I had to see a chiropractor at the sports medicine clinic for my back in the beginning. The chiropractor helped me a lot with my back pain as the months went on. I also felt my body getting stronger from the strength training, which was good because it helped my body recover faster.”

Advice to Incoming or Potential Athletes

“I wish that I kept more of an open mind coming into university. Coming out of high school I wasn’t an all-star athlete, and I figured my program of study [commerce] would be extremely demanding. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to fit a varsity sport into my schedule. When I entered first year I didn’t even consider the option.”

“Looking back I should have done more research before first year! I wish I looked up the team and its roster beforehand, as I could have found someone in my program of study to reach out to and speak with. Even if the student isn’t on your team of interest, it’s still a great resource to reach out to any varsity athlete in your program. These students might be able to provide some advice on varsity sports teams and how they’ve balanced them with their program of study.”

“Keep an open mind if you are struggling with the decision to do varsity sports. Even though varsity sports aren’t for everyone, it’s good to give it your best shot if you have some interest. If you think that you need something to keep you accountable and you love the team atmosphere, then just try it! Whenever I speak to students who are thinking about doing a varsity sport, I always tell them to just try it and see where it takes them. They can always stop doing it if they later realize it’s not for them. I feel like people usually end up liking it and it works out well!”

“Don’t immediately close off the door to varsity sports because you think you will be too busy. Do your research, talk to upper-year athletes, and find out if you can make it work. You can even contact the team’s coach and show your excitement to join the team. At the end of the day, they’re looking for someone who is coachable and loves the sport as much as they do.”

The Social Life of an Athlete

“Sometimes I felt like all I was doing was rowing and working on homework. However, when I thought about it more, a lot of the time I spent at rowing was just hanging out with my friends. I honestly never felt like I was missing out on a social life. I had 25 of my favourite people around me all the time so it made things fun. I’ve met some of my best friends through rowing.”

“Although you miss out on some aspects of the typical university social life, I think that playing a sport is completely worth it. Rowing has a pretty big team – most of the teams on campus are quite large. Everyone is busy at the same time, so you have 25 kids who barely get to go out. However, when you do have the time in your schedule, you all go out together and have an amazing time.”

Katie’s Favourite Parts of Being an Athlete

“There are three main things for me that make rowing so amazing. Social life, physical ability, and purpose.”

“The first thing is the social aspect. The thing I loved most about rowing was that it made me become friends with people outside of my program. Naturally, you talk to your friends about things you have in common. If you’re only friends with people from your program, you often end up talking about homework and classes a bit too much. I loved going somewhere for a few hours every day where no one talked about school. I found myself becoming friends with people I may have never walked up to on campus or in class.”

“The next point is the physical aspect. If you’re on a team – varsity or not – it keeps you accountable to do a workout every day. Although I would leave practice feeling exhausted some days, I never had to fit in a workout during my spare time. When you’re on a team, your workouts are scheduled for you. Naturally, I saw myself staying in shape without having to think about doing it on my own. Your workouts become another commitment you have to prioritize being at – there’s no way you will miss your workout.”

“The last point is purpose. When you’re part of a sports team, it gives you a purpose outside of school. Sometimes, I felt like if there wasn’t a lot going on in rowing, my whole value was attached to how well I was doing in school. It was nice to row for a few hours every day and not have to worry about how I was doing in my classes. If I’m having a tough week at school, I can remind myself ‘It’s okay, I’m pretty fast at rowing right now!’. It’s really the same with any extracurricular activity, club, or team you join. Having something else to focus on is very good for your mental health in university.”

The Challenges of University Sports

“Getting up early can be one of the biggest challenges, especially with rowing. Most sports don’t require their athletes to wake up at 4 am, but that doesn’t mean those athletes aren’t exhausted from their training schedule. Joining the varsity team made me feel very tired some days. I learned to master the 10-minute nap, which sometimes saved me from crashing throughout the day. Our coaches would try and get us to sleep 10 hours each night, but for my sport, that meant going to bed at 6 pm! It was impossible to get enough sleep, but I did my best to adjust to this schedule and get to bed as early as possible. Sleep was so important for my mental health, rowing performance, and ability to focus in class.”

Katie, myself, and Daniyal at a case competition for RCIG

“Another aspect of rowing that was hard at first was being very busy. Sometimes I would have to miss out on other activities because rowing took priority. I was committed to my team and had to learn how to say no in other areas of my life. If you’re a varsity athlete, you can’t really join a ton of clubs. However, I still joined a few other clubs on campus to meet new people and learn other skills. At the end of the day, you need to balance your life and take care of your mental health.”

“Another challenge was prioritizing school over athletics. My best friends in rowing would go for an extra workout together just to stay in the best shape possible. I would worry if I didn’t go I would miss out, or maybe lose my spot on the team. In university, my professors don’t keep me accountable the same way my friends do with the rowing team. Sometimes I had to say no if I needed to get school work done.”

Time Management

“I’ve been on a team my whole life. This helped me learn how to manage my time better. My mom always told me ‘if you want something done, give it to the busiest person’. Knowing you only have a set number of hours in the day motivates me to get everything done as efficiently as possible without procrastinating.”

“I use iCalendar on my phone and laptop to stay on top of everything. I also have an agenda where I draw in boxes with allocated times for different activities. Off to the side, I write what I need to get done in that block of time. This helps me stay organized and get things done throughout the day.”

Life Skills Learned as an Athlete

“Discipline and teamwork are two of the biggest things I’ve learned. Every day when I go to practice I learn how to deal with different personalities, which improves my conflict resolution skills. Rowing has taught me the importance of being a good team player.”

“I’ve also learned how to fail. Sports teams are the place to fail. When it comes to a job, and I’m not the best at something, I’ve learned not to panic. I ask for guidance on how I can improve and be better. People critique you all the time in sports to help you get better. When this translates to a job, I feel like I’m more open to constructive criticism. Knowing when to step up and be a leader for your team, but also understanding when to listen to others and just be a follower.”

“You can even talk about these experiences in job interviews. Interviewers love people who play sports because it’s something different to help you stand out. If you’re passionate about it, it’s a great talking point.”

Closing Thoughts

Katie and I playing basketball together

“As I said before, varsity athletics is not for everyone – and that’s fine. If sports aren’t for you, I think it’s important to have something you look forward to every day or every week. Make sure you join a fun club, sports team, or other activity. Finding people with similar interests is an important part of enjoying your university experience.”

“If you aren’t doing a varsity sport, try to find ways to stay in shape on your own. Make your schedule fun – play sports some days, do workout classes other days, go for runs, lift weights, and just try to add some variety. Try to do these workouts with friends to make sure you’re having fun, keeping motivated, and staying fit.”

Thank you again to Katie for sharing her story with everyone on Big sister Blog! I hope her story and advice will inspire some young athletes out there to pursue sports at the next level in university or college.

Thank you everyone for reading! Hopefully, Katie’s advice was helpful to all those aspiring athletes out there. Like Katie mentioned, if you’re considering joining a sports team, just try it! There’s nothing to lose. It’s better to look back knowing you tried than wondering what could have been. Stay tuned for more posts in the future featuring more stories and advice from some other great people. 

Thanks again,


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(4) Comments

  1. Marlon Hinds says:

    I am a huge Katie Gay fan, having coached her at the club basketball level for many years, she has always been the most dedicated and hardest working person I knew on and off the court, I would take 10 Katie Gays on a basketball team over 10 Lebrons any day….keep doing your thing Katie, continued success for is a mear formality!

    1. That’s so sweet, thanks for sharing! I’m a huge Katie fan as well! Thanks for reading.

  2. You are definitely right

  3. It is remarkable, it is very valuable answer
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