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Spirit & Sports

The many reasons our student-athletes keep winning

Our sports teams’ unprecedented gains tie back to respect for academics, a culture of care and deep support from the Buckeye community.

A fencer wearing a mask with Ohio State-colored stripes down the center lunges forward as he thrusts his sabre toward his opponent, who can only be seen from behind. Both wear padding and they’re at a competition. People behind them watch another match.

Senior Stephen Chou competes in a sabre match this spring. The season marked the 100th year of the Ohio State fencing program. (Photo from Ohio State Athletics)

Jen Flynn Oldenburg ’01 excelled as a volleyball player at Ohio State. As a coach, she’s reached still higher heights.

A rare four-year starter, Oldenburg played from 1996 to 1999 and returned as head coach of the women’s volleyball team in 2020. She became the squad’s only coach to win Big Ten Coach of the Year in her inaugural season and also the only first-year coach to lead the team to the NCAA tournament. The team has advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in each of her first three years.

Oldenburg and her players are flourishing — and they’re not alone. The team’s upward trajectory is indicative of a larger pattern of progress in Ohio State sports, one people across the athletic department say is rooted in a wide-ranging commitment to elevate student-athletes and coaches.

Three volleyball players wearing scarlet jerseys celebrate during a game in a gym as fans in the background cheer. A player with a No. 1 on her jersey is the most animated, with a huge grin and her hands fisted in the air.

The women’s volleyball team, represented here by (from left) Sarah Sue Morbitzer, Emily Londot and Sarah White, was ranked all season for the first time in program history. (Photo from Ohio State Athletics)

“We talk a lot about being elite,” Oldenburg says. “At a school like this, we can be elite in a lot of ways.”

Indeed, it’s a good time to be a Buckeye — and not just in traditionally dominant programs like football and synchronized swimming. More and more of Ohio State’s intercollegiate sports teams are winning conference titles, finishing in the top 10 nationally and becoming perennial competitors. Even with our storied athletic tradition, Buckeye teams arguably have never been better.

Consider the Division I standings for the Learfield Directors’ Cup, an annual award from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics recognizing the school with the most success in collegiate athletics. Ohio State has finished second three times in the contest’s 30-year history but has never won. Heading into spring, the Buckeyes — buoyed by banner years for women’s ice hockey, wrestling, women’s basketball, fencing and other winter sports — held the lead over two-time defending champion Texas.

[Editor’s note: Ohio State finished first in the Big Ten and third overall in the 2022–23 Learfield standings, announced June 28. Stanford ranked first overall and Texas second.]

Director of Athletics Gene Smith cites many reasons for Ohio State’s ascendance, including the university’s growth in academics, construction of first-class facilities and a support structure called the Circle of Care.

“Focus on recruiting the student-athlete in a holistic way has really improved,” Smith says. “We need to have talent, obviously, but for recruiting young people who can excel in the classroom, be just as competitive and have good character, I have to applaud our coaches.”

A shirtless young man with dark hair and a mustache raises his arms, as if halfway between a victory cheer and flexing his biceps. He’s looking at something off camera, perhaps a scoreboard or coach.

Olympic hopeful Lyle Yost celebrates his NCAA national title in the 1-meter dive. (Photo from Ohio state Athletics)

Hiring and retaining top leaders has been crucial, agrees Kristin Watt ’86, ’89 JD, a former women’s basketball captain and Columbus lawyer who does color commentary for team broadcasts. “What they’ve really invested in is coaches,” Watt says. “You’ve got the best coaches in the country here. And the coaches are supported.”

That’s one function of the Circle of Care, a support system for student-athletes maintained by academic advisors, strength coaches, trainers, nutritionists, doctors, compliance officers and more. “We added sports psychologists who we didn’t have before,” Smith says, “and now they’re embedded in the culture of our teams, and student-athletes feel comfortable going to them.”

This all adds up to “anything a student-athlete needs,” says Tom Ryan, Ohio State’s wrestling coach for the past 17 years. “I don’t think a human being will have more support in their life.”

A young man in a backwards ballcap and T-shirt yells as he clenches a fist and holds his tennis racket. He looks intense, as if he just won a hard-fought volley.

Cannon Kingsley was the 2022 Big Ten Men’s Tennis Athlete of the Year. (Photo from Ohio State Athletics) 

Joshua Perry ’15, a linebacker on the 2014 national championship football team who now works in broadcasting, appreciated Ohio State’s wide-ranging resources as a student. “There is an individualized plan for every student-athlete,” Perry says, recalling input he received about academics, nutrition, career planning and more. “When you have a happy student-athlete,” he says, “I think you get a student-athlete who is going to perform a lot better.”

The assistance is liberating for coaches, too. “I feel like I can spend time actually coaching my sport,” Oldenburg says. Fervent community support in a facility like the Covelli Center also brings success. “We sell out. That’s a huge recruiting piece for us,” she says.

Watt, a longtime advocate for women’s athletics, says the foundation for widespread athletic success was laid decades ago by the school’s response to Title IX, the anti-discrimination law enacted in 1972. “Other universities got rid of Olympic sports and men’s sports to balance out because of the Title IX stuff,” Watt says. “Ohio State didn’t do that. They added sports.”

The university also invested in those sports across the board. “It’s a growth mindset here,” Ryan says. “If you bring something to administrators that has some data and science behind it, they’ll get it.” One recent example is a new NovoTHOR red-light therapy bed. Recommended by the sports science team as a valuable innovation in athletic recovery, it is shared by the wrestling program and other sports.

Ryan also points to the NEST (Nutrition’s Elite Supplemental Table) at the Schumaker Complex, which provides student-athletes with healthy meals and snacks — an especially helpful benefit for wrestlers trying to stay in their weight class.

“Ohio State was the best of everything. Great school, great athletic department, great team.”

Olympic hopeful diver Lyle Yost ’23

All these factors help to attract athletes the caliber of diver Lyle Yost ’23, an Olympic hopeful who won an NCAA national title in the 1-meter dive this year. He also was named the 2023 Arthur Ashe Jr. Male Sports Scholar of the Year, which recognizes scholarship, athleticism and humanitarianism. He is only the second Buckeye to win; the year before, the award for Female Sports Scholar of the Year went to Sophie Jaques ’22, a star defender on the close-knit women’s hockey team who is getting her master’s degree in civil engineering.

This year, Jaques, a Toronto native, was honored with the Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to the top player in women’s Division I hockey. Yost, a Spanish major, was named Diver of the Year by the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America.

He says he’s benefitted from Lead Like a Buckeye, a monthly gathering of leading athletes from each sport that features insights from coaches, alumni and more, as well as other student-athlete services. But what swayed him was the atmosphere he observed within the team.

“When I came on my trip, we went out to the Oval. We went around campus. We played volleyball. We went to my coach Justin [Sochor]’s house, and had dinner and played with his dogs,” Yost recalls. “It was a really wholesome and tight-knit group, which was really appealing to me.”

Recruited by about 60 schools, Yost says he was most drawn to the culture and competitiveness in Columbus: “Ohio State was the best of everything. Great school, great athletic department, great team.”

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