By: Jake Smith
NCAA Division III athletics can be an interesting dynamic. The athletes are expected to put in Division I effort while still maintaining an active academic, extra-curricular, and social life. As a former collegiate athlete, I can attest to the fact that just because a school is DI or DIII, often has little effect on the rigor and competitive nature of the environment established by the coaching staff and the players themselves. Regardless of the fact that CNU is a Division III NCAA school, the athletics program is extremely strong across the board. Across the nation, CNU ranks fifth among all Division III schools in number of team championships won and has produced more than 500 All Americans. Due to the successes and accomplishments of the athletics teams at CNU, one would think that the athletes that get recruited to play at CNU would be solely focused on their craft as the continued success of the programs they are joining are dependent on it. While this is partially correct, there are a few athletes that choose to go above and beyond simply devoting their time to their sport. Some choose the extra-curricular route, joining clubs or intramural teams. Others elect to join Greek life, delegating their time and money to fraternities or sororities. Finally, there are those who decide to start looking towards their future. Some go for part time jobs; others push for internships and networking opportunities. However, there are few who not only decide to go above and beyond their sport, but decide to answer a call bigger than themselves. Cue senior women’s volleyball captain Rachel Conway.
For about as long as she can remember, Rachel was always involved in sports growing up. Although volleyball turned out to be the main focus of her athletic career, especially in college, Rachel played basketball throughout middle school and spent all four years of high school on the swim team as well. However, volleyball always seemed to be the focus of her efforts, especially in high school. Even though she didn’t start playing volleyball until 8th grade, it quickly became a passion and it wasn’t long until she would start acquiring accolades and adding to a growing list of accomplishments. Rachel’s older sister had tried out for the volleyball team when Rachel was younger, and after spending some much time at her games, she was inspired to emulate her sister and try out to. When asked about significant events that she remembered about playing volleyball in high school she said:
“Some of my biggest accomplishments in volleyball have been being the first volleyball team at my high school to win a district title.”
This would prove to be a foreshadowing of things to come as Rachel would not only get recruited to play collegiate volleyball at a highly ranked division III program, but she would become extremely successful both individually and as a team during her four year career at CNU.
From her freshman year as the new recruit who just stepped foot on campus, to now, having completed her final season as a varsity volleyball player and set to graduate in less than three months, her accolades and accomplishments for CNU as a varsity volleyball player are almost to numerous to mention. In 2014, as her Junior season (Hyperlink) came to a close, Rachel had put together one of the best seasons of any CNU volleyball player in the history of CNU. She was selected as the CAC (Colonial Athletic Conference) Player of the Year and was first team all-conference, all-state, and all-region, among a host of other impressive statistics and milestones. Ask anyone who knows Rachel personally, will attest to her work ethic and her competitive spirit. However, at times it is often this competitive spirit that can present challenges to an athlete.
“My biggest challenge is probably myself and the expectations I used to set for myself when I was playing. I would compare myself to how I used to play or compare myself to other players and tell myself I needed to be like that when I just needed to be myself. It is always good to admire other people’s talents and want to learn from them, but it could become unhealthy as I would be extremely unsatisfied with how I was performing.”
As she matured and grew she realized that she had the opportunity to challenge and push herself in a way that she never had before and it would end up influencing her life in a way she never would have expected.
The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is a program designed by the United States Army to train college students through a variety of classes and leadership development courses as Cadets with the ultimate goal of having them commission as second lieutenants upon graduation from their respective colleges. It is by no means an easy program, and even for students who choose solely to participate in ROTC and academics in college and stray away from extra-curricular activities, it can be a struggle to correctly manage time and successfully complete the program in the allotted four-year period. For those students who attempt to double-dip in regards to interests and involvement in college, especially those involved in varsity athletics, the program becomes even more difficult, and for many Cadet-athletes, there comes a point where they must choose between their sport and the Army. However, there are a handful of cases where the Cadet-athlete is able to defy the odds and not only participate in both activities but exceed and perform admirably in both. For hose individuals in positions like this, the rationale behind wanting to switch their sole focus from athletics to a mixture of athletics and an Army commitment is always unique and in this case, Rachel is no different.
“I came to CNU to play volleyball and had the pleasure and honor of playing for all 4 years of my college experience. My freshman year, I wasn’t sure what I wanted my major to be so I was somewhat floundering around trying to get a handle on my life and my future. My brother graduated from William and Mary and commissioned into the Army from there by doing ROTC. I knew ROTC was an option but no one in my family has ever served in the military so it was a pretty foreign concept to me. I randomly thought ROTC would be fun so I started talking to some different people who were doing ROTC but also playing a sport at CNU. I wanted to honor my volleyball coach because I had come to CNU to play and wanted to make sure I could continue playing and do ROTC. I didn’t end up starting ROTC until a year later in my sophomore year because I am a pretty impulsive person and wanted to pray about it and make sure it was something I really should be doing. Sophomore year started and I was only doing a test run in ROTC. I told myself that I wouldn’t fully commit until I had spent a little more time in it and was ready to continue as a junior. During that year of testing the waters of ROTC, I was really shown how God is so present in the military. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself very military minded, I realized that the Lord has been able to equip me to join Him in the ministry he has created in the military and more specifically the Army. I’m not talking about being a typical missionary where you think of someone walking around spouting Bible verses and talking about God in every conversation. The ministry I am talking about is carrying the presence of the Lord wherever I go and allowing that to soak into people that I talk to each day.”
It may seem that Rachel stumbled across ROTC as happenstance, or that her simple curiosity led her to explore the possibility of ROTC as a career choice out of the blue. As she mentions, she does tend to be an impulsive person at times, but given her faith and the amount of trust she has in God’s plan for her life, I don’t believe this is the case. Throughout her time at college Rachel always knew that God had a plan for her life, and that she had the skills and ability necessary to take the opportunity that God had presented to her through ROTC and use it to live as example of her faith to those around her. In May, Rachel will commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army and this new path that God has laid before her will begin. It will not be an easy path however. As an officer, Conway will be expected to represent not just herself, but her soldiers, and the Army as a whole. As an active duty officer however, she will have the unique opportunity of being able to engage and interact with her soldiers everyday. She will have that opportunity to live and lead as an example of what God has been able to do with her life. She will be able demonstrate that even though hard work and ability is necessary, that sometimes you have to be willing to put it in the hands of God and trust that he will guide you through the rest. Your life may not take the shape you originally envisioned, but sometimes, by following that new path, you discover exactly what you were put on this Earth to do. For Rachel, it wasn’t just for her, but for her God, and for her country.