athletes · fitness

Are there any elite female athlete-doctors? Yes, but they’re not easy to find

Today I was listening to an NPR radio show I like called Only a Game. I like it because it covers lots of different sports and lots of athletes of different ages, dis/abilities, competition levels, etc.  This week’s show included a segment on US National Football League players who went to medical school during their playing careers.  This May,  Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, graduated from medical school with his MD. He’s gotten a lot of press for this impressive accomplishment, but it turns out he’s not the first NFL player to combine an athletic career with medical school.  If you’d like to hear more about it, check out the podcast.

When a male pro athlete does anything else in addition to working as a pro athlete, it’s big news. John Urschel (also Canadian) played pro football for several years while working on a PhD in mathematics at MIT.  He retired from football in 2017, partly because of a JAMA study on CTE, a degenerative brain condition linked to multiple concussions. He’s now a full-time graduate student.

These stories got me wondering: there must be women pro and elite athletes who have done the same thing. I got to work, googling here and googling there.  These women are not easy to find.  But they are out there.

American diver Abby Johnston won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and was a medical student at Duke university while competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Canadian Caroline Park trained for and competed with the South Korean women’s Olympic Hockey team while she was medical school at Columbia University. She’s had to juggle her schedule and take some time off, but has support from her family, the hockey team and school officials.

I found information about a handful of  mostly Olympic women athletes who then went on to become physicians. All of them were Canadian or American.  There was nothing– NO-THING– out there (that I could find) about female athletes from other countries who combined training and competition with medical studies.

The reason why I’m writing about my failure to find relatively easy access to this straightforward question— which female athletes trained and competed during medical school– is that there could be a number of reasons why I can’t find anything.  And none of them bode well for female athletes who have ambitious educational plans. Here are some possibilities to explain.

Except for tennis, women pro athletes’ salaries are much smaller than male athletes’ salaries.  Want some figures?  There’s very nice (and graphically pleasing) information by Adelphi University. Since women athletes have less money to begin with, they may not be able to afford medical school during training and competition.

Olympic female athletes often come up through secondary and university systems, or government-sponsored sports organizations. The time and commitment requirements are enormous.  The male athletes who talked about combining sports and study had to overcome significant objections, and play down their scholarly activities. Women athletes likely faced even more hurdles and had less support. So it may be the case that there are fewer women who were able to pursue such a combined program.

Or, maybe there are many examples all over the world of women athlete/doctors, but they get no press.  Google doesn’t care about them because the media doesn’t think it worthwhile. Yes, that’s a cynical view.  I mean, it’s possible that I just did some lousy searching.  But I don’t think so.  After all, in the course of my online searching, I did find this:

Former pro basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, receiving his doctorate in education from Barry University.
Former pro basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, receiving his doctorate in education from Barry University.

It’s cool that pro basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal graduated with a doctorate in education. But I want to know about the women, too.  Why?

Frankly, it’s a thrill for me to see high-profile women who excel in athletics and academics at the same time.  It motivates me to do my best to continue down those dual tracks in my own life. And I can use some motivation. It’s hard to push through inertia, time constraints, injuries and/or other limitations, and other wild cards that life throws at us.

No, I’m not planning on pursuing another degree and taking up a new sport or amping up one I already do. But it’s nice to see superlative achievers out there. And I want to see those women. I’ll keep looking.  If you know of any cases, please let us know in the comments.




15 thoughts on “Are there any elite female athlete-doctors? Yes, but they’re not easy to find

  1. I’m not sure if she’s considered a “pro” (what’s the definition?) but trail/ultrarunner Megan Roche got her M.D. (Stanford), while being a competing/winning runner, coach, researcher. “Megan is the 2016 USATF Trail Runner of the Year at the ultra and sub-ultra distances. She is a four-time national champion, the North American Mountain Running Champion, and a six-time member of Team USA. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in Neuroscience and received her M.D. from Stanford Medical School.” She and husband (trail runner and coach, former environmental attorney) David have a book about running coming out in the fall. Before she graduated, their Instagram feed would often show Megan running in the early dark hours, and their columns for Trail Runner magazine have talked about how she fit things in, made it work.

    1. Thanks for the info on Megan Roche. This whole “pro” designation is also very gendered, in large part because lots of women who are world-class athletes compete in areas where there’s little pro compensation (for their fields or in general) or their sport hasn’t been monetized in the way some male pro sports have (maybe this is all the same reason…) I’ll check out their book when it’s published.

    1. I just looked her up, and wow, she’s interesting and an achiever in so many things! Everyone should check her out! Thanks!

  2. This is a great topic for discussion as I suspect more women qualify with degrees and advanced degrees during their athletic careers for the simple reasons that academia can allow time flexibility and professional sportswomen generally don’t get paid enough not to consider their future even in the midst of an elite career.

    I only describe one person as a personal hero and role model to me and that is Sarah Springman, former (Ironman) triathlete and currently vice president as the ITU. She’s also a Professor at the Technical University in Zurich (in geotechnical engineering). We overlapped at Cambridge University when she was a PhD and post-doc in Engineering and I was a lowly undergrad in Science. But we were both in the Army Reserve, so I had the opportunity to see her in action. When I was in Australia for my PhD and starting my cycling career, Sarah was dominating the Ironman world – a lot of men had to up their game to compete with her. Several of the triathletes I trained with and raced against in Australia said she was an amazing inspiration to them as well. She has been a mentor also to the cyclist Emma Pooley, whose PhD she supervised at the ETH during Emma’s road/time trialling career.

    1. These are all great stories and examples of exactly what I’m talking about. You’re right, I’m sure, about both the fact that women can and do take advantage of the flexibility of academic life, and that they need to find a paying job because their sport doesn’t pay enough. There’s a book in here somewhere… 🙂 Thanks a lot!

  3. If an elite athlete is also pursuing her medical degree/studies, then it would be incredible.

    I agree the cost of university education, like medicine is enough to force many people to choose between a sport and schooling.

    There are 2 doctors in my family: my youngest sister is an emergency medicine doctor and a nephew’s wife is a pediatrician. So personally I’ve seen the demands of studies on them.

    1. HI Jean– yes, I agree. Medical and graduate studies are very demanding, so it is hard to imagine doing intense training and competing during them. I think these folks and others managed to slow down and spread out their medical studies, although they do report rushing from practice to the lab and getting little sleep.

      1. My sister kept on getting colds. Also some of this directly from patients. It pisses her off that patients sneeze directly at her….after all, doctors are human also.

    1. Yes– I don’t think they do internships/residencies while working as athletes.

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