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.

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.




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