Inside the double lives of two-sport athletes
Yale soccer and ice hockey lucked out by landing Crysti Howser and Maggie Westfal, but life as a two-sport athlete hasn't always been easy, writes Graham Hays.
Crysti Howser and Maggie Westfal are two-timing that which they profess to love, and folks at Yale couldn't be happier about it.
Because when it comes down to it, neither sophomore has any interest in remaining faithful to a single athletic love. Howser and Westfal are among the college athletes who combat curfews, muscle pulls and painfully long bus rides for more than one season each academic year, giving up free time because they don't want to give up a sport.
The NCAA says it doesn't officially track the number of student-athletes competing in multiple varsity sports, but it's probably a relatively sizable number given the crossover between sports like track (both indoor and outdoor) and cross country. Even star athletes, from Marion Jones to Julius Peppers, have famously dabbled in a second sport while on their way to fame and fortune in their primary pursuit.
But for a lot of two-sport athletes, the logic for logging all those hours has nothing to do with future professional opportunities. It comes down to an unwillingness to choose.
"If I had a favorite, I don't think I'd be playing two sports in college," Westfal said. "I think because my whole life, I've loved soccer and I've loved hockey, and I've loved going back and forth between the seasons to mix it up, that both have stayed as my favorites the entire time."
Of course, having the desire to play two sports is only part of the equation. Recruits must also find coaches who are willing to sacrifice practice time, physical wear and tear, and at times, even games as a result of sharing players with another team. But for Yale women's hockey coach Hilary Witt and women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith, accepting that reality allowed them to work together to land the kind of prospects they might have missed out on individually.
"We both got like a two-for-one deal," Meredith joked.
During the recruiting process, Meredith was focused on Westfal, a local high school star in nearby New Canaan, Conn. He had recruited Howser out of Illinois, but got the sense she was more interested in top-tier soccer programs like Notre Dame and Virginia, in part because she didn't respond to recruiting mail as a sophomore.
"I was getting a lot of different letters and apparently I just threw it out," Howser said recently in a tone that suggested Meredith has had his share of fun with the incident. "I don't know, I guess I did. I guess I blew him off."
But once it became clear that few schools could provide the option of playing both soccer and hockey, let alone encourage her to do it, Howser zeroed in on Witt's hockey program in the competitive Eastern College Athletic Conference (the six Ivy League schools with men's and women's hockey teams play in the ECAC) and gave Meredith a call to see if he would be open to her playing two sports.
With Meredith handling the recruiting for Westfal, Witt handling it for Howser and both coaches assuring the players they were supportive of crossing over, two players who might have looked elsewhere as single-sport athletes signed on.
"I basically based my decision on the fact that they were allowing me to play both," Westfal said. "A lot of schools when I asked them, 'Do you think I could play both?' they kind of stopped talking to me."
Both players wasted little time rewarding the coaches for their flexibility.
Last season, Howser led Meredith's team with 25 points (8 goals, 9 assists) and Westfal added three goals while starting half of the team's games, helping spark a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. And despite their later-than-expected arrival on the rink following the postseason run in soccer, both players proved equally valuable to Witt. Howser duplicated her scoring feat, leading the hockey team with 25 points in 24 games, and Westfal added eight points while shifting between forward and defense.
On the soccer field, Howser and Westfal play a similar physical style. Nicknamed "Intensity" by her soccer teammates, Howser frequently treats opponents chasing passes in the midfield like they're going into the corner after a puck. A scowl always etched on her face, she manages to be physical without being dirty, her aggression something of a natural talent.
"A lot of people say I play soccer like I do hockey," Howser said. "That's not always a good thing, but yeah, I love contact. I love contact sports. I would have played football if I could have."
Westfal displays a similar fearlessness, regularly crashing to the ground after taking on multiple defenders at full speed, like a tailback running through the secondary.
Less than a minute into a game against Penn last weekend, she found herself standing over an opponent as the referee blew his whistle for a foul, the perplexed look on her face suggesting she didn't think she should be blamed for an opponent's frailty. Two hours later in a postgame gathering, with some teammates in sweats and T-shirts, Westfal looked ready to make the most of her Saturday night, the limp and bandages having seemingly become trusted accessories.
Like Howser, Westfal's gift for the physical appears to be more a case of finding a sport in hockey that fit her personality, than the game converting her into a physical player.
"I know when I was younger, I was just more competitive than most of the girls playing soccer," Westfal said. "Just because I think some girls played soccer because it was the sport to play, and your best friends were doing it, whereas I actually really wanted to win the game. So I think that's where it started, like getting the head balls and in high school I always wanted the ball, so I was always in the piles. And then in hockey, obviously, it's a physical sport, so I'm able to use my body I think in soccer the way I do in hockey."
Off the field, the two possess distinctly different personalities; Howser's ferocity fades into quiet contemplation while Westfal's drive shifts to energetic action. But the bond between them is unmistakable. Like the athletic version of being paired with a freshman roommate who becomes a lifelong friend, Howser suggests she got lucky in finding a kindred spirit.
"Obviously, when we got here, we hit it off right away and have been like best friends ever since," Howser said. "It's good, because I was nervous coming in. I knew I'd be spending a lot of time with her, basically the whole year. At least a couple of hours every day, whether I liked it or not, so I was nervous. But I couldn't have asked for a better person to be doing it with."
The friendship helped, because for all the success both enjoyed last season and all the support of the coaches, showing up late for hockey season didn't make life easy.
"Last year, it was more difficult because the hockey players didn't really know the two soccer kids until November," Witt said. "Everybody else knew each other early on. I think it was hard for the soccer kids to come into that, and it was hard for the upperclassmen to get to know them midseason. So that was challenging."
Witt added that the mood is completely different this fall, with their hockey teammates eagerly awaiting the return of the missing ingredients who are now fully incorporated into team chemistry. But with both players, especially Howser, starting to feel the physical toll of playing two sports at the Division I level, different challenges exist this year.
Howser has battled a muscle pull and other leg injuries throughout the fall, ailments which she said are her body's way of telling her she needs to be more careful. A quick summary of her summer activities -- part of her theoretical offseason -- reinforces why various joints and limbs might be complaining.
"This summer, I was with my [soccer] club team at U-19 level, which was amazing," Howser recalled. "My club team went all the way to nationals and ended up losing the national final, so I was playing a lot of soccer, a lot of good soccer. But then the last month of summer, I had U.S. national camp for the Under-22 [hockey] team. So I was playing hockey every day for a couple of hours, just for those couple of weeks leading up to the camp to get ready for the camp. So summer is kind of crazy, just because I have so much going on. It's hectic, but I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Consider that Yale won't wrap up its hockey season until early March, and it's easy to wonder whether both players will be able to keep up their two-sport careers for four years. At least until you talk to them.
"I'm excited obviously for the soccer season, but I'm also excited to get into hockey season and see how our team is there," Westfal said. "I love being able to get into hockey season and not know what to expect, and then go back to soccer in the spring and not know what to expect. I think it keeps it interesting, it keeps it exciting, so it's fun."
Both players kept reiterating how much fun they have playing both sports. And despite the physical grind, mental fatigue and scheduling ordeals, that seems to be the point.
Howser and Westfal will keep living their double lives, having fun with their not-so-scandalous athletic affairs.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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