One cool ‘nerd jock’
Debunking the “dumb jock” stereotype may not be the easiest when, occasionally, sub-par grades get a standout varsity athlete kicked out of the team. But volleyball player Kathy Bersola thinks that sweeping perception—that athletes are all brawn—needs to go.
There’s reason, of course, for this University of the Philippines standout to take offense after juggling—and flourishing—in both her studies and sport.
“Nakakaasar talaga (It can get really annoying),” says Bersola. “Athletes are some of the most disciplined people I know. I know a lot who are really hardworking in school, like my friends and classmates.”
As one of the top blockers in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) women’s volleyball competition, Bersola powered the Lady Maroons to the league’s Final Four in 2016. But the former UP team captain, who bagged the Best Blocker award in 2014, made the court her playground and finished her pre-medicine course with the highest honors.
Just a few weeks ago, Bersola graduated summa cum laude with a degree in sports science. She’s the first from the College of Human Kinetics to receive the state university’s highest academic distinction.
“It’s all about learning to prioritize,” says Bersola. “It’s also about time management. But a big factor is the genuine love and interest for both the sport and whatever course you’re taking. If you don’t really like it, you’ll have a hard time.”
Bersola knows that priorities vary, but still, she encourages her peers to value the chance to study and play at the same time.
“I understand the others,” she says. “There are really some people whose dream is to play in the pros. School and college athletics are just really stepping stones. But I think it’s still important to earn a degree.”
Another UP athlete who took his sport and studies to heart was men’s basketball player JR Gallarza, who graduated magna cum laude last year with a degree in elementary education.
Of course, it’s easy to see Bersola and Gallarza as exceptions. Clearly, both are athletically and intellectually gifted, making it easier for them to pull it all off.
In a way, it’s true. Bersola graduated valedictorian in grade school at Immaculate Heart of Mary College in Parañaque City. In high school, she also landed in the top 10, even while playing for the volleyball varsity team of Makati Science High School.
“Since pre-school [I enjoyed studying],” Bersola recalls. “But maybe I was a cool nerd—a nerd jock.”
Being smart, though, doesn’t mean less sacrifice and hard work. As Bersola points out, she’s no different from all the other student-athletes who sometimes struggle to get it together.
The 5-foot-11 middle blocker also had moments when she’d rather hit the beach or fly for travel miles than spike balls or dive into inch-thick books.
“It really happens,” she shares. “In my five years in college, either I don’t get to join the family vacation or they adjust [their schedules] so I can go. Sometimes friends would also ask me to go out but I can’t go because of training. There’s really this feeling that I missed out on a lot.”
“But it’s okay,” Bersola adds. “At the end of it all, everything turned out well. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The 21-year-old also had to overcome one of the biggest setbacks of many athletes: The dreaded ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury.
Bersola sustained the season-ending knee injury in 2015 after an awkward landing from a spike attempt during the Lady Maroons’ game against the Adamson Lady Falcons in the UAAP. “At that time I felt it was unfair because we were having a good run,” she says.
But like many top athletes, Bersola regained her strength and laser-like focus. She has also brought her act to the Premier Volleyball League (formerly Shakey’s V-League), where she’s now playing for the Perlas Spikers before starting medical school next month.
As she braces for a more gruelling schedule in the UP College of Medicine—where she plans to focus on orthopedic surgery and sports medicine—can Bersola pull off another juggling act?
“The automatic answer is, I’ll leave volleyball if I have to,” says Bersola. “But right now, I just can’t imagine (doing so).”
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