Blood, Sweat, and Beakers

Balancing Chemistry and Sports
Luis Mauricio Ortiz-Gálvez
Luis Mauricio Ortiz-Gálvez

Chemistry majors get scholarships all the time, but very few of us have sports scholarships. It took a lot of courage for me to apply for a volleyball scholarship, but it turned out to be the best decision and has made my college journey exciting, enlightening, and challenging. Here’s my story.

If at first you don’t succeed …

When I applied for a sports scholarship to play volleyball at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla in Cholula, Mexico, I hit a roadblock. I submitted my résumé that documented my academic and athletic skills and then eagerly awaited a phone call from the coaches to attend tryouts. But the call never came.

It turned out that they didn’t need anyone for the position that I played. I ended up attending the university on an academic scholarship instead and took solace in playing for fun.

One day the coaches and the players saw me play. They suggested I try applying again and invited me to practice with them. It wasn’t until the third semester (with some encouragement from family and friends) that I accepted their offer. I practiced with the team and played in competitions until my position opened up. Finally, I got the long-awaited call to deliver the documentation needed to secure a sports scholarship.

Dealing with setbacks

Even though I was able to pursue my two biggest passions—chemistry and volleyball—the commitment was overwhelming. I often felt nervous about not being good enough. I had to keep up with coursework, labs, reports, homework, and exams. I had to train, practice, and compete in games. There was so much to juggle.

I firmly believe that my successes and failures depend on me and my willpower to stay focused. I remember when I was about 13 years old, my family decided to visit the Pan American Volleyball Complex in Jalisco, Mexico, when the Pan American Games were approaching. The director gave us a tour of the premises and asked me if I wanted to train with them. I didn’t know what to say, so my family made the decision for me and said “yes”. It was the first time I was training outside of my home town. The training was exhausting, and people kept saying I was too short and not good enough.I thought the hard part of becoming a college athlete was over, but it was just the beginning.

The negative feedback made me work harder than ever before. I started playing as libero, where my height wouldn’t be an issue, and I developed my skills. Even though I’m still a short guy, I’ve been in some National Olympiads and my college team won the championship two years in a row. Whether I am preparing for a test or a tournament, I always find something positive in every hurdle on my path. And whenever anxiety starts to creep in, I just take a deep breath, relax, and let my body take control of the situation.

My role models also give me a sense of confidence. Cameron McEvoy, an Australian physicist and Olympic swimmer, is a great example of how you can balance two challenging disciplines. Jenia Grebennikov, a French volleyball player who was voted the best libero in the European Volleyball Champions League, reminds me to keep my head high and keep moving forward.

Keeping the balance

I have learned that being organized is the key to balancing academics and sports. The first thing I did when I started playing on the volleyball team was define my goals. I wrote out the big things that I wanted to achieve, like becoming a professional chemist or becoming a stronger volleyball player. Then I defined my objectives by outlining the individual steps I needed to follow to reach my goals. From there, I established priorities. I wrote down all my duties, responsibilities, and activities. Next, I asked myself which was the most important one at that time, and which would help me with my goals and objectives the most. I rearranged my list in order of importance.

The list became my work plan. I added in all my activities, including eating and resting, and assigned each activity a time in order of importance. I also keep a notebook that works double duty as a diary and a planner. I make sure I jot down my activities and events so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting them.

Staying organized helps me manage my workload.

My study routine

I usually practice and go to the gym in the afternoon, do my homework at night, and study on the weekends. When I have to travel to another university to play, I study on the way to the school, during free time, or in the evenings before going to sleep. When I have exams, I shift my priorities even further to my courses and cut back on gym time so I can devote more hours to studying.

And, of course, sometimes I have to sacrifice things like going out to parties or hanging out with my friends, to stay on top of everything. Sometimes away games mean I have to miss classes. But I ask my friends for help, and they always come through. Not only do they give me class notes; they also give me the motivation to work hard.

Student Luis Mauricio Ortiz-Gálvez  studies in the lab
Student Luis Mauricio Ortiz-Gálvez studies in the lab.

Managing my health

I am lucky to have family members who have taught me to take care of myself. If I’m not healthy, I can’t keep moving forward. So, if I am sick or have injuries or pain, I make sure I rest after practice. I also make sure I go to the doctor and do whatever they say I need to do to heal.

Last semester, I had an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament of my left knee and I had to have a surgery. I was sad and it was difficult to accept, but I had to take care of myself.

Volleyball has been a tremendous force in my life. It has taught me to identify my strengths and work on my weaknesses every day. And it has taught me teamwork, something that is essential in the laboratory and on the court. The patience, tolerance, and respect I developed with my teammates has helped me to work with my classmates and strengthen our lab work.

I have learned to seek out information and support when I need it, and I’ve developed the tenacity and dedication to pursue a chemistry career.

Even though my future will probably focus on chemistry rather than sports, pursuing a sports scholarship allowed me to attend one of the best universities in Mexico and set me up for a great career in chemistry. Taking a chance on pursuing two passions was the best decision I ever made.