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Law students benefit from athletics


April 06, 2007

Tracy RinebergTracy Rineberg is either sublimely good-natured or punchy from sleep deprivation – or perhaps a bit of both – because her reaction to being asked how her days begin and end is laughter.

A guffaw, really, that hangs in the air like a perfectly executed triple Lutz, while the 22-year-old ASU student wearily thinks back to today's dawn. It's always the same, five days a week:

• An alarm clock cuts through the darkness and rousts Rineberg from her bed at 4:15 a.m. (often earlier).

• By 5 a.m., she's at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, zipping around the rink practicing axels, loops and Salchows as she trains for the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Adult National Championships, which take place April 11-15 in Chicago.

• The two-hour practice is followed by more training later in the day, when Rineberg's out of classes such as “Criminal Law” and “Legal Method and Writing” – 17 units as a first-year student at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

How does she balance rigorous academics and a demanding dream to be the best in her sport?

“On Saturdays, I sleep in until 5:30 or 6,” the Chicago native says, before half-heartedly joking, “My friends have stopped calling at night because I always say ‘no.' ”

But there's more to it than an early bedtime. Like dozens of current and former professional and amateur athletes who attend or have graduated from the College of Law, Rineberg is no stranger to hard work, discipline, competition and stress. From the sports court to the classroom to the courtroom, they bring resiliency, mental and physical stamina, and can-do attitudes that are less developed in non-athlete students.

“We are competitive people, and to be a competitive person, you have to be disciplined,” says Rineberg, who started skating at age 7.

Still, possessing an athlete's steely concentration didn't entirely prepare Rineberg for her foray into law school last August. The subject matter was more difficult than undergraduate courses at the University of Arizona, and figuring out what law professors expect was trickier.

Elite athletes, such as Rineberg, possess unique traits, among them, confidence, concentration and composure, says Jim Afremow, a senior professional counselor and sports psychology specialist at ASU.

“They love to compete, and as such, can definitely have the competitive edge over their law school peers,” he says.

But they also need to balance their super-competitiveness with cooperation.

“(They must) learn to team up and work well with peers, especially if from an individual sport, and not be too proud to get help from peers and faculty members,” Afremow says.

It was Victoria Tandy's competitive nature that landed her in law school to begin with. The Colombia native moved to America in 2001 to learn English through an exchange program with her employer and the ASU College of Business. One day, she accepted this challenge:

“Why don't you take the LSAT?' my friend said, kind of as a joke,” Tandy says. “I never even heard of the LSAT, never thought of law school.”

Tandy, 27, a seven-time Colombian national champion in roller figure skating, passed the LSAT and started law school in 2004.

“When I came to the United States, I couldn't speak English, and that was frustrating enough for me to learn fast,” she says. “When I started law school, I was terrified to think, ‘Am I going to understand these classes?' I felt like I just needed to survive.”

Along the way, she dealt with setbacks and disappointments in typical athlete fashion.

“Learning how to lose definitely helps with law school,” says Tandy, who graduates in May and will work at Quarles & Brady in Phoenix.

Myles Lynk, a professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, says athletes who come to law school appear to be more resilient and less easily defeated by setbacks.

“They have a very positive attitude,” says Lynk, who also is ASU's faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and the Pac-10 Conference. “They look at what they're facing as another challenge, and one they can overcome, not as an insurmountable obstacle.”

Lynk doesn't believe the law student-athlete should be categorized as more competitive than the non-athlete.

But student-athletes do have physical advantages that often help them in law school, Afremow says. The better a student's stamina, the easier he or she can compensate for the adrenaline output under stress while still maintaining high-quality focus, he says. And an athlete's mental toughness also contributes to his or her success, be it scoring goals or excelling on exams.

Former athletes often become exceptional attorneys because they make law their new sport, Afremow says.

Most of Jason Vanacour's life has been wrapped up in sports. He started kicking a soccer ball at age 6, played club soccer through junior high and high school and then went to Stanford University on a partial soccer scholarship.

“I looked at school as a game,” says Vanacour, a 2003 graduate of the College of Law, now an associate at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix. “There are rules, and the point is to get the best grades you can, and you figure out how to do that.”

After graduating from Stanford in 1993, he played indoor professional soccer for several teams, including a four-year stint with the Arizona Thunder.

“I always knew I was going to go to law school,” says Vanacour, 35. “My whole life I had people tell me I'd make a good lawyer. I like to argue, and I'm very competitive – people say ‘cocky,' but I say ‘confident.' ”