COLUMBIA – The days of multisport athletes like Jim Thorpe are long gone. Seeing an athlete compete in two sports at the professional level, much less in college or even high school, is rare.
But at Stephens College, Cara Leis, Megan Sheffield and Alexis Wood are going against the grain. All three use their talents for both volleyball and basketball.
Athletes are becoming more specialized and at an early age often start focusing on just one sport. But for Leis, Sheffield and Wood, playing more than one sport has been a way of life.
“We’re used to playing everything,” Sheffield said. “If I had a break, I’d be bored.”
While playing multiple sports can limit an athlete’s ability to reach the top of his or her potential, Leis sees the positive side of playing two sports.
“Being a well-rounded athlete, each sport asks for something else from your body,” Leis said. “It’s a totally different muscle working, and it’s not just the same repetition on the same thing all the time.”
The appeal of being able to play more than one sport was a key component for all three women when selecting a college. They all said they would not be at Stephens if not for the opportunity to play multiple sports.
Sharing players between teams has been common at Stephens, but the coaches said they would like to see that change.
“I don’t hold anything against them, but I want it to be the exception, not the rule,” head basketball coach Bill Bixon said. “I want to raise the level of expectation and recruit people who want to just play basketball.”
It isn’t that easy for players to choose just one sport, though.
“It’s really hard to stop doing something you love,” said Leis, who also plays softball for Stephens.
For now, the coaches will deal with the problems if it means getting more talented athletes.
“If it comes down to either not coming or playing both sports, I want them here playing both,” Bixon said. “And I’ll encourage them.”
Still, times can get tough for the modern day multisport athlete, usually when the seasons overlap. Before this year, the women had to participate in practices for both teams, even if that meant four straight hours of practice every weekday during the overlap of basketball and volleyball season.
But starting this season, Stephens College will forbid their athletes from participating in two sports at once. Leis, Sheffield and Wood will have to wait until volleyball season is over before they can join the basketball team.
Athletic Director Deb Duren said that the decision was made because the athletes were pressured to participate in both sports equally, despite a shortage of free time and energy.
“The athletes got caught in the middle,” Duren said. “There is a limit to how much physically you can do.”
When Leis, Sheffield and Wood return to the basketball team, they will have to make the transition quickly. After the Stephens volleyball season ends Nov. 9, the three women will only have three days before their first basketball game against University of St. Mary.
Bixon said the team is counting on them to contribute a “large portion of our scoring.”
The decrease in multisport athletes could be attributed to the increase in popularity of club teams. These teams are becoming more prevalent between seasons for young athletes, increasing the focus on just one sport.
“Nowadays, the big thing is club teams,” Wood said. “You might be playing during the season, but as soon as you are in the offseason, you join your club team, and that’s what you do for the offseason.”
But Leis, Sheffield and Wood were never able to decide which sport they wanted to devote all their effort to, so the solution was simple: don’t choose.
"Yes, there are benefits to going to a bigger school and just playing one sport," Leis said. "But at the same time, being able to play multiple sports, that's fun."