Competitive Edge

How the demands of undergraduate student-athlete life prepared these veterinary students for the rigors of learning veterinary medicine 

By Sandra Sarr

We spoke with several LSU School of Veterinary Medicine students about how being a student-athlete in undergraduate school prepared them for the rigors of veterinary school. What they told us confirms the research: Participation in collegiate sports gave them an academic advantage. 

“Effects of Student Athletics on Academic Performance,” an article in the Journal of Undergraduate Research, offers one example of research that concludes, “These athletes performed better in the classroom, developed impressive time-management skills, and felt motivated to complete their degree.” 

Our students shared some of the ways in which collegiate sports instilled lessons that helped them tackle getting admitted to and succeeding in veterinary school.


Nick Zimmerman golfing

Nickolas Zimmerman, Year 4

Golf, University of Arkansas, Little Rock

Team captain 

HBU Husky Invitational 

Academic All-American (Top 10 in U.S., GPA 3.5 or above, play at least 80 percent of games in tournaments with scores less than 75)

Sun Belt Conference Honor Roll 

Father: Ken Zimmerman (LSU SVM Class of 1986)

Hometown: Little Rock, Arkansas

“Golf teaches you life skills—integrity, teamwork, dealing with adversity, work ethic, time-management skills, persistence. As a student-athlete, I travelled 12 weeks out of the year for tournaments. I studied on the bus and in hotel rooms when the rest of the team went out to dinner. Even when you’re tired, you keep going. It took me three tries to get into veterinary school—I kept taking classes and increased my GPA and test scores. On my third round, I was admitted to four veterinary schools. Being an athlete helped me stay mentally strong. I want to eventually take over my dad’s small animal practice when he retires.”


Brian Hernandez playing football

Brian Hernandez, Year 4

Football, Nicholls State University, magna cum laude

2017 Southland All-Academic

FCS ADA Academic All-Star Team

Nicholls Football Academic Achievement Award

Mother: Suzie Boucher (LSU SVM Class of 1989)

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

“Football and academic scholarships paid for my undergraduate education. You can look at football playbook to learn new plays, but until you see how it works on the field, you don’t really get it. Similarly, a vet student can read about how an antibiotic treats an illness, but it doesn’t fully sink in until you see how it works in a clinical setting. There were a lot of long days and nights as a student athlete. The same is true in vet school. 

The ability to adapt is what sets you apart. The hands-on active part of medicine is what drives me. In both sports and vet medicine, you must learn yourself. You have to pay attention to your wellbeing—know your boundaries, push yourself to the brink as far as is healthy, and know when to step back for yourself. I grew up in my mom’s vet clinic, which I’d like to take over when she retires. I’m ecstatic I’m on the right path.”


Rwe Hogan playing rugby

Photo: Steve Guillory

Rae Hogan, Year 4

Rugby, Louisiana State University (three years as undergraduate and one year while at LSU SVM)

LSU SVM Class of 2020 representative

Hometown: Stonewall, Louisiana

“There are a lot of responsibilities working with others, cooperating on the field and in vet school, where the team and patients are counting on me. Effort and interaction are required for both academic studying and athletic training—you get a payoff for both. In Rugby, when you have a ball flying at your face, you must be able to trust your gut and rely on teammates. The same is true in vet med. Split-second decisions and confidence in them are required in both. I also played goalie in soccer. You’re the last line of defense, and you get good at not blaming yourself when bad things happen. Similarly, in vet med, you can give it your all, but sometimes there’s nothing more to do. Sometimes your best effort doesn’t work out—we are here to learn and keep getting better. Lasting friendships are made in sports and in vet school. There is a shared intense experience. I love the bonds that are formed. You need to consider as an athlete and as a veterinarian how your actions impact others. I have a strong sense of duty and compassion and ask, ‘Is this good for my patient?’ because they can’t speak for themselves. I want to work as a small animal general practitioner with a focus on exotic pets.” 


Mark Laird playing basball

Mark Laird, Year 3

Baseball, Louisiana State University

Men’s Baseball College World Series (freshman and senior years)

Louisiana Class 1A Most Valuable Player (2010 and 2012)

SEC Academic Honor Roll

SEC All-Tournament Team

Drafted by Philadelphia Phillies (2015)

Hometown: Monroe, Louisiana

“I have three older brothers; I’ve always had to prove myself. At age 22, I was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies and for three years I played all over the U.S. As a kid, you dream of this kind of thing. In 2018, I was injured and sidelined. When you’re competitive at a high level and can’t play anymore—I had to rethink my path. The demands of being an athlete—practices, being on the road a week at a time, studying, taking 16 credit hours—prepared me for vet school. Learning to deal with 12,000 people in the audience when you’re on the field helps keep you on an even keel. When I first started at the vet school, I felt there was no way I could memorize what was required—anatomy, physiology, cell biology. My classmates are like my teammates. We help each other out. I know how to focus on something I’m passionate about. Becoming a veterinarian is my sole purpose now. It’s what powers me to be my best. I want to own my own small animal practice in Louisiana.”


Kierra standing in dance uniform

Kierra Coleman, Year 3

Dance team, Louisiana Tech University

Hometown: Monroe, Louisiana

“Dance has taught me so many positive character traits that I have carried with me into veterinary school. Dancing on a collegiate level taught me endurance, sacrifice and most importantly balance. Performing every weekend and practicing multiple times during the week, all while maintaining a high GPA taught me how to balance school, dance, and life. I learned how to sacrifice some of life’s pleasures, such as hanging out with friends, to focus on more important things like perfecting my dance skills and studying for classes. I’m so blessed to have learned these lessons early in life because many times during this journey of becoming a veterinarian I wanted to quit and give up, but I remembered that there will be seasons in life where I must toughen up and endure a little pain and discomfort in order to achieve my goals. Now I am excelling in vet school and accomplishing everything I set out to do and more! I am co-charter and president of a new organization known as Student Association for Black Veterinarians. I am a first-generation college graduate, and I will be the first doctor in my family. I plan to practice small and exotic animal medicine and while possibly coaching a dance team in my spare time.”


Babette Sanmartin dribbling a basketball

Babette Sanmartin, Year 3

Basketball, St. Vincent College

2017-18 All-PAC Honorable Mention honors 

Hometown: Gaithersburg, Maryland

“Being an athlete was a lesson in time management. Basketball is a winter sport, with pre-season in the fall and post-season in the spring. We did 7 a.m. conditioning Games run two-to-three hours a week. On every bus ride I would be doing schoolwork. I had to make sacrifices and give up most of my social life. I don’t regret it. We had great relationships with teammates. We came out stronger, better, we all did it together. In vet school I have a friend I study with for tough exams. I’m very excited about being a veterinarian. I want to go into laboratory animal medicine. I was a summer fellow with the Department of Laboratory Animal Medicine. I want to be part of the bigger picture of helping advance medicine for humans and animals.”


Coleman Wahlborg returning a serve in a tennis match

Coleman Wahlborg, Year 4 

Tennis, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

2017 Second-Team All-Sun Belt Conference (Doubles)

2015 First-Team All-Sun Belt Conference (Doubles)

2015 Second-Team All-Louisiana (Doubles)

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

“I had a tennis scholarship, half-tuition, for all four years. I’m a very competitive person on the tennis court and in the classroom. I’m competitive with myself. I set lofty goals in the beginning. It’s a game to me figuring out how good I can get at something. Each year, I’d make a goal for myself—best player on the team so I’d at least start. With tennis, sometimes you do all you can and never achieve greatness because there are physical variables you cannot control. I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian my third year at ULL. Going into the School of Veterinary Medicine, I wanted to be in the top five in my class. If I achieved anything close to that high, I’d be doing great. Then, if I finish in the top 10, I’m satisfied. My goals are most important. I’m 110 percent devoted.”


Callie Ezell running in a track meet

Callie Ezell, Year 1

Cross country, track & field, Louisiana Tech University

C-USA Track and Field All-Academic Team

C-USA Academic Medalist

C-USA Commissioner's Honor Roll

Valedictorian, St. Frederick High School

Hometown: Delhi, Louisiana

“Running is a mental sport. You must have a strong mind. It’s going to hurt—you just keep going. Our coaches were adamant about nothing getting in the way of school. Our teams would travel Friday night and return Saturday after the meet. We had Sundays off. I strived to be the best I could be. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well. I worked on Louisiana Tech’s livestock farm for two years tending pigs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. I shadowed the veterinarian in the clinic. I became a manager there hiring employees and selecting sows and boars for breeding. Being a veterinarian has always been my goal. Learning muscles and bones, how they relate to each other, how they move, is fascinating, particularly as an athlete. I still run for stress relief, but now I’m just doing school—no more 6 a.m. practices. I know how to pace myself.”


Darius Statham launching out of the blocks during a track event

Darius Statham, Year 3

Track & field, Louisiana Tech University

2014 Indoor First Team All-Conference USA (4x400m Relay)

2015 Outdoor Second Team All-Conference USA (4x100m Relay)

2013 Georgia 400-meter state champion, Most Outstanding runner, Most Valuable Player (Mays High School)

Founder, LSU Student Association for Black Veterinarians 

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia

"My time as a student-athlete has had everything to do with my resilience in veterinary school. My track coaches drilled into us how important it was to focus on our own race. I heard them but it didn't stick at first. I would look around wondering why I wasn't performing at the same level as my competition or if I even deserved to be in the same line up. My real problem was I wasn't concentrating on my own lane. My coaches helped me realize that I was the one holding myself back. So, I started to overcome mental blocks, cut out negative thoughts, and went even harder. I had the exact same self-doubts starting vet school. I took the same tools used to overcome my mental barriers in track and applied them as a student. Now I have my advisors (Dr. Henry Green and Dr. Lorrie Gaschen) to remind me not to defeat myself before my race even begins. Student-athletes have to learn to balance school, athletics, and life. As a full-time student in a rigorous program while chartering and leading a new organization, Student Association for Black Veterinarians, I wouldn’t be this efficient with my time management in veterinary school without that experience as a former student-athlete."


Alexandria Taylor playing catch on a softball field

Alexandria Taylor, Year 1

Softball, University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff

2019 Team Captain

Voted Hardest Working teammates

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

“I’ve been playing softball since age 4. I was planning to try out for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Softball was added back that year but postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. My softball scholarships covered my undergraduate education. Being an athlete helped me make the transition to vet school. Sports required discipline, perseverance, and mental stability. I can understand why some quit. I worked as a vet tech in a Dallas small animal clinic for two years. I want to specialize in Dermatology because it involves the power of observation. My biggest academic achievement so far was getting into vet school. It was expensive and hard work. I spent a year-and-a-half retaking classes. I was voted Hardest Working by my softball teammates because I showed up to every practice, pushed myself 100 percent, and participated in every fundraiser. At vet school, I show up every day, ask questions, and join clubs. Anatomy class shows us things like how important the patella is for flexing and extending muscles, something our coaches also told us. I miss playing softball, but it’s nice not to have sore arms or legs when I show up to class.”


Mark Golay running in a track and field relay race

Mark Golay, Year 2

Cross country, track & field, University of New Orleans

2016-18 Southland Conference Championships

2017 NCAA South Central Regional 

2015 South Central Region Cross Country Championships

2015 Southland Conference Championships

Valedictorian, Ridgewood Prep High School

Hometown: Metairie, Louisiana

“We travelled every weekend for meets. I missed a lot of Friday classes. I had to take tests early, immediately after the lecture. Being a student-athlete played a big role in getting into vet school. It proved I could manage demands. As a runner, I had to be in bed by 10 p.m. to be up to run by 5 a.m. My meet and practice schedules could be unpredictable due to weather and other uncontrollable factors. I had to roll with it. I like that my vet school schedule is predictable. It allows me to look ahead and accomplish what I need to get done. The drive I had as an athlete (personal record in the mile is 4:29) is still with me as a vet student. I still go for my personal best. Running instilled confidence. I know who I am and what I’ve done, which serves me well in vet school. I still run for relaxation. When fall comes, I can feel in my body it’s cross-country season and time to race. I worked at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans feeding sharks and fish common to the Gulf of Mexico. I want to work in aquatics after I graduate.”


Maryella Cohn running in a track event

Maryella Cohn, Year 1

Cross country, track & field, Rhodes College

2016 track regionals first place 

All-State cross country 

Academic All-State cross country

2016 State third place cross country

District Champion cross country

Hometown: Houston, Texas

“I have wanted to go to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine since I was a little girl. I come from three generations of Tigers. I’m prepared for vet school because of the discipline required as an athlete. Both take mental grit and toughness to get through. I enjoy a challenge and know how to persevere. I value the teamwork among vet students. We’re all trying to get to the same place, and we can get a lot further together. As an athlete, I was MVP, running nationally qualifying times, always chasing a PR (personal record). Then, at my peak, I got injured and underwent surgery and rehabilitation. As I worked to regain my fitness, I led my team and helped them win. I consider this my greatest success as an athlete. As for my career, I am interested in wildlife and conservation. I spent a month in Namibia, South Africa, doing conservation efforts with lions, rhinos, and elephants. We studied the numbers and types of animals at water sources now that climate change has compromised those sources. We camped in tents in the desert. Being a student-athlete taught me that I could push past my limitations to accomplish my goals no matter what I am doing.”


Carlos Zervigon competing in a race

Carlos Zervigon, Year 1 

Cross country, track & field, Tulane University 

2019-20 Cross country: 

Finished 59th at the NCAA South Central Regional Championship    

American Athletic Conference Championship 

American Athletic Conference All-Academic team (2017-2020) 

2018-19 Track & field:
Finished 10th at The American Outdoor Championship 10k 

Placed 5th at the Southern Miss Open 

Placed 3rd Southeastern Louisiana Strawberry Relays  

Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana 

“Cross country and track are year-round sports. What I did as a student-athlete is helping me to not fall behind in vet school. A lot of information is thrown at us the first year. I apply the same level of commitment to my veterinary studies as I did as a student athlete. During my senior cross country season, I had a stress reaction in my foot and missed six weeks of training. I could have either let the injury get the best of me or continue being disciplined with my training. I chose the latter and worked out in the pool and on the elliptical. I worked through the injury and came back stronger. In high school, I had chronic exertional compartment syndrome, which rendered my calf muscles useless. I spent a total of six months recovering from multiple surgeries. Once I got healthy, I helped lead the team to back-to-back state championship victories my junior and senior years. All of my efforts and accomplishments as a student athlete came together when I was accepted to vet school. I am the first recipient of the A.B. Freeman Scholarship, which pays my tuition all four years. Outside of the classroom, I have been hired as a live-in at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. We have a supportive group of live-ins here. I wanted to have a team feeling since I’m no longer on a sports team. I’m handling my first year of vet school by moving from one step to another, being confident and disciplined, just as I was as an athlete.” 


Anna Kristina Hugel throwing the javelin during a track and field event

Anna Kristina Hugel, Year 4

Javelin, discus, hammer, Loyola University, New Orleans

Field Team Captain

Southern State AC Outdoor Conference Track & Field Championships

Tulane Early Bird Twilight Track and Field Invitational

Louisiana Classic

Southern Miss Invitational

University of Mobile Invitational

Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana

“My pediatrician asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, “A veterinarian.” It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I try to keep as healthy as possible. Life can throw you all kinds of curve balls. As a high school senior, I tore my rotator cuff and had surgery to reconstruct my shoulder before going to college. I was field team captain in charge of making sure all equipment was in place. There was no room for last minute actions. I had surgery on both knees my sophomore year of college. I have a great appreciation for physical therapy and its power to rehabilitate. I love the Integrative Medicine program at the vet school. It was wonderful to see what it could do for my old dog. I obtained my acupuncture certification about a year ago. As an athlete, I worked out twice a day, every day. Working out gave me a stress reliever and helped my physical and mental wellbeing. Being a student-athlete gave me tools for veterinary school and for life.” 


Jasmine Knight spiking a volleyball during a match

Jasmine Knight, Year 4 

Volleyball, Jackson State University 

2012 and 2015 Volleyball SWAC Champion 

Volleyball Team Captain 

Hometown: Belle Rose, Louisiana 

It was instilled in me at a young age to always work hard. I’m a first-generation college graduate. I was captain of my volleyball team during my senior year of undergraduate school at Jackson State University. There were 16 women on the team, all with different personalities and backgrounds. We had games Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and would leave on Thursdays for weekend games. I learned early on to build strong relationships with my professors. If I had a tournament, I would let them know in advance and turn in my work early. That experience helped me to balance the demands of veterinary school. The course load was extremely difficult in the beginning. Being a former scholar-athlete, I already knew I was a kinesthetic learner. Eventually, I discovered that I am a visual/auditory/hands-on learner after taking a test at the LSU Center for Academic Success. Knowing this helped me learn how to study and succeed in classes, including Anatomy, where you have to learn information about every single species. It is the main building block to the remainder of your coursework. Since starting clinics, I have been able to apply classroom knowledge and communication techniques, and I am thriving! Communication is key in school as it was in athletics. After graduation, I plan to work as a small animal general practitioner and to pursue specializing as a Dermatologist. 


Quinci Middlebrooks running in a track event

Quinci Middlebrooks, Year 4

Cross country, Track & field, Louisiana Tech University

Record holder, Distance Medley Relay, Louisiana Tech University

Junior Olympics USA Track & Field (California, North Carolina, Oregon)

Hometown: Benton, Louisiana

“When asked if my interview to get into veterinary school was difficult, I answered, “Not as hard as running an 800-meter race.” You’re alone on the track, and all eyes are on you. It’s intimidating, and it builds confidence. My team always got the award for the highest GPA. I came out of the womb wanting to be a veterinarian. My family has horses. My mom and I barrel race together. In high school, I had a business breeding miniature pigs. While a student-athlete all through undergraduate school I worked on a farm. I got up at 5 a.m. to feed the 200-lb. hogs, plus pigs, chickens, and sheep. After that, at 6:30 a.m., I went to cross country or track practice. I enjoy being surrounded by driven people—as an athlete and as a vet student. I don’t want school to end. I’m learning so much. But I’m ready for my first paycheck."