How to Be an Olympic Athlete (And Get an Education)

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Even Olympic athletes and aspiring artists need to find time for education. Check out how online learning helped Olympic athlete Melanie McCann finish high school, so she could focus on achieving her dreams.

The Olympic Games of 2016 wrapped up last month and while many of the competing athletes are taking a much deserved break, some are returning back to their studies. One of these impressive athletes is 26-year-old Melanie McCann, who represented Canada in Rio de Janeiro this year in the modern pentathlon.

How did McCann get into the modern pentathlon?

When we spoke with McCann, she joked how you don’t choose the pentathlon, it chooses you. She was already on her high school’s cross-country and track teams, as well as a competitive swimmer, when a teacher from a neighbouring school noticed her.

“He called me up one day and asked, ‘Would you like to learn how to stab someone and shoot a gun?’ Of course he was referring to the sports of fencing and pistol shooting,” she says. “But it was definitely a good icebreaker.”

By the end of that summer she had competed in her first pentathlon, and in 2004 she took home the gold medal in her first national level pentathlon.

Getting a degree while winning medals

Having to train for five separate sports is quite an endeavor, one that doesn’t leave time for much else. Because of her demanding training schedule, McCann had to move around quite a bit and that included having to switch high schools for grades 11 and 12. At the end of her high school career, she realized she needed to upgrade some of her courses, before moving on to post-secondary education.

That’s when she was referred to Virtual High School (VHS). “VHS was a great fit for me,” explains McCann. “not only when I was switching high schools, but more importantly when I moved on to university and realized that I hadn’t taken all of the courses I needed for the post-secondary program I wanted to pursue.”

Virtual High School is a private and fully online high school that serves approximately 6,000 students around the world. “Because we’re asynchronous, the courses are completely self-paced, the due dates are flexible, and students can spend as much or as little time on a lesson as they need,” explains Jessica Bickell, Vice Principal. “We find that this truly allows for mastery and understanding of concepts.”

Melanie McCann competing in pistol shooting competition in Rio for the 2016 Olympic World Games

Conquering calculus

McCann now has a degree in Civil Engineering Technologies from Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Before applying to the program, however, McCann first needed to conquer the subject of calculus.

Calculus is a difficult subject, but taking it online is an entirely different kind of challenge. “It was tough,” recalls McCann. “but it was manageable because with Virtual High School I could do as much or as little as I wanted, depending on my schedule. I was able to chat with the teachers online or even call them. They would give me supplementary work if I was having trouble. It worked out really well for me and my schedule, whether I was in or out of the province, or even out of the country, I was still able to keep up with coursework.”

“Even with only one course, it’s really that extra flexibility that makes such a big difference. It’s that one piece of rigidness that’s taken out of their schedules,” says Bickell.

“Training for five different sports, while managing a very hefty travel schedule, I had to plug in the time to do homework and get assignments done,” explains McCann. “I actually wish I had taken more courses that were as flexible as the ones through VHS. This way I would’ve been able to do more work on the road, instead of front-loading before you leave and then having to catch up when you get back.”

Going for the win with online learning

Back when McCann was in high school, it wasn’t completely clear that a school like VHS was an option for students. In fact, she wishes she would have known about it earlier, so she could have done more with online learning. “It would have certainly helped manage some of those stressful nights better,” says McCann. “It’s definitely a great resource for students with all kinds of goals, athletically or otherwise.”

From aspiring artists, competitive dancers and OHL players, to those on a sports scholarship – the range of students VHS serves is very broad, to say the least. “It’s really an excellent tool for students that don’t fit into the regular curriculum,” says McCann.

 
Looking for more inspirational stories? Check out We Love The Way You Teach to see some fun visuals examples of how teaching and learning can make a significant impact in the lives of both teachers and students.