Why D3? Pursuing Excellence in Spite of Stigma
In my freshman year in college I felt like I was constantly getting asked one question.
“Why did you go D3 when you could have gone D1?”
And if it wasn’t me getting asked the question, it was my parents, coaches and sister who were the ones being bombarded. Truth be told, I never loved getting asked that question. It made me feel guilty for the choice that I had made — almost as though I had made the wrong one — but looking back on my 4-year career at Brandeis I have no doubt. I made the right one.
For a bit of context, I started running when I was 5. I grew up dreaming of running for some big-name Division I school and can remember thinking of how advantageous my skill set as a runner would be in getting me into the college of my dreams.
Fast forward to high school, and I was a miler and 2 miler with personal bests of 5:16 and 11:00 heading into my senior year. I was prepared for any number of D1 offers that came my way. Sure enough, those opportunities came rolling right towards me, and I got a handful of offers to run for Division I schools. Ultimately, however, I turned them all down and decided to run for Brandeis University, a small Division III school outside of Boston with growing track and field and cross country programs.
So why then did I end up choosing a Division III school when I could have gone to a Division I school?
Ultimately, it was in Division III where I felt I had the most potential, and where I thought I would see the most growth as an athlete and a person. My choice was never some plea for greatness, a sought out shortcut to success or some unyielding desire to etch my name in a school’s record books, but rather as an opportunity I saw to be impactful and help in growing and evolving a program.
On top of that, I was fearful that I would struggle to thrive as an athlete on the Division I stage, that the pressures to perform at the D1 level would overwhelm me
I feared that I’d fall through the cracks in a team of 30 other women all with identical — if not better — times than mine, and I’d be left in a perpetuating cycle of never feeling competitive enough.
At a Division 3 school, I felt I’d receive the attention I needed and be adequately challenged just to the right limits where I could excel the most. We thrive most in the environments for which we are the best suited, and I felt that for me that was D3.
I felt that my best chances for success rested there.
I’d be challenged but never overburdened, able to be realistic, never overly idealistic and defeated in the goals I sought after, and would leave confident in the holistic and expansive college experience I would have gained.
As a high school runner, I think it’s easy to get pulled into the allure and dazzle of Division I running. I know I did.
When letter after letter and phone call after phone call come pouring in, with each one having a coach make the hard pitch for why you should attend their institution all the while offering large sums of money, you feel like you’re on the top of the world. I remember getting off the phone one night with a Division 1 coach and just being in awe of what it must be like to run at such a high caliber.
On top of all of that, there’s so much hype surrounding Division I competition. Rarely do you see any Division III coverage and if you do it pales in comparison to Division I.
Over time, this develops the preconceived notion in high school runners that a commitment to a Division I school is what will label you as a talented athlete. In addition to that, there can be so much pressure and bias from parents, coaches, teachers, teammates, and classmates put on the names and labels of schools.
That you have to go to the school with the best name, the best competition or the lowest acceptance rate. However, there is little value in these affixed labels, but rather much greater value in the experience that lies in them.
These labels may propel you through high school, but they become more trivial once you set onto the college scene surrounded by people all with those same labels. Though I experienced many of these same pressures from some involved in my college selection process, I feel fortunate to have had parents, teammates and a high school coach who gave me the liberty to make my college choice free from their bias.
To add to this, some people may also find themselves immediately gravitating to Division I running because of some preconceived notion that Division III isn’t “good enough” for them or it won’t challenge them the way that Division I would.
I can name at least a handful of conversations I’ve had in the last 5 years with parents and prospective student-athletes where I’ve heard such commentary. Every time I do, I just feel my whole body tense up a little bit and the frustration slowly and quietly builds up inside me, disheartened by the far too many overzealous assumptions surrounding D3 competition as some kind of “lesser” force.
Who knows, maybe sometimes these comments are elicited and these athletes are destined for D1 running.
But what do I know, more often than not, is that it isn’t the case, and Division III competition continues to fail to get the credit it deserves.
Of course it’s no secret that the times and level of competition at the D1 level are faster and higher, but that doesn’t mean that if you were a high school runner like me that you won’t be challenged at the Division III level. The reality is that Division III competition is only getting faster and higher every year.
Some serious greats in track and field are a testament to this, from Nick Symmonds and Will Leer to more recently Emily Richards and Wadeline Jonathas. All widely successful pro runners whose roots are that of Division III competition, and whose more recent successes speak volumes to what one can accomplish as a Division III student-athlete even after graduation.
Regardless of their affiliated divisions, athletes’ capacities to work hard remains the same. One’s work ethic should not be undermined nor defined by their athletic division and I’d be convincing myself otherwise if I didn’t believe I worked just as hard as most other collegiate athletes. Of course expectations for D1 athletes to work hard may be higher, but that does not mean that serious D3 athletes cannot share in that same potential.
That being said, Division III has been and continues to be grossly underestimated and the stigma surrounding D3 competition as a place for those who aren’t “good enough” should be quickly extinguished.
Just because you go the route of Division III does not mean there will be some cap on your growth as an athlete or limit to the goals you can set. I believed that with my times and skillset, I could grow just as much as an athlete with a program and the coaching I was getting at Brandeis as I would at any other D1 school. If not more, given the fact that I’d likely receive more coaching attention on a smaller team at the Division III level.
When I needed more competition, my coach sought out to give me every opportunity to succeed, driving and flying with me to meets with fields of athletes across all divisions, to ensure that I would still be able to push myself to run the times I needed.
On top of this, when making your college decision, I think it’s important to stay grounded in reality.
For me, I knew based on my times that I was good enough to pursue Division I running if I wanted to, but at the same time, I knew that the success I dreamed of accomplishing on the collegiate level would be a bit out of reach for me there. In high school, I had a coach who was an All-American. I dreamed of accomplishing the feat for myself someday, but I knew that telling myself that I could be a D1 All-American may not have been realistic, and rather than convince myself of my chances, I found myself focused on reaching this goal at the D3 level.
One of the other unique aspects of being a Division III athlete is that you have the opportunity to define yourself in other outlets and passions outside of your sport.
Division I has a higher level of athletic performance, while Division III places more emphasis on having a more integrated and well-rounded college experience.
You’re less confined by the demands of your sport, from the travel to rigid practice times and high-level competition. As a D3 athlete you have the opportunity to explore your options and seek other avenues through which to craft an identity for yourself. You have more flexibility to pursue other passions and interests, from studying abroad, to research in a lab, to involvement in a community or advocacy group to different clubs and hobbies. It’s not to say that you can’t take advantage of these opportunities at the Division I level, but often that the demanding and rigorous lifestyle of being a D1 athlete makes it more of a balancing act.
One of the other aspects I admire about Division 3 competition is that everyone is there largely because they want to be there.
They compete for the love and passion for their sport and the team comradery that comes with it. There are no athletic scholarships that athletes are bound to or feel obligated to compete for, or even in some cases feel forced to compete with fellow teammates over. Athletes in D3 are more intrinsically motivated and compete because they love what they do without the financial pressure to do it, which can also help in fostering a stronger and healthier team environment.
I realize this poses an imposition for some prospective student-athletes who may rely on athletic scholarships more than others. However, it’s important to note that even though Division III does not offer athletic scholarships, according to the NCAA, about 75% of Division III student-athletes will still receive some kind of merit or need-based financial aid, offering a financial opportunity without the obligation of one.
This is not to say at all that D1 athletes don’t share the same passion for their sport as D3 athletes, as I’m sure most do, and for some the money may even be an after-thought or devoid completely in their college selection process. However, there’s no denying the reality that for some D1 athletes scholarship money speaks volumes in their decision and many may later find themselves facing more deep-rooted financial pressures to perform because of this.
With all this being said, there should be no shame in attending a Division III school — especially as a high school talent.
You’re not depriving yourself of an opportunity, but rather revitalizing a new one.
There’s still plenty of competition at the D3 level, it’s just about evaluating what your goals are and where they will be most attainable.
So Division III doesn’t bring the same glitz and glam of Division I running with its lack of scholarships and partnerships from big shoe companies, but for some, it may give them far greater opportunities beyond those. These opportunities that smoothly come might’ve been the ones they would otherwise have struggled to achieve at the Division I level.
The assumption that high school talents can’t walk onto the D3 stage and thrive to the same extent they would at D1 is exactly that, an assumption. D3 athletes can see just as much growth as all other athletes, and along the way can have the opportunity to be well-rounded student-athletes and leaders.
Ultimately it was at Brandeis where I felt I was going to be given the best opportunity to succeed and grow as a person and an athlete, and I knew my coach Sinead Evans was going to be there to invest in me long-term as a runner and a person.
Today I have no doubt I took the right path in pursuing a Division III career there.
For me, it was in the moments like winning a national title with my distance medley relay team members — one of whom being my twin sister — that made the decision worth it. A feat I know I never could have accomplished at the Division I level because of the stark reality that I just wasn’t good enough.
I’m proud to be a product of Division III running, as well as the product of a great program in Brandeis Cross Country and Track and Field and coaching that exceeded expectations.
Over the course of 4 years, I dropped over 22 seconds in my mile time and 25 seconds in my 3k — which was based off of a converted 2 mile time — a feat I don’t believe I would have accomplished at the Division I schools I was looking at.
This serves as a testament to the kinds of success that can happen on the Division III level. As a high school senior, I never dreamed I’d accomplish the things I did or run the times I ran on the D3 stage, but I trusted that D3 running was where I belonged, and I let the rest fall in place from there.
That being said, my advice to prospective college athletes is that when it comes to the college decision process, I think it’s healthiest and wisest to consider all options. Don’t be quick to rule out D3 or even D2 or be afraid to deviate from the norm of what others are doing.
Just because you’re talented does not mean Division I competition is the only path for you. However, if your dream is to run for a Division I school, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
The reality is, some high school runners are better suited for D1 careers and will achieve more there, with some running times well beyond the ones I ran in college. However for those athletes like myself, for whom the choice may not be as seemingly obvious or maybe a bit more out of reach, I think it’s important to leave behind the stigma of D3 running and broaden your horizons to the scope of opportunities that lie before you.
It’s important to note that this is only my opinion and unfortunately I can’t speak to the many positives behind D1 competition and the reasons athletes pursue careers at the level because that was not my path. My hope from this is to share my insight into why I decided to pursue a D3 career, and to shed a bit more light on some of the widely cast-off positives of D3 athletics.
At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong choice here, both divisions yield their own strengths and weaknesses and come with their own ill-mannered preconceived notions, but ultimately both have the potential to yield great successes amongst all their athletes.
Just make sure that when it comes time to make your choice, you do your best to drop the stigmas.
EMILY BRYSON- BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY ’19 / NORTH QUINCY HIGH SCHOOL ’15
800 Meter Run: 2:10.96
One Mile Run: 4:41.80
3000 Meter Run: 9:33.99
5000 Meter Run: 16:37.45
6000 Meter Run (XC): 21:03.80