Throughout the year, the Southern Conference will feature a former student-athlete from around the league in a series called Where Are They Now. This will be an opportunity to get reacquainted with student-athletes after their competition days have come to an end. The question and answer session will focus on a former student-athlete who has gone on to a career away from the field, course, mat or court.
Our first Where Are They Now feature focuses on former Chattanooga runner, Mary Jane Middelkoop. A stand-out distance runner for the Mocs, Middelkoop finished her career with numerous All-Conference honors. Her focus on the track was only surmounted by her determination in the classroom. Middelkoop was awarded Chattanooga's A.C. "Scrappy" Moore Award, given to the UTC student-athlete who best personifies the athletic department's vision of "success with integrity" through academic achievement and community service.
Mary Jane (Middelkoop) Roberts
Chattanooga XC, Track & Field (1994-1998)-Environmental Science Degree
Grad School: University of Delaware, Marine Policy
Current Profession: Senior Advisor on Climate Change Policy for the Canadian Government
Chattanooga head coach Bill Gautier on Mary Jane (Middelkoop) Robert: "Mary Jane was the matriarch, the Queen Mary, if you will, of our program. She was our first female athlete of the year and set the foundation of our program for the last 20 years."
How did you end up at Chattanooga?
When I was getting recruited it was freezing cold up here in Canada. I was being recruited by a few universities in the north and I thought, "No way am I doing this anymore. I'm going to be able to run in shorts in March." So one reason was the warm temperatures. That's something that attracted me to the city. Then I was attracted to fact that the program at the University in environmental science was very much connected to what was happening in the real world, so it was involved in how the city was revitalizing some of the major components in the downtown area.
The program and the city itself were big. The track program at the time was in a state of transition. We hadn't won a Southern Conference championship at that time, and hadn't really gotten close. The way the coach had described the program to me reminded me a lot of my high school, where we had a grass field and we would draw the track on with chalk every year for our track meets. Chattanooga, similarly, didn't have a track, they used somebody else's track. I liked what the coach had to say and there were a couple of other people I knew that lived close to where I lived that were actually going there or planning to go there as well, so we all talked about it and decided that it would be a good move for all of us. It's something I definitely don't regret.
It sounds like your time at Chattanooga definitely prepared you for the professional world.
Absolutely. I definitely credit my time at Chattanooga with a lot of the success I've had as a professional. I think all those lessons you learn in school definitely apply later on. You might not know it at the time, and in fact most people won't realize it at the time, but they're actually grooming themselves to be successful professionals after school. I know where I was at Chattanooga, I had a coach that was very adamant that we performed well in the classroom as well as on the track. He didn't take that notion lightly. I think his forward-looking approach is probably what allowed a lot us to do extremely well after we left Chattanooga. I think most of us have really gone on to excel in whatever it is we wanted to do, and I think much of that is owed to the general experience you get as a student-athlete, but I think also to the environment our coach and our university created for us.
How did being a student-athlete affect your life after college?
I guess my most immediate thing would have been that I was given the Dorothy Hicks Graduate Scholarship. I probably would have gone to grad school anyway, but that was a nice benefit to get from the conference. I went off to Delaware and while I was there a few things transpired that were almost directly related to me being a student-athlete. I actually got a full academic scholarship and I remember talking to the professor that I ended up working with and the one thing that he was most impressed with was that I maintained a high GPA while being a student-athlete. He asked how I managed to do that and I told him I had to learn how to manage my time and be almost religious in terms of getting my work done in a certain time before I went off to do an event. The fact that I was able to manage both being an athlete and a student, I think worked in my favor for being able to get the funding that I did in grad school.
The lessons you learn as a student-athlete are extremely applicable, the determination that you have and the time management skills that you need to have to balance being a student and an athlete. It's not easy getting up and doing two practices a day and fitting your schooling around that or vice versa. Those are lessons that treat you well for the rest of your life.
During one of my, let's say, stressful jobs, where I had a big day in the boardroom, or I would have to face the media, I was able to channel the nervousness I would get before running a race and draw on the same coping skills and prepping skills that were necessary to get ready for a big. The preparations to me were very similar. Cautiously I was thinking, "Wow, this is really just like getting ready for a race and going to the start line." I was putting on my power suits and high heels rather than my spikes and my track uniform.
You mentioned you completed your master's degree at the University of Delaware. What led you there and made you get involved in this field?
When I was at Chattanooga, I got my degree in environmental science and it was actually an emerging field (at the time). One summer I stayed in Chattanooga, typically I would go home for the summer, but I stayed and did a research assistantship with some people at the university. I had in my mind that I wanted to work outdoors and never wanted to be in an office, but I spent the summer outdoors working like crazy and in the rain, getting washed down rivers. It was craziness. It was fun, but I thought, I think I'm more interested in why I'm having to go out here and what caused there to be a problem in this particular stream rather than actually being in stream.
The work I did that summer was looking at some of the steams in the local area that had been polluted from some of the coal mining activities and I wanted to find a way I could get more involved in the regulations and some of the policies that led to the decisions that allowed some of this pollution to happen in the first place. So this program at Delaware was really one that really stood out to me and matched up with what I was looking to do. Despite Chattanooga not being on a coast or in a marine environment, I did take some courses related that related to that and provided me with a little bit of insight.
I went to Ottawa, Canada and started working with a consulting firm and did that for about five years first before I became a Manager of Intergovernmental Relations in Canada as a lobbyist.
As a senior advisor/Manager of Intergovernmental Relations in Canada you seem to have had a hectic lifestyle, where you had to remain organized and on your toes. How were you able to take what you learned as a student-athlete and transfer that to your career?
There was a lot of responsibility put on me so I essentially had to represent and trust all of the municipal governments in Canada at the federal level. I had to be sure when walking in the door I knew exactly what I was talking about, that I'm well prepared, that I could answer any questions that came my way, and that I came across being professional and that I had done my homework. That is essentially the largest comparison to being a student-athlete and being a professional. When I was running I would walk up to the line, start my race and there was a lot that had gone into that, it wasn't just walking up and starting a race. As a career professional, it's a little different because you have to learn how to balance everything. In my case, it was the concerns of the constituents versus the concerns of you as an individual and versus the concerns of the people you're meeting. I think that determination that you need as a student-athlete to persevere through all the challenges you might face applies so very directly to being a professional, especially when you're in a high pressure situation and you can draw on all those things that you had to draw on before, such as managing nerves, being sure that you're prepared for the situation and having the confidence to pull it off.
You are currently an advisor on climate change policy in Canada. When you're in the office, what does a typical day consist of?
Right now I'm actually at home so my bosses are an 8month old boy and a 2 year old girl. I'll be back at work in January. What I typically do as an advisor on climate changes is prepare some of the media lines for the minister if he has to respond to some questions for the media or from some members of the public. I write some analytical pieces that assess some of the pluses and minuses of taking a certain regulatory approach over another. I help prepare my supervisors and my managers and minister as well for entering into meetings with members of the public. Essentially what I do is get into the office in the morning and usually there are a couple messages on my phone and that kind of dictates how my day goes. I'm kind of a go-to person to respond to any questions our senior management might have related to the approach candidates take on climate change.
You are one of four runners that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Chattanooga. What does that mean to you personally?
It means a lot, when I found out that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was quite honored to be given the call. Personally I enjoyed the fact that I was called into the Hall of Fame because I thought it was a symbol or recognition of the fact that my sport was valued in the university and it wasn't all basketball or football players that were going in, which is the typical people you associate with athletics in general when you think of university sports. I was honored there was a recognition that I had done something when I was at the University and I was happy to go back and accept a small award and speak to some of the other Hall of Fame inductees. I think as time goes on, I value that Hall of Fame induction a little more because it is kind of a rubberstamp on my career and reminds me that I did do something in university that was kind of neat and special, and I do think very fondly of my time as a student-athlete. I think the Hall of Fame induction cements that for me and that is something that will be there forever and it won't go away.
Do you still talk to any of your former teammates or coaches?
Yes, a lot of my teammates seem to be having children at the same time. So it's kind of neat to keep in touch. Through the power of silly little Facebook we've all been able to stay in touch. You know there are rumors of whose kid is going to be the fastest.
Favorite memory at Chattanooga?
The most memorable would be my very last race which was at the Southern Conference Championship (1998) in the 5,000. I had had a horrible season because I got mononucleosis right in the middle of it so I was not running. I was not doing anything so I wasn't even going to go to the conference championship, but I thought, "Why not it's my last conference championship." At this point in time, we had won as a team, the conference cross country title in the fall, which was the first time our school had ever done that, and that was memorable in itself.
My very last race was the 5,000 meter on the track. I came in fourth which sounds not so great for me because I had won the event a few times, but considering that I hadn't been running at all and came pretty close to my best time, I was pretty happy with it. What made me the happiest was not only was I fourth, but I was fourth on my team. The people who finished in front of me were all of my teammates, so we finished 1-2-3-4. What made me happy, was when I started the program we were in a transition and weren't all that good, and through the four years that I was there we were able to build up a solid team with really amazing people who were really dedicated to the sport and dedicated to being a student-athlete. It was kind of a combination of my efforts, not in the recruiting sense, but working with the younger girls when they got there and mentoring them a bit.
What advice would you give to current student-athletes?
I would encourage them to think past their time in university and remember that what they are doing during their university days is going to help prepare them for their life after whatever sport it is they're currently involved in. Although it's very easy to become wrapped up in the immediate needs of the day in terms of getting ready for next week's event, I think you have to remember that what you're doing is essentially learning to be a positive and contributing member of society and one that will be able to handle a lot of pressure and a lot of change and a lot of expectations and responsibilities. That experience you gain through university as a student-athlete is one that very few people get, and it's one that you'll be able to take with you for a long time. It doesn't matter so much if you get a C rather than a B in class, I think you have to keep your eye on the long term and where it is you want to go after your done college.
For me it was academics first, and I did athletics to the best of my ability. I was in school because I wanted to get a degree and prepare myself to go beyond university and I wanted to excel outside of running.