Getting integrated into a new school, team and program can make an athlete’s freshman year challenging. For senior Jessica Sams of the University of Utah cross country team, her first year wasn’t all smooth sailing, but that season she spent as a new Ute on the team has helped shape her into who she is today.
“The whole freshman year was just sheer terror from the beginning of the first day of our fall camp until the end of track season,” Sams said. “It’s so scary, but after the first couple of weeks and once I was able to make friends and connect with my teammates, I felt very comfortable, and by the time I started my spring semester of my freshman year, this school felt more like home.”
With four years of experience as a member of the team under her belt (she redshirted this past season), Sams can’t help but compare her first year to where she is now. The closer Sams gets to completing her time at Utah, she thinks about how much has changed on the team. Not only has she worked with different coaches, but the culture on the team has changed while the goals have remained the same.
“Now that I’m about to graduate, I can say that as a team, we have accomplished those goals,” Sams said. “It’s satisfying for me to know that I came in here as a freshman, gung-ho wanting to make changes and help propel the program forward, and it happened. I feel like I can hang my hat on that and it helps me relax without all of the pressure.”
Sams understands what it feels like to be new to the team, and she uses that experience she had to go through to help the newcomers. Sams gives each of the new members who join the team a grace-period, something she feels she wasn’t given her first year.
“At the beginning of each year, as an upperclassman, I say that we are going to give all of the new girls a clean slate, give them the benefit of the doubt for the first month or two, because I do remember how hard it was,” Sams said. “I do remember the mistakes I made my first couple of weeks being here so I want to take it easy on them, because I don’t want them to be yelled at the way the upperclassmen yelled at me.”
Head coach Kyle Kepler said Sams has great leadership skills, and she takes an interest in helping to make sure the new kids are able to adapt and feel comfortable, because not only does it help her, it helps the rest of the team so there isn’t any “playing catch up.”
“I think Jessica and her teammates as well try to take ownership in that,” Kepler said. “It’s something we talk about, being a bridge-builder — building a good and strong bridge. It keeps the program going, growing and propelling it forward. It’s something she doesn’t take for granted. It’s her program now, but some day there will be other kids here, and she wants to make sure that the legacy that is left behind is a good one.”
With a new semester approaching, Sams advises all of those coming to Utah, athletes or not, to keep an open mind.
“There are so many exciting things happening that I feel like you have to be open minded and kind of go with the flow,” Sams said. “Take it all in, and understand that freshmen have a huge learning curve, so don’t get discouraged if you aren’t performing great in your sport and don’t get discouraged if your grades fall, because every freshman goes through it. Just know that you will come out of it better and it’ll pay off eventually.”