With their seasons cancelled due to the pandemic, varsity athletes at Concordia University haven't been able to celebrate any wins on the field or in the arena this past year. But that didn't stop them from finding a way to achieve a different kind of victory.
The athletics department says 2020 was a banner year academically for its athletes.
The school is reporting that all eight of their top-tier athletics team programs — known as varsity-one — saw their average grade point average (GPA) increase from last year. The average GPA in 2020 among those programs was an impressive 3.25, which is close to an A minus letter grade.
One of the largest jumps was on the 82-man football team, which saw its average jump from 2.60 to 2.98.
Glody Musanga, a fifth-year running back and mechanical engineering student, was part of the cohort pulling the team's grades north, achieving a 3.20 GPA — up significantly from last year.
"It was a harder semester than the others, and a lot more work," Musanga said. "But it felt pretty great to have a reward from your hard work."
Improving academics was a focus for head coach Brad Collinson when he took over the program in 2018. At that time the program did not have the best reputation for its players excelling in the classroom.
"Hats off to (the athletes) and to our coaches," Collinson said. "We run virtual study halls with them, we check in with them weekly and make sure everything is going well, we offer free tutoring as well, so all these things have played into our success."
Women's hockey earns 11 Academic All-Canadian honours
Unlike the football team, Concordia's women's hockey team has had a long-running reputation for leading the way academically. Still, they outdid themselves in 2020, with 11 players earning Academic All-Canadian honours with a GPA of 3.70 or higher.
"For sure we had more time on our hands to refocus on school, but I think that being in sport really allowed us to manage our time well, so I tried to bring that into my academics last semester," said Stingers defenceman Brigitte Laganière.
Brigitte Laganière was one of 11 academic All-Canadians on the Concordia women's hockey team in 2020.
The hockey team's grade average was 3.46, which was second best among all the varsity programs at the school. The women's soccer program topped the list with an average of 3.57.
"Eleven of our athletes had a GPA above 3.7, which is incredible," said Caroline Ouellette, the interim head coach of the women's hockey team and a four-time Olympic champion.
"I think it's a testament to their work ethic, to the dedication to be the best that they can be not only on the ice but off the ice."
Keeping standards up when sports restart
Now the challenge for the varsity programs will be to keep the marks up once athletics programs reopen in earnest. Varsity-one programs require a significant time commitment that can range from 10 to 20 hours per week in the offseason and double that during the season itself.
Collinson said though this year was tough on the players, it showed them how good academic success can feel.
"The fact that they did it and reaped the success, it's like anything — when you get a good grade you feel great," Collinson said. "You want to have that feeling again, so we're going to keep pushing."
"Athletes are high achievers in everything they do and I think that our coaching staff really stresses the importance of academics," Ouellette said.
Concordia's athletic departments says the average GPA was up among all eight of its varsity-one team programs in 2020.
Laganière thinks that students who may have struggled with the adjustment to online learning during the pandemic can learn from what athletes like her did to succeed during this tough time.
She says it's important to listen to your body and take breaks when you need them, but it helps if you plan them.
"Bring your skills of time management, make a lot of schedules and stick to it," Laganière said.
Musanga said finding a community of other students to work with was a key to his success.
"Find a place where you can focus and minimize distractions but also interact with other students, because we're all going through the same things," Musanga said. "Get some study sessions together and it really helps."
It is still unclear when varsity athletics teams in Quebec will be allowed to return to training, but Concordia's student athletes say that knowing their academics are in order will make returning to action that much easier.