The phrase has been hollowed out by years of often cynical misapplication, but every once in a while a special collegian gives the term student-athlete unassailable substance. Meet SI's female College Athlete of the Year, North Carolina sophomore Loren Shealy, an ace field hockey forward, top business administration student, Robertson Scholar and, for one lunch hour in late April, just one of the scores of UNC students who have stopped for a meal or conversation at the Pit, the oak-shaded sunken brick courtyard that serves as the village square of the Chapel Hill campus. Wearing Carolina-blue-and-white workout gear on her slight 5-foot-5 frame, her light-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, Shealy looks much like dozens of other students on a dead-week study break. But she is different.
As the first UNC varsity athlete to earn a Robertson scholarship, the full-ride award given annually to 18 Duke and 18 Carolina students, the 20-year-old Shealy just finished a semester that may be unique in the annals of college sports. The Robertson, whose provisions include fully-funded summer "experiences," requires that scholars live for a semester on the campus of their school's biggest rival. That was no small detail for Shealy, a native North Carolinian who was raised by her dad, Tommy -- a 1984 Carolina grad who briefly played baseball for the Tar Heels -- to revile all things Blue Devil. "I've always known the phrase Go to hell, Duke," says Shealy, who grew up on a steady diet of Carolina men's basketball. "I didn't even look at Duke for college -- didn't apply, didn't contact the coach, nothing."
GALLERY: A look at SI College Athlete of the Year Loren Shealy
While Shealy insists that "a piece of Duke clothing will never touch my body," she enjoyed her semester "behind enemy lines," as she calls it -- especially the bigger dorm rooms, the smaller class sizes and Philosophy 101 taught by Alex Rosenberg. "I'm Christian, a Methodist, and he's clearly an atheist; that's how he makes his arguments," says Shealy. "But it's cool to hear the other side. He offered perspectives I wouldn't have otherwise thought about."
She was heavily outnumbered even in these smaller Duke classes, so she thought it wise to keep mum about her Tar Heels affiliation. Doing so wasn't nearly as difficult as the logistics of getting to spring workouts and her Business 520 class in Chapel Hill while living and taking three courses in Durham, 11 miles (and about 30 minutes, in traffic) away. "Looking at this semester back in December, I didn't know how I was going to do it," says Shealy, who made the round-trip commute five times per week in her Range Rover. "But it was doable. If you have a goal and you want to achieve it, you can do it."
Shealy first learned that lesson five years ago, after she made a grueling hike up 14,000-foot Mount Shasta in northern California. A good but unspectacular student at the time, she had vowed that if she made it to the top, she'd get straight A's and make the varsity field hockey team that fall as a sophomore at Charlotte Country Day. Nothing less than an A -- (and there's been only one of those, in AP English her junior year in high school) has appeared on her transcript since then. And she didn't just make the varsity. At a UNC camp after that first varsity season, Shealy, who had seen herself as a D-III player, dazzled North Carolina coach Karen Shelton with her hands, vision and maturity, and Shelton offered her a spot with the six-time national champions.
Shealy graduated early from high school and enrolled at Carolina in the spring of 2011. That fall she was the Tar Heels' rookie of the year, while last season she ranked second on the team in goals (16) and third in points (34) as Carolina reached the NCAA final for the fourth straight year. (It lost 3-2 to Princeton.) Shealy also won the Elite 89 award, given to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade point average participating at each of the NCAA championship sites.
But even better than being a 4.0 student and a fantastic athlete, Shealy "is the best person I've ever met," says teammate Charlotte Craddock, a sophomore forward from Wolverhampton, England. "She is successful in everything, and her organizational skills put the rest of us to shame, but she is also one of the nicest people, with one of the best senses of humor, I've ever known. She can convey so much with her incredible left eyebrow. You know you've said something stupid when you see that eyebrow shoot up." Adds Shelton, "Loren is a leader, she's unselfish, she's down-to-earth and she gets along with everybody."
Given Shealy's commitment to excellence, chances are that SI would be honoring her even if she had pursued a different sport as a high school freshman. "I love golf, and I thought I had real potential in it, but it was the same season as field hockey, which I had played for a few years," says Shealy, who also played basketball and ran track in high school. Her mom, Jan, thought she should stick with field hockey, a team sport, and get to know other people. "I cried," says Loren. "I didn't want to play field hockey." She joined the jayvee and was so dynamic that after the season, the varsity coach called a meeting with her parents to prepare them for college recruiting.
Shealy still plays golf and often beats her father, but she has come to love field hockey. Like golf, it demands precision and practice. "I really like that it's an incredibly technical sport," she says. "Hand skills, where to position yourself on the circle, tipping the ball -- all that takes practice. I like that you have to work at it."
But the thing she likes best about the game -- hat tip to Mom -- is the team aspect. "Achieving something by yourself is great," says Shealy, "but when you've done it with 25 other people after eight months of training, it's more rewarding."
Still, Shealy has had moments of individual glory: In a 4-2 win over Maryland in the ACC title game last November, she scored the first and last goals and made the all-tournament team. But forcing an opponent into mistakes and turnovers (pressing, in field hockey parlance) is where she lives. "Scoring is fun," she says, "but I love it when I'm chasing someone down and she makes a bad pass and now we're going to the goal and could score."
Shealy has never passed up a challenge. When her middle school music director lamented the orchestra's lack of cellos, Shealy set aside the violin she had played for five years and learned the cello. In track she ran two of the more brutal events, the mile and the 800 meters, finishing third in the latter in the private-school state meet as a junior. In field hockey she works on her weaknesses rather than her strengths. "I've had a lot of kids over the years who love to work on the things they're good at," says Shelton, "but Loren focuses on the things she's not good at to make herself better, to expand her repertoire."
Summer looms, and for Shealy that means more opportunities to seize. Last summer she spent six weeks in Vietnam teaching physics and tennis to children as part of the Coach for College program. As soon as she arrived back home, she drove 13 hours to Cleveland, Miss., where she joined other Robertson scholars in running a summer enrichment camp for under-privileged kids. This summer her Robertson-sponsored adventure will be interning at a San Francisco hedge fund. While Shealy says she hasn't thought much about next year's goals, one seems clear. "We've lost that NCAA final three years in a row now," she says.
Will Shealy find the time to work on her field hockey game amid the demands of a rigorous internship in the Financial District? You can bank on it.