Ryan Bak '03

Embodiment of the Ideal   

   by Michael Bradley '98

Anyone familiar with the record of four-time All-American Ryan Bak ’03 might wonder what the secret is behind this fleet-footed scholar-athlete, who, in the past year, has dominated Division III and Division I competition, while breaking five Trinity running records.  “I wonder the same thing myself,” Bak says, with characteristic modesty. “I think some of it has to do with just blocking out pain in my mind while I’m running. In reality, that’s one of the keys to running.” For Bak, what started in high school as a second sport to soccer, has become a way of life that he claims has “taken me a lot of places.” 

Ryan is exactly what Division III athletics are all about,” says Head Cross-Country Coach George Suitor. “He’s a great student, a great kid, and a great athlete.” Suitor describes Bak’s development since coming to Trinity as “phenomenal.”

Bak is no less impressive in the classroom. A double major in economics and political science, Bak has earned NESCAC All-Academic honors four times, and was named by Trinity as the Junior Scholar Athlete of the Year. Bak was also recently inducted into the Connecticut Chapter of the Pi Gamma Mu social science honor society.

This year, Bak entered the Leo Gitelson National Essay Contest, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C. In his essay, Bak wrote about the American presidency in times of crisis, the assigned topic, but approached the subject from a different angle than many who submitted essays to the competition.

“A lot of people related their essays to 9/11, but I think what helped me is that I tried to link mine to there being a crisis in the presidency as a whole—one that’s linked to the media and the feeding frenzy that they create.” Bak’s essay was selected as one of three winning submissions from Trinity in the contest that draws entrants from top educational institutions throughout the United States and Canada. In April, Bak flew to Washington from a track meet in Tennessee to meet up with the other Trinity winners and receive recognition for his accomplishment.

Professor of Political Science Clyde McKee invited Bak to be his teaching assistant in his fall 2002 “American National Government” class, partly, McKee says, because “he’s a winner in the best sense of the liberal arts tradition.

“He has his heart set on becoming an Olympic runner and he also has the desire to be the CEO of a major company, and he sees a connection between learning to communicate effectively and achieving those goals,” McKee says.

As a high school senior in his hometown of Suffield, Connecticut, Bak was offered athletic scholarships by Division I colleges and universities with strong athletic programs. But Bak parted ways with many of his friends and competitors who went on to Division I programs.

“I was looking to go to college to get a good education, and I fell in love with Trinity when I visited,” he says. “I figured academics and a good degree would get me farther in life than running would, alone.”

Years after he made this formative decision to attend Trinity, Bak recently reunited with some of his high school competition at a major Division I track meet, where he witnessed firsthand the college path he chose not to take.

“I knew how different things were at ‘D1’ programs in terms of academics and how academics were ranked amongst your priorities, but I was amazed at how little freedom of choice students had in their studies,” says Bak of athletes he met from Division I programs. Bak recalls one runner from a Division I school who “barely got to choose his major, and all of his classes were picked by his adviser.

“I think if I’d taken that route, it probably wouldn’t have worked out as well,” Bak says. “It’s been great, because at Trinity I have complete freedom of what courses I want to take and what route I want to follow in my studies.”

While Bak celebrates his decision to attend an academically minded liberal arts college, he admits that maintaining the balance between athletics and academics can be an ongoing challenge.

“It’s difficult, because I’m following a Division-I-style program in my personal training, and it’s tough when you have a real workload of real classes at a good school like Trinity,” he says. While not busy with the substantial workload associated with two majors, and planning two theses, Bak runs 85 miles per week, supplementing his daily afternoon training with what he calls a “short” morning run—between five and eight miles—two to three times a week.

Bak says he plans to pursue a professional running career for between two and five years after he graduates from Trinity in 2003 “just to see how far it can take me.” During that time, he hopes to participate in an Olympic development program. Eventually, Bak says, he hopes to work in the financial sector. In the meantime, he uses his summers to prepare for that possibility, interning at the Simsbury, Connecticut, based Landmark Partners investment firm.

“He’s going to be successful at whatever he does,” Suitor says.

While has his eyes on winning the national cross-country championship during his senior year, his general plan is to remain “as competitive as possible” on the track and “be the best I can,” in the classroom.

“This year was quite a breakthrough year,” he says. “I never, ever imagined winning a national championship. That was something that kind of came out of the blue. Trinity has been a great experience as a whole, based on all the different people I’ve met and connections I’ve made, and that’s what Trinity’s all about.”

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