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Publish date: Jul 2, 2013

A brainiac on and off the court

Carnegie Mellon student-athlete Katie Cecil aces both court and class

By Gary Brown

Carnegie Mellon Athletics Director Susan Bassett was watching a Tartans tennis match when No. 1 singles player Katie Cecil joined her in the stands. Cecil, who had already vanquished her opponent, watched her teammates with Bassett and explained the strategy of the competition to her leader.

Katie Cecil bio

Sport: Tennis,
School: Carnegie Mellon University
Class: Junior
Athletics accomplishments: All-America in singles in 2012; named National Player to Watch for 2013 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
Academic achievements: Holds a perfect GPA in biology.
What you didn’t know: Katie’s sister, Melissa, is a senior tennis player at Air Force who will graduate this spring. Melissa played her 22 matches last year at No. 1 singles for the Falcons.

“She was engaging and considerate,” Bassett said. “And she shared all of her candy. It was a great afternoon.”

To be sure, Katie Cecil is almost always smiling. Even during the photo shoot for this issue of Champion, when Cecil was directed to “look tough,” she usually just laughed.

She doesn’t laugh much on the tennis court, though. She was an All-American last year, racking up 21 wins at the No. 1 singles slot and leading Carnegie Mellon to the quarterfinals of the Division III Women’s Tennis Championships. Through March of this year, Cecil was 12-5 in singles and 10-6 in doubles, positioning the Tartans for another NCAA postseason run.

Of her own personality, Cecil said, “Athletic Katie is more serious. Academic Katie smiles more.”

The two sides of Katie Cecil are equally successful. She currently carries a perfect grade-point average in a rigorous biology curriculum that has her on track to be a neurologist. That translates well to a sport in which Cecil focuses on the mental aspects of the game.

“The mental side is even more important than being especially athletic,” she said. “I am not that fast or particularly strong – but you can be successful in tennis without necessarily being athletically gifted. A tennis match is sort of like solving a problem. You have to think about what you’re going to do in advance and then execute.”

Cecil is executing quite well a long way from her roots. The Huntington Beach, Calif., native actually spent her freshman year at Tulane on a full academic scholarship before transferring to the Division III school in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon was on her original list of schools, and it became even more attractive once the reality of Division I tennis set in.

“I can’t say that I wasn’t prepared for the commitment that DI tennis demands,” Cecil said. “I had been preparing for that my whole junior career. But in actuality, once you have intensive science classes that are equally time demanding, something has to give.”

Cecil stuck it out that first semester, and things got better in the spring, but she decided she needed a change.

“I don’t want to say it can’t be done at a Division I school because clearly there are a lot of successful student-athletes in challenging majors at that level,” she said. “But at Carnegie Mellon, you’re identified more by your major than your sport. It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the basketball player who’s an engineer.’ ”

Cecil’s volley to Carnegie Mellon was a point in Tartans head coach Andy Girard’s favor. He said Cecil is a good fit not only on the team but on the campus, as well.

Cecil poses in front of the back wall of the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge just outside the Gates Center.

“Katie’s work ethic and leadership are qualities that stand out and that people around her follow. She has a desire to succeed at everything she does,” said the 2010 Division III Coach of the Year.

Cecil’s success is even more remarkable given her age. She was home-schooled in junior high and entered high school as a 12-year-old. “Nothing is worse than that,” she laughed.

She was 16 at Tulane and now is an 18-year-old junior. When we nicknamed her “the Doogie Howser of tennis,” Cecil laughed and said, “I appreciate that, and I’ll take it as a compliment.”

While it’s challenging for someone that young to look into the crystal ball, Cecil said she wants to eventually be a brain surgeon. She shadowed an uncle in Kentucky who is a doctor, and she’s always been interested in the ol’ noodle.

“You know how some nerdy scientists fawn over the structure of the atom? Well, I’m nerdy that way about the cell,” she said. As for the risks involved in actually wanting to operate on people’s brains, Cecil opined, “I’m more fascinated than scared by it.”

She is applying for a fifth-year scholarship at Carnegie Mellon, during which she wants to be a community-service coordinator for the school’s student-athlete advisory committee. She said student-athletes are the first to volunteer for community outreach, but their ability to organize initiatives isn’t as polished, given their lack of contacts and the time demands placed on them otherwise.

Also in that fifth year (2014-15), Cecil will be applying to medical schools. She is interested in the bigs like Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Stanford, but she’s also intrigued about going back to the West Coast.

“In 10 years, hopefully I’ll be finishing up my residency and be close to being a doctor,” she said, though she acknowledged that looking so far ahead is daunting. “But I’m stubborn and very persistent, and I like to challenge myself.”

And it’s usually in a joyful way, which doesn’t go unnoticed by her AD.

“She’s our No. 1 singles player, so you think she’s going to bring this ferocious sort of competitiveness,” Bassett said. “And internally I’m sure that fire burns brightly, but outwardly there’s just this sort of happiness about her. In my time as a coach I’ve had my chance to be around what I call joyful athletes, and Katie Cecil is one of them.”

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