When the track and field season was canceled last spring due to COVID-19, Loyola senior distance runner Derek Rink thought his collegiate running career had come to an abrupt end.
Now, after the NCAA gave extra eligibility to those athletes whose seasons were cut short, Rink finds himself balancing running for the Ramblers and starting medical school at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine.
“I heard the news from the med school, so I’m like I gotta figure this out logistically,” Rink, 22, said. “Basically it kind of transitioned once I found out from like ‘I’m doing this for fun and I just wanna stay fit’ to ‘I get to be on a team again.’ It was a new source of motivation.”
With this unusual pairing of Division I student-athlete and medical school student comes an additional set of challenges. Rink said his “dynamic” class schedule is among the hardest adjustments to make. While on the pre-med track — a biology major and biostatistics minor — as an undergraduate, Rink’s classes followed the traditional 15-week semester length. However, he said his current class schedule fluctuates constantly, making it harder to plan out his training schedule.
Rink said medical school takes more of a precedence over running, especially since he said he’s just assigned his class schedule without being able to pick anything. This has led him to view running as more of a “privilege.”
Senior distance runner and one of Rink’s best friends Wes Heal — who also took advantage of the NCAA’s extra eligibility — said Rink puts 100 percent into everything he does. He also said he’s never met anyone who’s done track and field and med school at the same time and said it’s “amazing” that Rink has both the athletic and academic opportunities.
“If there was one person on our team that would be able to make [medical school and running] work, it would definitely be Derek,” Heal said. “I think he could be pretty level headed into going to [medical] school and then he’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t I compete on the side?’”
Loyola men’s track and field coach Mircea Bogdan said seeing Rink’s hard work and dedication has made a positive impact on the rest of the team.
“That’s huge because you know you have a good guy on your side, on your team,” Bogdan said. “He’s willing to do anything to be there because he likes it, he enjoys it.”
Rink only has remaining eligibility in outdoor track and field, but he said he feels like he still has unfinished business.
“One thing I really want to focus on is my 5K,” Rink said. “I’ve dipped under 15 minutes a couple times, but I think I have a lot more to give in that event and I just got to get in the right headspace.”
With the extra time before a potential track and field season in the spring, the runners are able to take a few more chances during their training. Heal said some people are doing more mileage than they typically do, while others are trying to trim down their times more than normal.
Rink said he’s a big fan of pushing his limits and trying to beat his personal bests when it comes to running. He said due to the lack of competition because of the virus, he’s embraced the idea of running against himself as motivation.
“I feel like especially over quarantine and just coming to terms with not being able to compete, you really learn that a lot of why you joined running and why you joined the program is not just to compete against other people,” Rink said. “It’s just to improve upon what you’re already doing.”
Rink said he thinks his five-year relationship with Bogdan is a big reason why he’s able to manage both running and medical school. As for Bogdan, he joked he wishes his entire team had the work ethic that Rink has.
“He’s special, there’s nothing else to be said,” Bogdan said. “To have other kids knowing … that he does that, they say ‘well, maybe I can do that in one year or two years.’ You can only be proud as a coach. There’s not that many people out there like him.”
If the track and field season is able to happen in the spring, Rink said classes will still take priority. However, he said his schedule is typically pretty open on Friday afternoons, keeping the door open for him to attend track and field meets which usually are on Fridays and Saturdays.
As for his path outside of running, Rink said seeing the effects of COVID-19 across the globe has made him realize how valuable doctors and health officials are. He specifically mentioned how seeing a figure like Dr. Anthony Fauci in the news has “boosted” his motivation to make it through medical school.
“I already had great respect for physicians, but seeing like a global health issue … really makes you understand why it’s worth it to make the sacrifices and go to med school,” Rink said.
Rink said his family has a pretty strong tie to the medical field. His mother is a pediatrician, his grandfather and father were both dentists and two of his siblings are nurses.
“I think just being able to see all the figures you impact in the community is something that’s important to me,” Rink said. “I think a position that would suit me is something like a family doc or a primary care physician, where I get to see a lot of patients and just impact people in my community.”
Although he’s just started medical school, Rink said his outlook on life is different than when he started at Loyola. Initially, he said his goal was to just maintain a 3.0 GPA to remain academically eligible and he didn’t have the self-esteem to aim higher than that.
“I think having Wes, Riley [Demeulenaere] and Max [O’Meara] around the whole time really elevated me to a new level that I don’t think I would’ve reached on my own,” Rink said. “I think my success on getting into Stritch is also partially theirs. I owe a lot to them and hopefully I can pay it back in one way or another.”