Wednesday, December 18, 2019

When is the right time to tour?

By Courtney Elder

4x Professional World Champion Valarie Jenkins
Pursuing disc golf professionally looks quite different now than it did when the sport was first becoming popular. Until recently, the typical story of a disc golf player looked something like the following: grow up playing other sports, go to college, discover disc golf sometime in your adult life, and from there decide if you’re going to turn it into a career or not. While there are certainly variations to this narrative, it was more often the case than not.

However, with such a push to grow the sport and get kids involved from a young age, the role of disc golf in one’s life is now very different. Some of the sport’s top players were seen on the course decades ago in their early youth, and upon turning 18, many of them faced a difficult crossroads: to go on tour full-time or to pursue a college education.

Depending on one’s priorities, sometimes that decision can be pretty clear, and there are definitely multiple ways to look at the question. On one hand, college will always be there, and there’s nothing wrong with hitting the road first and then studying for a degree in your late 20’s or early 30’s. Yet many might argue that actually “making it” as a professional disc golfer is like finding a needle in a haystack and that a more practical approach to one’s career should be considered instead of briefly cashing in on youthful energy and talent.

It’s an interesting enough quandary that we thought it was worth diving into just a bit deeper, so we talked with four of the sport’s well-known players to get their take on the matter. Along with learning more about them, we asked the all-important question - to tour or not to tour? Keep reading, because their answers may surprise you.

When The Road Calls

There are certainly some players that haven’t even given college a second thought, much less a first, knowing that disc golf is their true path in life. Touring the country with gusto, they are confident that they can ride the wave of their talents and make something of themselves without having to go to school. However, others opt for a more traditional post-high school route only to realize that may not have been the right move for them after all.

One player who did just that is our current World Champion Paige Bjerkaas. After high school, she attended college for Elementary Education with the hopes of someday being a teacher. As she progressed through school and cultivated her disc golf skills, it became clear to her that things just weren’t adding up. When asked why she decided to leave for the open road, she mentioned a number of aspects:

2018 Professional World Champion Paige Bjerkaas
“There were a few factors that went into my decision to do so. First was how well I was playing disc golf. I had been touring since May and I had been getting better and better each weekend. So I figured if I kept going, I was bound to win something. Second was how much fun I was having. I started to make good friends and was enjoying the tour life that didn’t have to do with disc golf: the exploring, the traveling, the new sites, new food, etc. And third was my loss of passion for what I was studying. The further along in school I got, the less I really wanted to teach. I knew I wouldn’t be happy staying in school working toward something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do. So ultimately, all those things led to my decision to stay on the road.”

Before simply throwing in the college towel, Paige did consider taking online courses in order to fulfill both of her objectives, but she was simply too far along in her degree to make it work. Along with the support of her friends and Dynamic Discs family, the decision to go on the road became an easier one as time went on. Who knows - if she had been focused on schoolwork, maybe she wouldn’t have come out on top at Worlds! While leaving school was clearly the right move for her, Bjerkaas does offer some advice for those who aren’t quite sure which path to take. Other than making sure to think about all aspects of both tour and college in the long run, making sure to stay committed to your decision is key. If you still can’t choose, she offers a wise suggestion:

“My advice for people who are on the fence about touring and college is to tour! Looking back on my experience, I regret not hitting the road ASAP. I definitely enjoyed college and made some lifetime friends, but now I have college debt for something I didn’t even end up wanting to do. However, if you are really passionate about a certain field and you do want to go to college, I would suggest summer tours. Save up money and during the summer you can tour for about three months, then get back to the grind in the fall. Plus, all the best events are during summertime in my opinion, except GBO. Also, if you do go to school, go somewhere where there are disc golf courses and other people who play.”

Multitasking To The Max

Paige’s suggestion to try out both college and touring certainly is a tall order to fill, but if you are passionate about getting an education while playing disc golf, it’s definitely possible - just look at Valarie Jenkins. A major player in the sport, Valarie has certainly seen an immense amount of success within her disc golf career. But did you know that she also has a degree and worked exceptionally hard to earn it?

Jenkins initially took a year off after high school to travel and figure out what life had in store for her, and then was enticed to go to college with the option of being roommates with five of her best friends. Although this year was quite memorable, she found herself really missing out on all of the tournaments across the world. While Valarie was able to take down win after win after rejoining her fellow players, she saw that the sport needed much more from a business perspective and it really got her wheels turning about how she could contribute:

“I wanted to learn more about the business and marketing world and I realized that taking some college classes might help. At that time, University of Phoenix was the only reputable online college out there. I filled out a form online and I think within that day someone called me. I started chatting and instantly realized that this could be a really great option for me. So I went for it. The advisors that I talked to at the school were very helpful and supportive. They checked in with me every now and then and helped me create a program that would work for my travel schedule and keep me on track to get my degree.”

While completing her BA in Marketing online, Valarie and husband Nate Doss traveled the world playing disc golf. Sometimes they had to get very creative in order for her to complete her schoolwork, especially when they camped across Australia for two months. “I always remember many moments where everyone would be celebrating the tournament weekend, and I’d have my computer out writing a paper or responding to the discussion forums,” she explained. “One great memory is when Nate helped me with some math homework after my 2009 Worlds win! I did what I had to do to complete the courses regardless of where I was in the world, or what tournaments I just played. It was my responsibility that I signed on for, and I knew that it would better me in the long run.”

For Valarie, she saw that playing competitively and going to college weren’t mutually exclusive, and in 2011 she finished her coursework and received her degree. Not only does her BA prove that you can truly put your mind to anything that you want to accomplish, but it’s given her a jumpstart in the business world as it relates to the sport. She’s gone on to start DiscGolf4Women, used her skills as the Chairwoman of the PDGA Women’s Committee, and so much more.

If you’re unsure about what to do after high school, Jenkins offers some great advice: “As we all know, being a professional athlete as a career can end in a split second with injuries. Having a backup plan and continuing to build on your passion through higher education is a great idea. If you decide to go back to school, make sure you’re willing to put in the time and energy regardless of what happens. I’d highly recommend to anyone who is on the fence to take some online classes. You’ll not only better yourself, but you could use that education to help grow the sport we all love.”

Going In Order

Both Paige and Valarie bring great points to the table when it comes to college and touring. While they both saw that hitting the road sooner rather than later was invaluable, others have taken a very different approach. Making a huge name for himself as of late on the professional circuit is Calvin Heimburg, a player who brings a lot more to the table than just a great game. Many may not know that he graduated from University of Florida in 2017 with a chemical engineering degree, and his thought process in doing so before touring certainly makes sense.
2019 National Tour Points Champion Calvin Heimburg

While he began enjoying disc golf around 2008 after receiving a starter pack for his birthday, Calvin only played infrequently with his dad. After discovering that a close friend was also involved in the sport, his interested grew quickly and at the end of 2010, he competed in his first sanctioned event. By 2014, he was playing in Open and knew that disc golf was in his life to stay.

Although he’s now a proud degree holder, Heimburg isn’t quite sure what he wants to do with his career, which is in part why he’s on the road now. While that uncertainty may now be present, he was always steadfast in his plans:

“I can't really say that I ever thought about ditching college for the road. There was always a plethora of tournaments in the Southeast to play throughout the year that I could travel to for the weekend. Getting my degree was always the primary objective and the decision process on whether or not to hit the road didn't start until after I had already graduated. I am sure that there were some classes that I could have taken online. However, it is definitely easier to keep up with schoolwork when that is what you are focused on doing.”

Not everyone can be as sure as Calvin was when it comes to touring or not, but he does suggest that if people are unclear, they should attempt a mix of both until it becomes apparent which path will be right for them. Again as we heard from Valarie, sticking with your decision seems to be key. “If you decide to tour full time, you have to make sure that you have a good support structure behind you because living expenses on the road add up quickly,” Calvin explained. “Both options have their pros and their cons. You just have to choose the lifestyle that you think is better for you and commit to it.”

School, Then Disc Golf, Then More School?

There is no right way to go about one’s career path, and what may seem like a firm decision in a certain direction can absolutely change at a moment’s notice. For Madison Walker, that became apparent in 2014. Holding a degree in Marine Biology with a minor in Chemistry, she worked for roughly three years post-college with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response as an onsite biologist and natural resource advisor. After getting laid off and waiting tables to make ends meet, she realized that playing disc golf could be a viable career option.

Madison played local events in Florida and Georgia, and although she was in the process of applying to graduate school, she decided to attend 2014 Worlds in Portland, Oregon. There she reunited with Paige Pierce whom she’d met at a tournament earlier in the year. Together the two of them embarked upon the 2015 season with intensity, and it was in many ways a crash course for Madison into what “tour life” is all about:

“I figured I could get a [Master’s] degree at any point in my life, but getting the opportunity to be Paige Pierce's wingman wasn't going to come around again later in life. I had a decent savings account and was sponsored during my first touring year, but funds ran out quickly and I found myself broke and one stroke out of cash pretty quickly. That's where Paige came in - she was my biggest supporter financially. She liked to call it ‘mentoring.’

No matter what it's called, I am so thankful she took me under her wing and helped me get through the most financially unsuccessful year of my life. She encouraged me to stick with it for another year at least, and my unwillingness to back down from a challenge has kept me on the road ever since. And a challenge it has been!”

Touring Professional Madison Walker
Although Walker has become one of disc golf’s more notable female players in the last few years and she truly loves the sport with all of her heart, touring full-time may not be in the cards for her in the coming years. She shared that natural sciences are her true passion and she will be returning to them soon. As far as what that looks like is anyone’s guess at this point, but flexibility in today’s workforce may allow her to mold both disc golf and her career into something unique that works for her.

“You can literally do anything you set your mind to if you're willing to work hard, and maybe have a bit of natural talent to boot,” she said. “I think the decision is situational, but I am very happy I decided to stick with college, as having a solid back-up plan while grinding away on tour makes the risky lifestyle a little easier to accept.” Madison is right in that touring is certainly a risk, but isn’t going to college equally as ambitious?

Doing What’s Right For You

We’ve learned just a little bit from some of disc golf’s more notable players and without question, each competitor on tour likely has their own similar story to share. Whether it’s an injury that will sideline someone and encourage them to go back to school or it’s a pure and natural talent that simply has to be expressed on the road right away, there’s no one right way to handle this major decision. Even with the best-made plans, anything can happen, and having a backup option is always smart no matter what road you choose to travel down. As these pros have shared, what’s most important is to follow your heart, because if your decision brings you true happiness, then in a sense, you’ve already won.
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