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Gymnast-turned-author on pressure college athletes face: ‘We’re all human beings’

·7 min read

Olivia Karas was a four-time All-America gymnast for Michigan. This level of athletic achievement — surely the dream of many parents of children playing youth sports — came at a cost.

She sustained a back fracture, tore an Achilles tendon and dealt with bulimia. There was also mental stress.

“I used to lie in bed the night before a meet and think about how much I didn’t want to get up there,” she writes in a new book she co-authored with her father, Jim Karas.

What kept Olivia awake at night was the balance beam, which the book says is 16 feet long, 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the ground. Because of her attraction to artistic expression, she preferred floor exercises. The unforgiving balance beam demanded precision.

The book — titled “Confessions of a Division-1 Athlete: A Dad and Daughter’s Guide to Survival” — details the world of gymnastics and the pressures felt by competitors.

In a recent telephone conversation with the authors, Olivia said she and her father wrote the book to show “what it’s like as a college athlete navigating how to represent yourself, a team, a school (and) everything that comes with the weight of being a collegiate athlete.”

The weight gymnasts feel includes social media scrutiny, or what she said is called the “gym-ernet” in gymnastics parlance.

This type of unceasing scrutiny led the conversation to Kentucky basketball players.

Olivia surmised that the pressure to perform only intensifies for UK players in a program where a turnover or missed shot can cause concern. Then there’s the expectation of Kentucky being a prelude to a long and lucrative NBA career.

“That’s even more pressure,” she said before adding that the widespread interest in UK basketball can lead to judgmental fans, media, NBA scouts, etc.

“That, to me, is something that isn’t talked about enough,” Olivia said. “People are very quick to judge. ‘Oh, he missed a free throw.’ ‘He double-dribbled.’ Or ‘how could you miss that shot?’

“It’s, like, we’re all human beings in a high-pressure situation. Sorry, he missed a free throw. I bet you’ve made mistakes in your life, too.”

Then there’s the move to allow a college athlete to profit off his or her name, image and likeness.

Olivia voiced “very mixed opinions” about NIL. She supports college athletes profiting off endorsements, autographs and jersey sales. She questions whether companies would want more playing time — or an undeserved chance to compete on the balance beam — so athletes can be more marketable spokespersons.

“That can become really problematic,” she said. “And I don’t know that that’s going to happen. But, in my opinion, I can see it as driving a potential wedge between team members.”

Her father also wondered about how NIL profiteering could impact college athletes. Might poor performances jeopardize an agreement to be a spokesperson?

“Which is only going to add that much more pressure on this athlete we’ve already said has an insurmountable amount of pressure on them as it is,” Jim Karas said.

More information on the book is available at karasconfessions.com.

Draft notes

With the NBA Draft being held Thursday, Kentucky will be looking to add to the 41 players selected (31 in the first round, including 21 lottery picks) during John Calipari’s time as coach.

Many mock drafts have neither Isaiah Jackson nor Brandon Boston Jr. being a lottery pick.

Kentucky had at least one player being a lottery pick after each of Calipari’s first 10 seasons as coach. That streak ended last year when Tyrese Maxey was the first UK player selected at No. 21.

As for first-rounders, Kentucky has had at least two in every NBA Draft in Calipari’s time as coach. Many mock drafts have Jackson being taken in the first round outside the first 20 picks. Boston is widely projected as a second-round pick.

Ulis camp

Former UK standout Tyler Ulis plans to conduct a camp for boys and girls ages 6 through 14 in Lexington on Aug. 14.

The camp will be at SportsCenter in the Plaza near Fayette Mall. The cost is $125 with proceeds benefiting the Tyler Ulis Foundation. Its website says the foundation seeks to educate and encourage young people through camps and mentoring programs. Donations can be made online at Tulisfoundation.org.

Registration for the camp can be done online at kbchoops.com/training.

Basketball options

Increasingly, highly regarded players coming out of high school have options. Playing for name-brand college programs like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina continue to be one. Now, the G League and overseas teams are plausible basketball springboards to the NBA.

Michele Roberts, the executive director of the NBA Players Association, has a basketball preference. It’s not college basketball.

“I’m not a fan of college basketball,” she said during a symposium organized by Duke University this spring. “I love professional basketball. But I think (college basketball) is a fantastic opportunity for anybody. And if you can get tuition paid for, that’s cool.

“But if you don’t want to, then alternatives to having to go to school to make money for somebody else are cool to me.”

‘Silly facade’

Michele Roberts rejected the notion of college sports being considered anything but a money-making enterprise.

“College sports, especially at schools like Duke, that’s a business, man,” she said during the Duke symposium. “You can put the big ‘A’ — amateur — up there all day long. We all know, those of us who are being honest, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

“It makes me literally ill to be cognizant of the fact that the athletes who generate all this revenue are supposed to be happy if they are getting a scholarship. I mean, are you kidding me?”

The symposium was in mid-April. Roberts predicted significant change in the college sports model.

“This silly facade of amateurism is about to see its final days,” she said. “I think colleges have to acknowledge that they are generating a lot of money, and at least allow kids — even if a school doesn’t want to pay them — to be able to sell their ID and generate some income.”

Roberts said colleges will continue to prosper as athletes profit off name, image and likeness, plus other future money-making opportunities.

“I don’t see this as being a death knell for college sports at all,” she said. “It just means to be fair and candid about what’s really going on here. It’s a business.”

Socially aware

Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings has gained a reputation for being socially aware and willing to speak his mind publicly.

When asked this month if he might use the Olympics as a means of calling attention to societal problems, Haliburton pointed out that as a player on the Select Team, he would not be going to Tokyo.

“But I believe if something is important to you, you should speak your mind about it no matter the stage, no matter the consequence,” he said. “If it’s important and the right thing, I always believe in speaking your mind. …

“I definitely will continue to voice my opinion. … You’re probably not going to get a bigger world platform than the Olympics. So, it’ll be good to see people have things to say.”

Bam redux?

While Kofi Cockburn has been likened to Shaquille O’Neal, another big man reportedly on Kentucky’s radar has been compared to a player who perhaps hits even closer to home.

Jalen Duren, the No. 1 prospect in the high school class of 2022, is reportedly weighing several options. One is to try to reclassify to the class of 2021 and play as a college freshman next season. UK, Memphis and Miami are considered the prime contenders should he decide not to turn pro.

Matt Norlander of CBS Sports wrote this past week that Duren does not shoot well from the perimeter nor does he dominate around the basket.

This led to a conclusion voiced at the Nike EBYL event last week that Duren should turn pro rather than risk being reassessed in college.

Wrote Norlander: “Three comparisons tossed around by evaluators while watching four of his games (last) weekend were: Cliff Alexander, Bam Adebayo and Derrick Favors.”

Happy birthday

To Jules Camara. He turned 42 on Friday. … To UK assistant coach James “Bruiser” Flint. He turned 56 on Friday. … To Hall of Famer Karl Malone. He turned 58 on Saturday. … To former Georgia coach Jim Harrick. He turns 83 on Sunday (today). … To Devin Askew. He turns 19 on Monday.

Ones that got away: Sampson, Bird, Hansbrough, Zion … now Kofi Cockburn?

What’s next? Could NBA pay draft picks who return to college teams?

The final recruiting period starts Friday. Will Kentucky give out any more offers?

Ex-Cats dominate 2021 Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame induction class

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