Sally Ceesay ’18 owns the indoor and outdoor records in the triple jump, and earned All-America honors with an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Division III indoor meet in March.
Ceesay is accomplished, but not finished.
“You think that once you get it, you got it,” she says. “But there’s always something to improve on. And there’s so much to learn.”
She’s a sophomore biochemistry major. It’s the big transition year: navigating new ways to think, new ways to jump, and new ways to live her Bates life…with and without her lucky blue hair bow.
Ceesay came to Bates from the Bronx, N.Y., with sights set high: pole vault with the track and field team, and major in one of the natural sciences.
One day early in her first indoor season, Ceesay and her teammates were doing a bounding drill, where you leap forward with each running stride. An assistant coach, Calvin Hunter, watched her, then walked away and talked to head coach Jay Hartshorn.
“And they came back and said, ‘You’re going to jump,’” Ceesay recalls. “And I said, “Whaaa?’ But I tried it, and it turned out great.” Not just great. But great “very, very immediately,” says Hartshorn.
Jan. 10, 2015, at MIT: In her very first attempt as a collegiate triple-jumper, Ceesay (mispelled “Cessay” in the results) jumps 31 feet, 2 inches.
Jan. 24, 2015, at Bowdoin: She jumps 36 feet, 6.25 inches, good for second place on the all-time Bates list.
Feb. 8, 2015, at Bates: she jumps 37 feet, 5 inches, to win the State of Maine event and set the Bates indoor record.
It’s hard to learn time management when you have time. Ceesay’s first semester at Bates, fall 2014, was a breeze, she says, “because I had so much time — I didn’t have track. And I thought when track started it would be the same.”
Weekend travel and daily practices quickly stripped away all that easy study time, and Ceesay hadn’t learned yet how to recover it. So her first winter semester “was a real struggle.”
Her first-year experiences taught her that practice left her tired, which left the door open to tired’s evil twin, procrastination. “I’d tell myself I could do an assignment the next day,” she says.
Ceesay dealt with her time-management troubles by making four changes.
1. No more excuses.
2. Set priorities.
3. Stay focused.
4. Give up some things. “I don’t hang out on the weekends. I don’t do much if I have an assignment due or if I have a track meet.”
For chemistry and biochem majors like Ceesay, sophomore year is a “huge transition year,” says Professor of Chemistry Paula Schlax, chair of of the college’s biochem program. It’s when they go from “thinking that all science is knowable to realizing there are questions that don’t have answers,” she says.
Plus, the intensity gets “really ramped up.” In their first year, these students have a safety net. “Everything they do is incredibly related to what they just did,” Schlax says.
Sophomore year, however, means taking what they know and applying it to what they don’t know. “They learn that science is not about absolutes, that there can be more than one interpretation of their data.”
Giving up other activities doesn’t mean that other aspects of Bates life, like having fun, have left the building.
“Track is my fun,” says Ceesay, who will be a junior adviser next year. “All my friends are on the track team. We have practice from 4 to 6, and then we go to dinner after that, so we’re together for a long time.”
She reconnects with her circle of friends outside track on Sundays. “We get a room and we study together, hang out, and catch up. That’s my break, my fun.”
This summer she will work at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., shadowing a heart surgeon and researcher. “We’re trying to figure out what types of things, in terms of treatments and medications, help patients who have heart failure.”
She’ll also shadow doctors in other specialties “so I get a feel for what type of doctor I want to be.”
“I like shoes that stand out,” she says. “I like bright colors.”
She likes her shoes flat, too. “Some people find that weird. Some get shin splints from flat shoes, so they like a thicker heel. But I find with thicker heels, I’m off-balance when I run.” Flat shoes feel like “you’re barefoot. You feel every contact you make with the floor.”
“My biggest lesson I learned from freshman year is don’t cheat yourself,” says Ceesay, who also competes in sprint relay events. Last year, if a workout comprised five 200-meter sprints, she would go hard on the first one “but on the middle ones I’d go 85 percent to make sure I could finish.”
This year, “I’ve learned you just need to go 100 percent on everything. In the moment it’s hard, but you gotta get through it. You’re going to wake up the next day and not even feel it.”
“I did well my first year but I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Ceesay. “My jump coach was like, ‘Just run as fast as you can and jump and see what happens.’”
In her sophomore year, the real coaching began as her jumping coach, Art Feeley, asked her to learn proper triple-jump technique. In some ways, the young jumper was asked to “take a backward path to go forward,” says Hartshorn.
Mastering any new physical skill means moving the act from “explicit” learning — where you have to think about each movement — to “implicit” learning, which “takes place outside of awareness,” in the words of author Malcolm Gladwell in his essay “The Art of Failure.”
The triple jump is literally a hop, skip (or step), and a jump, and Ceesay’s new technique required, among other things, raising her knee higher during the step phase. Her initial efforts this winter reflected explicit learning. She was winning events, but barely topping 35 feet. “I didn’t know how to do these new technique changes,” Ceesay says.
Then, her implicit learning took over. “Once my body got trained to do it without thinking about it, the jumps got better and better.” It came together at the NESCAC Championships, where she won the event and broke her own team record with a jump of 38 feet, 11.5 inches. “I wouldn’t be where I am without all of my coaches,” she says.
Time management can mean seizing time. During the long wait before a meet starts, that can mean studying for a quiz or cat-napping to catch up on sleep.
“While I was at the NCAA meet in March, I had to take an organic chemistry quiz. That was stressful. But I knew I had to do it. I studied, tried as hard as I could, and I actually did well.”
Students who can do what Ceesay has done, competing in multiple sports season while carrying the biochemistry course load she does, “come out with incredible time management skills,” says Schlax.
“I am actually shocked that our students who compete in multiple season are able to do as well as they do.”
Sports psychologists appreciate Bull Durham because the movie explains how routines and rituals affect confidence, mindfulness, and performance.
For example, the veteran catcher, Crash Davis, says makes this statement: If you believe you are playing well because of your ritural “then you are.” Same with Ceesay and her lucky blue hair bow.
Last winter, she fell asleep with a blue bow in her hair and dreamt that she qualified for the big meet of the year, the NCAA indoor track and field championships in Grinnell, Iowa. “I decided to wear this bow at my next meet,” Ceesay recalls, “and I qualified for nationals.” The bow stayed.
“I believed that if I didn’t have it, nothing was going to work for me.” Since then, she’s jumped with and without the bow, so now she wears it as just part of her mindful pre-meet routine. “If I do things a certain way and I do well, I want to keep it that way,” she says, right out of the sports psychology playbook.
Mind games and athletes go together like bob and cat, and Ceesay is not above shaking up her routine as a motivational boost.
At the Wildcat Invitational at the University of New Hampshire, Ceesay decided, at the last moment, to compete without her lucky blue bow.
When she wore it, “I would to tell myself that ‘I need to do well because I have it on.’” When she took it off, she told herself that “I need to prove that I don’t need it.”
She hopped, stepped, and jumped her way to one of her best results of the spring, 38 feet, 2 inches, “I told myself, ‘It’s on your head, Sally. Think of it. It’s on your head.’”
Before a jump, says Ceesay, “I used to have such a ‘focus face.’” There was no talking. No laughing. Ceesay stayed deep inside her hoodie and her head.
“But I noticed that when I’m laughing and joking around right before I jump, I always do well.” Joking around is another way to keep from thinking too much; it also relieves stress.
And this budding scientist is not one to ignore how a specific cause might create a desirable effect. So, she says, “I’ve learned to laugh before I jump.”
In Bull Durham, Crash Davis gives the rookie pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh, another lesson in sports psychology: “Don‘t think. It can only hurt the club.” Ceesay hasn’t needed a crash course on the art of not thinking. In the moment before she heads down the runway, she knows that “you can’t have any thoughts. You need to be clear minded and ready to run.”
She’s also taken to giving some Bull-ish advice of her own to her teammates, mantras they can recite before they compete such as “I’m the shit.”
“You have to make yourself believe it even if your jump doesn’t reflect it.”
Looking back at Ceesay’s year, Hartshorn says it’s been about “being able to buckle down again, get refocused, and re-evaluate what her goals were.”
To complement what Schlax calls her “incredible work ethic,” Ceesay has gotten guidance in motivation and goal setting from her coach. “Yesterday, Coach Jay spoke to me about always having a goal, always motivating myself, and always thinking, ‘What do I want to do for this meet?”
The idea of short-term goal-setting is to “motivate me but not overextend me. Rather than thinking, ‘What do I need to do six months from now,’ I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to do today? How do I want to improve today?”