A League of Our Own
By: Valerie M. Reynolds
This past fall the U-High Maroons boys basketball team won the Illinois High School Association’s (IHSA) 2A Regional Championship, marking the sixth time in 13 years that Lab has made it to the finals and took home the regional title. The girls’ basketball team competed in the IHSA 2A Regional quarter-finals championship game. The boys swimming team won the Independent School League (ISL) Championship for the second consecutive year, and junior Elizabeth Oyler set three school records at the State Championship. To top it all off, on National Signing Day, eight of Lab’s phenomenal seniors committed to taking their athletics skills to the next level at Bucknell, Grinnell, Harvard, Michigan, Princeton, Swarthmore, Wabash Valley, and Wellesley. One of those eight seniors was Sydney Tyler, who was offered a fencing recruitment spot at Princeton University.
She explained how being an athlete at a school like Lab positioned her well for the Princeton athletic recruitment spot that she was offered. “I remind myself that I’m here because I worked for it,” said Tyler. “I would not have gotten the spot had I not already been through what I experienced at Lab as a student athlete.”
To many, Lab is most often thought of as a private school affiliated with the University of Chicago that is known for its academic rigor; after all, in 2020, Lab was rated as the nation’s fifth top school in Newsweek’s America’s Best STEM High Schools. However, in the last few decades, it has grown clear that, at Lab, being smart and being athletic are not mutually exclusive.
In recent years, a growing body of research highlighting the benefit of youth athletics has emerged. According to a study cited by Project Play—an initiative launched in 2013 by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program—physical activity is associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. And according to At Your Own Risk, a website aimed to educate employers, workers, legislators, school administrators, parents, and student athletes about the value athletic trainers bring to the field, office, and everyday life, participation in team sports results in higher GPAs for both high school boy and girl athletes. They report that physically active children are 15% more likely to attend college and former student athletes tend to earn significantly higher incomes than those who did not play sports.
“Being competitive has taught me a lot. It has shown me that not only can I be a leader, but I can also be a team player,” says Tyler. “I also have a clear understanding of when it is necessary to step up and be a leader and when—at times—it will be necessary to be someone who sits back and lets others lead the group.”
A shining example of Lab’s long-standing athletic prowess can be exemplified through Lab alumnus Ted Haydon, ’29. After graduating from Lab he attended the University of Chicago and eventually became the head coach of their track and field team in 1950. In 1952 he formed the University of Chicago Track Club, a post-collegiate development group with a nondiscriminatory, open-door policy for young athletes. Haydon was also the assistant coach for the United States National Track and Field team in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games and the 1963 and 1979 Pan American Games. In 1975 he was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and was a special inductee into the United States Track and Field and Cross-Country Coaches Hall of Fame. Haydon was also one of five alumni inducted into Lab’s Athletic Hall of Fame this October.
More recently, Lab can boast alumni such as Memphis Grizzlies Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Zachary Kleiman ’06, who was selected as the National Basketball Association’s 2021–2022 Basketball Executive of the Year, an award given annually since the 1972–73 season to the league’s best general manager, president of basketball/business operations, or another high-ranking executive.
Similarly, Lab alumnus Jeremy Woo ’11, began writing for Sports Illustrated (SI) after graduating from Northwestern in 2015 and recently became a contributing writer with ESPN. He recently penned SI’s March cover story on France’s Victor Wembanyama, who was referred to in Woo’s article as “the best basketball prospect in a generation.” Woo, who was a “Lab Lifer,” played baseball, basketball, and soccer throughout his years at Lab. He fondly recalls what was a great time to be an athlete at Lab as its commitment to athletics began to crystalize under the direction of the school’s athletic director, Dave Ribbens.
“I was fortunate to attend Lab at a time when institutional support for athletics seemed to be growing,” said Woo. “I felt encouraged to take sports seriously in addition to academics. Managing my time and energy doing both was always a challenge, but was ultimately one of the most gratifying and memorable parts of my experience at school.”
To better illuminate the many high-achieving athletes that have come through the Lab program, in 2019, Ribbens established the Laboratory Schools Athletics Hall of Fame, which honors outstanding contributions and achievements in Lab’s athletics history.
“I launched the Athletics Hall of Fame to simply tell the story of Lab athletics through the experiences of students, teams, and coaches,” said Ribbens. “We have a rich history of athletics at Lab that many within our community are not even aware of. Our goal is to inform, enlighten and share the many ways that athletics helped shape our student experience while attending Lab.”
Ribbens has been at the helm of Lab’s athletic department for the past twenty years. Under his tenure, the athletic program has grown in a number of ways. Lab offers a variety of competitive sports programs that came about as a result of student interest. The sailing team for example is one of the newest teams that was formed from our fortitudinous student and family community. Students and their families committed themselves to training during the off-season, coaches organized opportunities prior to the start of their season to ensure team readiness, and last year, our sailing team won the Illinois State Championship for the second consecutive year.
“Our teams have been successful in winning five IHSA State Championships over the past six years,” says Ribbens. “That success has inspired our student athletes to set higher goals and expectations of themselves and their teammates.”
The athletic program at Lab has been essential to the education of our students for many years. These students remain high-achieving scholars and contribute to Lab legacy in an arena that most people wouldn’t assume: the sports arena.
Learn more about Lab’s Athletic Hall of Fame here.
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