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Juggling Competitive Skating With Challenging Academics
Balancing an elite sport while looking for a college is tough, but narrowing your parameters to include an engineering school and a niche sport like synchronized skating? Meticulous investigating and planning are only the beginning—you then have to get into both places.
For Tessa Lytle ’23, both specialties had to be on the table. So when she found the academics she wanted at WPI and the competitive skating at the Lexington, Mass.-based Hayden-Synchro School, everything started to fall into place.
After simultaneously applying to WPI and trying out for the Haydenettes, an elite-level synchronized skating team that trains at the Skating Club of Boston in Norwood, Mass., Lytle was accepted by both. “I didn’t know I wanted to study engineering until my junior year of high school,” says Lytle, but she had been a national competitor in the sport of synchronized skating for years. Now she’s making the best of both opportunities.
Lytle says WPI’s project-based education appeals to the way she learns and how she prefers to work. At WPI, she’s in the BS/MS program to earn both mechanical engineering degrees in four years, and she’s also on the executive board of several campus clubs and organizations including as president of the WPI chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
An Idaho native, Lytle didn’t connect with skating until her family moved to New York City and lived near the Bryant Park skating rink. “My mom bought us all skates, and from my window, I could see if there was a line and just head over,” she says.
Calling her early approach to skating a “skate fast and fall a lot” method, Lytle’s knees frequently sported therapeutic ice after even a short time on the rink. At first, Lytle began with freestyle skating, which includes attention-getting jumps and spins. “Those are challenging mentally,” she says, “but I liked the skating skills it required.”
Skating can be a cause of stress, but it’s also a huge distraction. When I am on the ice, I can’t think about school because there are 20 other people out there I don’t want to run into.
She was drawn to the grace of other skating styles, particularly the rhythms of skating with a large team moving as one. “I get the consistency of it, and there’s something very calming about it,” she says. Focused choreography and frequent practice ensure the skaters all move together for visual effect and safety, as one off-kilter move could impact everyone. “When you’re so close together, you can’t be worried about hitting each other,” she says.
As a competitive skater, Lytle maintains a precise training and performance schedule with the Haydenettes around all of her courses and projects. Despite the high-intensity academic and skating workloads, Lytle says each provides excellent balance to the other. “Skating can be a cause of stress, but it’s also a huge distraction,” she says. “When I am on the ice, I can’t think about school because there are 20 other people out there I don’t want to run into.”
A Complicated Schedule
The balancing act that Lytle has managed to maintain has worked out for the most part, mostly because of her fierce determination to do it all. It’s a schedule that would make most people cower. After an hour drive to the Skating Club of Boston rink, Lytle hits the ice by 6:30 a.m. four days a week. After practice and required ballet and fitness training, she’s back on campus around noon. One day a week, practice is in the afternoon. In the early days, it took some complex maneuvering to successfully dovetail a course schedule and a training and competition schedule. “It was high pressure, but gave me an opportunity to do well,” she says.
Now, her higher level courses offer more flexibility and a level of learning she appreciates. “Mechanical engineering is so broad,” she says, “that if I veer off in one direction, I am still within my field.”
In her Intro to Engineering Design course (ME2300), she worked with a five-person team to create, and eventually race, an autonomously driven radio-controlled car. Whether her team was designing the car’s components or working on sensor software—or anything in between—they overcame challenges to race the car. The thrill of success was real, she says. Her Interactive Qualifying Project related to climate change and national parks and she is eagerly anticipating her MQP, which will involve 3D-printed humanoid robotics.
Her advisor, mechanical engineering professor Pradeep Radhakrishnan, guides her focus so it is on professional understanding, not just a high letter grade (and he has even attended some of her competitions).
Remote Work and Resilience
When COVID caused many of Lytle’s foundation courses to go remote, she missed some important aspects of her education. “Taking fundamental engineering courses online didn’t give me the hands-on experience that’s expected of you. When I came back in person for my higher-level courses, I was missing some basic tooling and soldering skills that you were expected to already have. There was a clear gap in user knowledge due to online courses and the pandemic,” she says. But with WPI’s open access to labs and a little help from a friend, Lytle caught up on the tools and processes she needed to know.
Even though some of the learning was intimidating, the individual mechatronics lab work was freeing. “I could tear something apart, put it together, not have it work, and there was no one looking over my shoulder to see it,” she says, noting reassembling a bathroom scale was especially difficult.
Throughout the challenges of skating and academics, Lytle has found her groove. “I am a very high-achieving person,” she says, “and I’m very competitive. But I try to be more carefree and realize not everything is going to work out.” Lytle says she no longer feels she has to ace every single course or lead each student organization she’s in. “I’m figuring out what really matters,” she says.
Spontaneity, although hard to come by, offers perspective while her community offers support. “One night, I was in a meeting and we got out at 8 p.m.,” she says. “I had hours of work ahead of me, and I needed to get to sleep on time. But one of my friends said, ‘Hey, let’s go get bubble tea.’” It threw her schedule out of whack, but she went—and her friends noticed. “They said to me, ‘Tessa, your time is so valuable, and we appreciate you coming out with us.’ I got home and I thought, ‘That was definitely worth it.’”
As Lytle considers her future—including skating and possibly WPI’s PhD program—she knows both passions will be part of her routine. “I am OK to throw some stuff out there and see where it lands,” she says. “I am OK with some stuff not working out. I am someone who does a little bit of everything. When it works out, I can focus in on that thing. When something changes, I have a lot of other things I am interested in.” And those interests will guide her to a meaningful life after WPI. “I want to be the person to make things happen,” she says. “I don’t want to be the observer.”