Former Longhorn Susan Gilchrist Kakoski

Former Longhorn Susan Gilchrist Lakoski

What was your experience like playing tennis for UT? 

I was drawn to UT because I felt like as a student-athlete there was unlimited potential to be the best. I wanted to be associated with a program that was striving for excellence and committed to that for a student-athlete not just in athletics, but academics. My experience at UT really represented that. I felt that I had tremendous support from the athletic department and our team and our coaches to pursue our goals of being No. 1 in the nation. Then from an academic standpoint my professors were very supportive, especially being pre-med which can be so strenuous as an athlete. I felt like they were supportive of the goals of doing well in pre-med but also being able to handle the issues of being an athlete. The combination is what makes UT unique and one of the special institutions in the world where you can combine your passions in athletics, or any other type of activity, combined with your academic load to pursue your dreams, and that’s the kind of experience that I had.

Did being a student-athlete at UT help you in your future endeavors? 

I reflect on this because people ask me this a lot. The answer is absolutely yes. My time during college, in terms of balancing academics and athletics, was the most strenuous time I had, even more than going to medical school or being an intern or a resident. During those times you had a singular focus—your focus is on studying or taking care of patients or learning the baseline knowledge to be a good physician. When I was a student-athlete at UT, I had to balance wanting to make the best grades in my classes to be competitive to get into medical school, but also had aspirations to be the best at tennis. So I had to balance two things which took a lot of time management skills. I learned those skills and that was the most stressful time I’ve had in my life. Since that time I felt confident I could handle any major hurdle or challenge going on down the road. I knew that I had pushed myself to the limit during my experience at UT. But I also felt that while at UT I had the resources to be successful at both, and I think that’s really a unique feature about UT that’s not true for all institutions.

Did you play competitively at all after college?

Prior, during and after UT I had played in professional tennis tournaments. I tore my rotator cuff the very last tournament of my college career, which limited my professional career. But I did have the opportunity to play in several major Grand Slam tournaments and most of them were with my doubles partner, Vickie Paynter, who was just elected into the Hall of (Honor) this past fall. My experience at UT really did allow me the opportunity to play professionally, though it was limited by my injury.

What was it like being a part of Texas’ first national championship in tennis? 

When you look back on it was an incredible feeling to be a part of something that’s ‘the first.’ I think when I came in as a freshman and Vickie came in as a freshman there were a lot of sophomores as well on that team, there was a sense that we could potentially win a national championship, but we weren’t even near that at the time when we entered. There was the potential there, everything was lined up to be competitive, but we had not won before and we hadn’t got in the top eight for many years so being able to, in a step-like fashion, go from final four to final to final one and being the winner senior year was an incredible transformation in my life. Going from wanting to be the best player in the world to just wanting to help our team win a national championship and being a part of something bigger than yourself really transformed who I was. Because of that experience my focus changed from my own individual goals to the team goals. That was a turning point in my life in a sense.

What is the highlight of your UT career? 

It was an incredible four years for so many different reasons. One would say is that the highlight was winning the national championship. However, once you win the national championship, you realize that isn’t actually the highlight because, at that point, it’s over and you’ve done it. What’s next? You’ve accomplished your goal. In retrospect, looking back, the process was the highlight. It was the process of wanting and working with your teammates to achieve that goal and the relationships that were built around working as a team.

What are you doing now, and how did you get to this point? 

After I finished my tennis career I decided to stop coaching, I was coaching for a few years. I did my medical school training and internal medicine training in San Antonio, and then I moved to North Carolina to do a fellowship, which is an additional five years, in cardiology. At that time I got a masters degree in epidemiology and was very interested in cardiovascular prevention and risk factors for heart attacks. I took my first faculty position at UT Southwestern in Dallas and was there for four years and I mainly focused on non-invasive cardiology and prevention of heart attacks in women. However during my time at Dallas I realized there were very high risk populations that weren’t getting the message about cardiovascular prevention, the major one being cancer patients, specifically breast cancer patients who have competing risks for cardiovascular disease after they complete their cancer therapy. I really had a strong desire to build a program on cardiovascular prevention and exercise on high-risk populations, especially those with cancer. I was recruited this last spring to go to the University of Vermont. The University of Vermont is very well known for its cardiovascular prevention and population studies so I already knew many of the collaborators here and that’s how the connection was made even prior to my move. The thing I love about my job is that I get to combine the research I’m doing in exercise and cancer and cardiovascular prevention with my clinical practice.

When did you know you wanted to be in the medical field? 

I was probably 12 or 13. I had the knowledge that life would go on after my athletic career and that I wanted my life to have meaning and be a challenge after my career. I felt like medicine would be a great challenge and that I could help people. It wasn’t until I actually finished my tennis career that I really started thinking hard about going into medicine because it is a huge commitment of time. I went into medicine for two main reasons: after you finish your athletic career there is this sense of loss, this is my livelihood, this is what I wanted to do and now I no longer have this outlet to challenge myself and to be the best. Medicine was a natural way for me to learn something new and to challenge myself and be a lifelong learner. I’m still learning everyday about how to be a better physician and a better researcher. The second reason was like I said earlier about the transformation of being self-absorbed as an athlete to wanting to be something bigger than yourself. It turned out that I learned as a team player at UT was that I wanted my challenges to be about helping other people and not about doing something for myself. A career in medicine is about challenging yourself to be the best for someone else and someone that’s ill. That turned out to be very true and it is a very satisfying profession and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to go to medical school through the UT system.

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