It takes perseverance, determination, and grit to go back to school as an adult. Those same traits are also critical for successful athletes. To celebrate the grit of adult students, we’re putting the spotlight on famous athletes who went back to school to earn their college degree.
We hope you will be inspired by these empowering stories of athletes who were motivated to further their education while achieving success in their sports at the highest levels.
Michelle Kwan is a two-time Olympic medalist in figure skating, as well as a five-time World champion and nine-time U.S. champion in the sport as well. An extraordinary athlete on the ice, Michelle has also been as equally committed to reaching her higher education goals.
Eleven years after competing in her first Olympics, Kwan graduated with a bachelor's degree in international studies and a minor in political science from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. After earning her undergraduate degree, she pursued a graduate degree in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, graduating from that school in 2011.
Shaquille O’Neal is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. 4 NBA Championship rings. 2 Olympic Gold Medals. Rookie of the Year in 1992-93. 2 scoring titles, 15 All-Star game selections, 3 All-Star Game MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, 14 All-NBA Selections. A rap music star with 5 studio albums, one of them Platinum. Graduate of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy and Reserve Police Officer in both the Los Angeles Port Police and Miami Beach.
When Shaq dropped out of Louisiana State his junior year to play in the NBA, he promised his mother that he would return one day to finish his degree. And he did exactly that, earning his BA through distance learning courses at LSU in 2000. Then he went on to earn his MBA through online courses at University of Phoenix in 2005. He later undertook a PhD in Leadership and Education at Barry University.
Venus Williams is considered one of the all-time great professional tennis players. She has been ranked World No.1 by the Women's Tennis Association on three separate occasions, and is currently ranked World No. 14 in singles.
In 2007 Venus earned her associate degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. In 2011, Williams enrolled in Indiana University East’s online degree completion program and officially earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in 2015.
In high school, J.J. Putz earned “Mr. Baseball” honors for the state of Michigan and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 1999 while still a student at the University of Michigan. Over the course of his his career as a professional baseball relief pitcher, Putz played in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks.
While still playing major league ball, Putz finished his degree from Michigan in 2010, earning a bachelor’s in sports management and communications. He achieved his higher education goals when he was with the White Sox, eleven years after leaving the university the first time.
Troy Polamalu is one of professional football’s greats. He played college ball for the University of Southern California (USC), and was chosen by the Steelers in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft. A member of two of the Steelers' Super Bowl championship teams, he was also chosen as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
During the 2011 NFL lockout, Polamalu returned to USC to complete his college education and earned his bachelor's degree in history. According to Polomalu, "I decided to finish what I started... not only because it was very important to me personally, but because I want to emphasize the importance of education, and that nothing should supersede it."
Also known as “The Tornado,” Wilma Rudolph was one of the great American Olympic athletes. In 1956, at age 16, she took home a bronze medal. In 1960, she became the first American to win 3 gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics. She became world-famous for being “the fastest woman alive”.
She overcame unbelievable odds, being born prematurely and afflicted by polio. At that time, proper treatment was not easily available to African Americans, and it appeared she would be handicapped for life. But her parents drove her regularly from Clarksville to Nashville where there were doctors willing to treat her. The devotion of her parents is all the more impressive when one considers she had 21 brothers and sisters. She joined her school basketball team but sat on the bench for three years before getting a break. Subsequently, she set records for scoring and led her school to the state championship.
In 1963, she received a full scholarship from Tennessee State University and earned a BA in elementary education. She then worked for many years as a teacher, track coach, and national TV sports commentator. She is the recipient of numerous awards and citations and was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.