Deborah Saint Phard
When Deborah Saint Phard chose to attend Princeton University in 1983, the decision was based on academic pursuits. When she left four years later, she had rewritten the Heptagonal Games recordbook and was bound for the Seoul Olympics.
But her academic perspective never waned. In fact, today she is Dr. Saint Phard.
Born in Port au Prince, Haiti, Saint Phard’s family moved to the United States when she was an infant. Along with piano lessons and playing soccer through her elementary school years, she would later find her way to track and field in junior high. At first, she wanted to be a sprinter but began throwing the shot put after her coach suggested she try it. By the next year she would break several county records in Wichita, Kan.
Her obvious athletic potential and her emphasis on education, gave Saint Phard numerous options for college and she chose Princeton University.
She graduated from Princeton in 1987 as the only four-time Indoor Heptagonal (Ivy League plus Army & Navy) champion in the shot put as well as a three-time Outdoor Heptagonal champion. She also was the outdoor Heps champion in the discus in 1984. The focused and very competitive Saint Phard set the outdoor meet record in 1986 and went on to surpass her own mark in 1987 with a throw of 51-10 1/2. Her mark stood for 14 years. She would establish the indoor record in 1985 and go on to break her record two times in 1986 and again in 1987. Her record would not be broken until 2000.
She was clearly not an average athlete as she reached a level well beyond that of her competitors. It was Princeton University that helped to elevate her to next level. Saint Phard received support from her athletic department and other members of the unversity, including that of President William Bowen. President Bowen, through the Presidential Fund, succeeded in helping she find the level of competition that would give her the opportunity to reach her full potential. “I can remember flying out to Nebraska to compete in the Cornhusker Invitational,” remembers Saint Phard.
It was already clear that her institution would allow her to pursue a top level education. She would also begin to see that it would also allow her to pursue the highest ranks of athletic competition.
“When I thought about Princeton, I never thought about the athletic component of an Ivy League school. Certainly when I grew up, the emphasis was on academics and I never pursued any athletic scholarships. Because it was not my emphasis nor an emphasis in my family, to find that I could pursue a top level education and receive top level coaching and compete at a top level, I was surprised but also happy.”
It is important to have talent and skill in order to flourish in athletic competition. In addition, it is paramount to have coaches that can guide an athlete and enhance the abilities they already have. Deborah would be lucky enough to have both. As she excelled, coaches with the experience needed to direct her would manifest. The first, Geoffrey Seay (Princeton ’86), would coach her to Nationals. Fred Samara, now the head coach at Princeton, would coach her to the World level.
“At Princeton, I think whatever level you were, they would meet you. I didn’t come in at a national level, but I was expected to get there. You can’t get there without good coaching and instruction. I happened to respond to good coaching, so I grew, developed and got better. As I got better, the next level of coaching was applied to me, so I definitely appreciate that.”
Samara, a world-class decathlete, coached Saint Phard to the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis and the World Track and Field Championships in Rome. Saint Phard was ranked among the top-20 in the world in the shot put and would culminate her athletic success by competing for Haiti in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea.
“I think the Olympics are a childhood dream for a lot of us. It certainly was for me. It was something I grew up watching on television and I always dreamt about being in the Olympics one day. So for me, it was the accomplishment of a lifelong dream.”
Saint Phard went on to attend Temple Medical School in Philadelphia, Pa. — a learning experience that Deborah admits was quite different from her days at Princeton. “Med school was very different from Princeton. The volume of work was significantly increased but it was all memorization. It was not at all critical thinking or analysis, at least that’s what I felt the first two years. So that was the adjustment there. I had to deal with massive memorization of a lot of intensive detail. Where I Princeton, you were taught to think and to reason.”
Saint Phard completed an internship in internal medicine and did her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver. She completed a fellowship in sports medicine at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Dr. Saint Phard is currently a physiatrist for the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, where she treats the physical injuries of athletes, but also remains equally interested in the psychological impact of those injuries on athletes.
The likely reason for this is that Dr. Saint Phard believes there to be an inseparable connection between the mind and the body. The same holds true to her philosophy about the balance between academics and athletics.
“I think of the balance between academics and athletics in terms of the mind and body. You can not separate one from the other. Whether you have pain or whether you are in normal health, the balance between getting proper stimulation for your brain, in terms of pursuing a good education and being well-rounded in what you read and what you are able to converse about, is important. I think it is also important to maintain some physical activity because I think both your mind and body perform ideally when both are being exercised.”
She is an example of one who has reached the paramount levels of greatness on and off of the playing field. She has this advice for an aspiring student-athlete:
“You have to be realistic about the importance of sports. Most of us are not playing professional sports and supporting ourselves in our mid-30s because of our athletic ability. Whether we did well during or after college, I think most of us are working. So, in trying to help establish the things that will help you in the long term, I think ultimately you need to be thinking about what you’re going to do after college and what are the best things that are going to prepare you for the real world.”
This story was written by Sherryta Freeman in 2002 in conjunction with the League’s black history celebration.