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For Rhodes Scholar, Hockey is no Distraction

By Greg Bates - Special to, 01/14/15, 5:00PM MST


Elliot Akama-Garren, an MIT student and Rhodes Scholar, says playing for his ACHA hockey team helps keep his life balanced

Elliot Akama-Garren has recently missed a couple of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology men’s hockey team’s games.

But it’s safe to say his coach isn’t going to get upset at him. Akama-Garren was justifiably absent, undergoing intense rounds of interviews for the right to be chosen as a Rhodes Scholar.

All Akama-Garren’s time away from the rink paid dividends as the MIT senior was named one of 32 American recipients of the prestigious international scholarship to Oxford University in England.

“It’s a surprise,” Akama-Garren said. “When I think back on the process, there were so many qualified candidates, and the fact that I was even nominated to have a chance to apply is an honor.”

Akama-Garren, who is from Palo Alto, Calif, is a top-notch student in the classroom, sporting a 5.0 grade point average (on a 5.0 scale). He is a biology major who specializes in immunology research.

A high achiever in the classroom, Akama-Garren is also a leader on the ice for the MIT hockey squad. Chosen by his teammates as the president, Akama-Garren, 21, is in his fourth season on the team that competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

Akama-Garren believes a lot of what he does on the ice carries over to what he does in the classroom.

“In hockey, there’s a lot of opportunities where you have to decide whether to make a risky pass or play or times where you have to be creative and adapt to different set plays or situations,” Akama-Garren said. “I think those are all things I’ve brought to other aspects my life, especially with research. In science, you need that creativity, that risk. That’s one thing hockey has helped me out with.”

Hockey has always played an important part in Akama-Garren’s life. He first laced up his skates when he was around 7, and competed in high school for the San Mateo Cougars and the San Jose Jr. Sharks club teams.

“Hockey has had a lot of different influences over the course of my life,” Akama-Garren said. “It’s taught me a lot of leadership skills, because I have leadership roles on the MIT team. But even before that, reflecting on all the different life skills hockey and sports in general can teach people, I realize how lucky I am to have begun playing so early in life.”

Hockey provides a great release for Akama-Garren and takes his mind off of the everyday stress of school.

“If you’re not careful, you can end up getting so narrowly focused when you’re doing research, especially at MIT, that you kind of lose touch with the rest of the world around you,” MIT men’s hockey coach Tom Hopkins said. “[Hockey] is a great way to get a chance to keep in touch with what you like to do and stay grounded and keep a better perspective on the work you’re doing in the lab and the work you’re doing in class. Beyond anything else, it’s just fun.”

Balancing hockey and his class load isn’t an easy task. During the fall semester, which just ended in December, Akama-Garren attended six classes, all the while juggling his numerous extracurricular activities, including hockey.

“As far as I can tell, he never seems to have a problem with it,” Hopkins said. “I don’t know exactly how he does it. For as much as he does in and out of the rink, he’s never late. He always has his schedule organized so he can be at practice on time, and somehow he manages to get a good night sleep it seems like every night. If it’s not for med school interviews, he’s there every single day.”

Hockey practice eats up two hours of Akama-Garren’s schedule five days a week, and MIT generally plays one to two games per week.

“That was actually a big concern of mine,” Akama-Garren said. “Coming in, I expected hockey to take away from my studies. But the funny thing is, if I compare how well I do between my fall and spring semesters, I always have a lot easier time with my courses when the hockey team is in season. I think playing hockey makes it easier to relax, and for some reason I do better in my courses.”

At 5-foot-5, Akama-Garren isn’t your prototypical hockey player. The 145-pound defenseman tries to outsmart his opponents and uses his quickness to get around his opponents.

“That’s one way to make up for it,” Akama-Garren joked. “I think I also try to keep my head up and make plays and good passes.”

Akama-Garren, who has yet to score this season while playing in four of his team’s six games, is one of four to five defensemen Hopkins rotates during games.

“He’s a little bit undersized, but he’s got a bit of a nasty streak at times, too,” Hopkins said. “He’ll always step up to make the hit, even if the guy’s twice his size. He may take the worst of the hit, but he’s always in the right place making the play and stopping the play and stopping the puck when he needs to.”

Akama-Garren’s tenacity on the ice translates into a great work ethic in the classroom. He will graduate from MIT in June, and for being named a Rhodes Scholar, Akama-Garren will get to attend graduate studies at Oxford University for two years. He plans to pursue a master of science in integrated immunology at Oxford before heading back to the U.S. to attend medical school — which he is currently applying for — to go for a doctorate of medicine and philosophy.

As luck would have it, this might not be Akama-Garren’s final year on the ice. Oxford has a varsity hockey team, and Akama-Garren is already planning to try out.

“I don’t ever want to stop playing hockey,” Akama-Garren said. “I don’t know if I can continue playing five days a week for the rest of my life. But if I could just continue to have the chance to be on the ice somewhat regularly, that would be really rewarding.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Allegra Boverman.

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