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Try telling a high school student that hard work and perseverance can get them over just about any obstacle in life and your message may or may not get through. Show them a living example of that principle and the chances of your message resonating will improve.
Students at Spencer County High School have such an example in Principal Jocelyn Mills Lyons, who refused to allow a hearing deficiency to keep her from excelling academically or athletically.
Lyons, a native of Kingsport, Tennessee, made her mark in the classroom and on the basketball court, earning a scholarship to UK and becoming one of the all-time greats for the program. She was honored earlier this month at the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament in Duluth, Georgia as one of the Legends of the SEC.
Playing from 1990 through 1993, Lyons scored over 1,100 points in her career and grabbed over 700 rebounds as a 6-foot center, helping Kentucky to four consecutive post-season appearances.
For ten seasons, the SEC has been honoring one player from each member school during the tournament. Players are introduced during the tournament individually and as a group during the tournament and are recognized during the Commissioner’s Tip-Off Reception prior to the games.
Carrying what she called a great love and passion for her alma mater, Lyons said she was “especially excited and flattered to represent the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program. I was especially touched that they felt that I had contributed enough to be given such a distinction.”
Making the weekend even more memorable, was the fact that this year’s Kentucky team advanced to the SEC Tournament Championship game for the first time since 1982.
“Of all the years to represent the program, this just seems like a special year for it,” said Lyons.
While having her playing career honored meant a great deal, even more special was the comments of her former coach, Sharon Fanning, who now coaches at Mississippi State. Fanning told Lyons that of all of her former players, she considered her special because of what she had to overcome to be a student-athlete at that level.
“As a hearing-impaired student-athlete, it was academically stressful because the classes were very large as a freshman,” said Lyons. The challenges continued on the court.
“I had developed bad habits as a high school player, such as not talking during games. Common sense suggests that in order to be a good collegiate player you have to communicate on the floor. I had never developed that skill because I didn’t hear a lot of talking on the floor.”
She smiles looking back, explaining that her coach helped break that habit through a lot of running. While it felt defeating at the time, Lyons adds that “in hindsight, I would have stood no chance if this issue could not be worked out in time.”
Lyons said she now knows Fanning appreciated her effort and said her compliments during the tournament will always mean a lot to her.
“It was the first time I knew that some people understood how hard I had to work to make it.”
Her experience has convinced her of the importance of a strong work ethic, as both a student and an athlete, and she’s quick to echo this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The harder I work the more luck I seem to have.”
While her basketball career brought her opportunity and some fame, she also realized that it was her academics that would make her a success in life. She said the same realization must be made by all student-athletes.
“You have to prioritize when you are a student and an athlete, but most importantly, you have to understand that of both roles, one you can be forever, and one you can not.”
Now as an educator, Lyons hopes she can speak from experience about what it takes to succeed, regardless of circumstances.
“I think my life serves as the best example of what a person of limitations can do in life with determination in themselves and high expectations and support from the adults in life,” said Lyons.
“I have been on the receiving end of some fantastic opportunities from people who saw something in me at times when I didn’t see it in myself.” She hopes to now offer that same hope in others.
“My job as principal, if my life is any indication, should be to provide opportunities for students to grow and develop their abilities, gifts and esteem. I believe that every young person has the potential to be successful in their life when they are walking their path – but the must understand four things to realize their goals: You must be committed, resilient, hard-working and focused.”
In her educational role, Lyons is often asked to define her position on sports and academics.
“I often tell people that the pursuit of excellence is a part of character. In my opinion, the greatest athletes, ones who are able to sustain success, they apply the spirit of excellence in everything they do. That is more about character than anything,” she said.
She said the truly impressive athletes take care of all aspects of their lives, including academics.
“Who is impressed with an athlete who is not well-read and well-spoken? Who is impressed with an athlete who makes straight A’s but doesn’t give 100 percent effort on the court? We are all impressed by the athlete who gives 100 percent effort on the court and in the classroom.”
Lyons hopes she can foster such an attitude of excellence in the students at Spencer County, and not just those who play sports.
“The philosophy of excellence carries over into all areas of one’s life. It applies to our ability to learn. It applies to our athletic endeavors. It applies to our extra-curricular programs and organizations. It applies to our relationships with others. It is a way of living.”