Austin Derksen had real reason to celebrate at his graduation ceremony. Anyone who can complete a line of study in cellular molecular biology while being a full-time varsity athlete deserves to blow off a little steam when the task is done.
After all, finding the balance between a demanding academic lifestyle and an equally challenging athletic one requires a tremendous amount of discipline.
"To be honest, it's the hardest part of playing collegiate sports," said the 22-year-old Derksen, a Prince George product who was attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and playing NCAA Division 2 soccer for the school team, the Skyhawks. "Myself, I kind of figured it out later. It took me a while - it's a hard thing to figure out and it would be nice to have someone to mentor you through it. It was a trial and error process for me. I had a couple rough semesters for sure, where I wasn't quite as high academically as I would have liked."
While he may have had the occasional struggle along the way, Derksen graduated with an impressive 4.0 grade point average. His ceremony was held earlier this month in Durango and several of his family members - including parents Antony and Paula Derksen and grandparents Ken and Diane Van Horlick - were there to witness it.
The younger Derksen, who was at Fort Lewis on an academic/athletic scholarship, said he now plans to go to medical school.
"I'm looking to come home at some point - UNBC and the Northern Medical Program would be great," he said. "But I'm pretty open to all sorts of things."
Derksen is a former D.P. Todd secondary school student who moved to the Lower Mainland at the end of his Grade 10 year so he could pursue his goal of playing soccer at a higher level. He graduated from Coquitlam's Dr. Charles Best secondary and, in that final year of high school, signed a letter of intent with Fort Lewis.
Derksen went on to play five years with the Skyhawks. In his very first season, they won the Division 2 national championship.
"I was pretty lucky to come into a program that was set to win," he said. "After that, we had a lot of strong teams, a lot of strong players - some of the best players I've ever played with, by far. Some of them will probably end up going pro at some point.
"But, we had a couple rough seasons (because) of other things coming in - maybe some things between the players and the coaches, or we had some players who weren't as committed to the program as they should be. It kind of showed in the way we played. We were some of the best players in the country but we just didn't play like a team as much as we should have."
While Derksen arrived at Fort Lewis College with glowing offensive credentials, he ended up playing all over the field. Depending on the team's needs, he saw time at left back, right back, left midfield, right midfield, centre midfield and forward. In his third year, he was chosen as a conference all-star (third team).
For Derksen, the highs and lows on the pitch were all part of a learning experience that carried him through to his final season, which he said was probably his most enjoyable.
"We had a very nice set of guys - a really young team this year," said Derksen, who, as a graduating player, saw duty mostly on left wing. "Seven out of the 11 starters we had this year were freshmen... but we were a good team.
"For me, it was nice to be a leader - someone the players kind of looked up to, not just on the pitch, but off," he added. "It was a nice feeling."
The Skyhawks' 2015 season went from September to November and saw them post an overall record of 12-6-2. In the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, they had a 6-3-1 mark, which put them in fourth place in the standings. Then, in the RMAC championship tournament, they ended up third and failed to advance to nationals.
In the big picture, Derksen wouldn't trade the last five years for anything.
"You learn a ton and grow as a person in how you look at things," he said.
"The people you meet, and the things you get to be a part of, it's been pretty spectacular, honestly."
Derksen is also thankful for the support of his parents, who made it possible for him to be away from home for seven years (including high school and post-secondary) to pursue an education and play elite-calibre soccer at the same time.
"Financially and emotionally (they allowed) me to leave and go and experience this awesome place," he said. "They have literally been with me every step and their sacrifice for me to chase my goals has far exceeded mine."