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Q&A with former Penn lacrosse player Blair Soden on persistence

"I found that pushing yourself out of a comfort zone, although it can be terrifying, is one of the best choices you can make for yourself," says Blair Soden, manager of original programming and development at NBC Sports. Courtesy Blair Soden

Blair Soden counts persistence among the reasons she's found success in broadcast journalism. She refused to quit playing lacrosse at the University of Pennsylvania, even after extra training and work to improve didn't pay off with playing time. And after graduation, she spent three weeks in New York City -- having already signed a lease -- and hunted for a job before getting hired by ABC News.

We talked to Soden, who's now the manager of original programming and development at NBC Sports, about her transition from being a Division I college athlete to her career in broadcast news.

This interview has been edited for length.

espnW: How did you feel when you were about to leave college and (essentially) your athletic career? What was going through your mind?

Blair Soden: I was really excited, to be honest, because I had started laying the groundwork for my career the summer of my sophomore year. I had interned at the CBS affiliate in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and then the following summer I interned for the national ABC news network in New York City. I had wanted to work in broadcast journalism for as long as I can remember, and my internship reaffirmed my passion for that field. I was pretty eager to get started and finally get a paycheck for doing the work that I had been doing throughout my college summer years.

espnW: How were you able to balance your life as a college athlete with summer internships?

BS: With lacrosse being a spring sport primarily, we pretty much had the entire summer. We would be assigned workouts throughout the summer, so that when we would come back and have a run test in the fall and started working out again for fall ball, we would be prepared. The summer was really our time off, so we were lucky in that respect.

I had friends who played field hockey and tennis, which were pretty much year round, who didn't have that luxury and had to come back to school about a month early to start training. But I did have the luxury of having those three or three-and-a-half months to pursue outside interests while still pursuing my training regimen.

espnW: How did your first couple of years out of college go? What did you do?

BS: I was hired full time at ABC News as a desk assistant. I also began cross-producing overnight features for weekend "Good Morning America," and then I was also a feature reporter for ABCNews.com. So I was working seven days a week, 12-plus-hour days, but I knew that's what is was going to take to grow in this industry. It was tough because a lot of my friends had moved from Philadelphia and Penn to New York City and had all this free time on the weekends, and it was pretty much an extension of college. It was difficult for me to see them re-living those college years, and I was missing out on that.

And then about two years after I started at ABC News, I took one of the biggest risks I've ever taken and left the comfort of ABC News, which is where I thought I would spend my entire career, for an opportunity to help launch, develop and segment produce the new morning edition of SportsCenter [at ESPN]. It meant leaving my friends and going to Bristol, Connecticut, where I was waking up at 3:30 every morning and producing a live show three days a week.

I think it set a precedent for me to keep looking for opportunities and challenges that would help me develop and learn in the industry. And I found that pushing yourself out of a comfort zone, although it can be terrifying, is one of the best choices you can make for yourself.

espnW: What lessons did you take from being an athlete that have applied to your working life?

BS: My work ethic, my character and my role as a team player. Playing lacrosse at a top academic institution was my dream, and Penn not only has an excellent academic reputation, but the Ivy League is one of, if not the best conference for lacrosse in Division I. I think it goes back to high school because Ohio, at the time, wasn't really on the recruiting radar for lacrosse, so I went to camp after camp to meet coaches and introduce myself, and by the time I met the head coach at Penn, she had already filled most of her recruiting class for my year. But she said if I could get in on my own merit, I would be on the team. So I did.

It was an uphill battle for me, to be honest. I barely played my freshman year and was told that if I increase my speed, I'd have more of an opportunity to play. So I got running coaches over that summer between my job as a tennis pro at a country club and my internship at CBS, and I trained to return to school and beat everyone at the run test the next winter ahead of the season. But I still didn't see playing time.

I watched others quit and go onto a life outside of college athletics, studying abroad and going on spring breaks and having free time, which I was extremely jealous of. But I didn't want to quit, and I think that's something that's really helped build my character, not just in my work life but in my personal life as well. I knew those four years would likely be the last I'd be playing lacrosse, especially at an elite level. And the way I looked at it, I got to play the sport that I love every day but game day. I tried to always contribute to the team by supporting my teammates and making sure I cheered the loudest and got the underclassmen on the sidelines to join in on cheers.

The lesson that I learned from that was that it's tough to learn that your best isn't enough for someone. It's an objective sport, and no matter how hard you work, your fate is in your coach's hands.

There's one time that I always look back to in my college career that really shaped my work ethic and determination. It was Princeton, and they were our biggest rival, and it was an away game my senior year, and my coach told me that I wasn't going to dress for the game -- which is, as an athlete, pretty much the biggest slap in the face you can receive after putting four years of work into a program. I think that a lot of people would've walked away that day. But I used it as motivation, and I still do. I think back on that whenever I'm in a difficult time.

We had words that describe us written on the back of T-shirts by our captains, and my word was persistence. I knew that my future wasn't going to be playing professional lacrosse and I had so much more to look forward to. But it taught me that just because someone doesn't believe in you, all that truly matters is that you believe in yourself and do what makes you happy.

espnW: What's unique about Penn that's helped you in your professional life?

BS: We have a fantastic community of alumni and have a reputation for excellence. Penn holds its athletes to a very high standard, and there's no favoritism from professors or coaches when it comes to academics. I think that's well-known.

I'm still really involved. I co-chaired our five-year reunion, and I'm still involved in alumni activities in the area I live in now, and it's just incredible to see how far people have come since college. I have friends who have started businesses all over the world, or who are vice presidents at top New York City banks, politicians, you name it. And we all keep in touch and often work together in our professional careers as well and can bridge gaps between major companies with our shared Penn bond. It's a great community to be a part of.

espnW: What advice would you give your college-aged self?

BS: It's a lesson that my parents taught me, and it would be to always believe in myself. I think career-wise, during the second half of my senior year, I was sitting there watching all of my friends get lucrative offers from banks in New York, and I was fairly certain that my internship would result in a job offer, and that I laid the proper groundwork for that to come to fruition in the final week of my internship, but our industry doesn't work like that.

I would find myself comparing myself to friends in a field entirely different from mine. There aren't those slots waiting for recent graduates like there are in banking. After I graduated I went home to Columbus, Ohio, and I was jobless, and I was completely doubting my future and everything I had worked for, and my parents told me to not give up on my dream. They supported me throughout that summer as I continued to pursue jobs in broadcast journalism.

I went to New York with my mom for an interview at ABC News, and I was told that I was a top-three candidate and that if I received an offer, I'd need to start right away. My mom and I looked for an apartment and signed a lease during that trip. We went back to Ohio to pack things up, only to find out that I hadn't received the job.

Here I was, jobless, living in Manhattan, no income, my parents still supported me. And I think it was only three weeks that I was living in the city without a job -- it felt like an eternity. I took up a job as a restaurant hostess to help supplement my parents' contribution to my rent however I could. But then the call finally came from ABC News.

I didn't give up, and that word persistence did pay off.