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One of only four student-athletes in Nebraska athletic history to achieve first-team Academic All-America status at least three times, Karen Jennings is well into her life journey. The 1993 Margaret Wade Trophy winner for the Nation’s Outstanding Women’s College Basketball Player, Jennings jettisoned her first career as a physical therapist to become one of Omaha’s top-producing realtors. In 10 years, she plans to launch a third career in motivational speaking. Because she played one year of professional basketball in France, some might say motivational speaking would be Jennings' fourth career, but for all intents and purposes, she always has been able to focus strategically on life after basketball.
And here’s the interesting thing about that. She’s more than auditioned for the job. She has, in fact, simulated a launch with a fairly aggressive training program that enables some dabbling in that “future” third career. This past weekend, for example, Jennings was one of nine outstanding alumni who returned to UNL to share their experiences and knowledge with students as part of Alumni Masters Week. A two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year for women’s Division I basketball schools, Jennings was hosted by the Athletic Department.
She made six speeches in two days, addressing: 1) the Nebraska men’s and women’s golf teams; 2) the Husker softball team that qualified for the 2013 Women’s College World Series; 3) a class of Athletic Trainers; 4) UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences, the school in which she earned her degree in Exercise Sciences; 5) a group of academic and career advisors from several UNL colleges; and 6) an elite group of 30 UNL student ambassadors who encourage students already on campus and recruit others who are considering Lincoln as a competitive choice.
Fundamentals to Succeed Similar in All Three Areas
Since her weekend also included being honored as one of Nebraska’s top-tier Academic All-Americans, I asked Jennings why six speeches in two days aren’t considered motivational speaking now. She smiled and confessed that her speeches are geared to reflect Nebraska’s culture and inspire those who embrace that culture. “The fundamentals I learned in college are related to the fundamentals required to succeed in business and in life,” she told me. “We were pushed to a higher level at the University of Nebraska. We were pushed on the court, and we were pushed academically to be the best of the best – the creme de la creme, so we learned to expect that as we transitioned into our lives. We carry that burning fire and that burning flame that we got first from the University of Nebraska.
Such passion enables Jennings to stand firm and commit daily to what she has decided it takes to be the best. “Once you’re committed, you start your business plan or set your goals for your sport,” she said. “Whatever it is, it’s the same philosophy of pushing forward. It’s just like it is in basketball. You have to follow through with hard work in everything you do. When I talked to the softball team, I told them that we still spell success the same way we spelled it when I was here – W-O-R-K! There is no way to succeed at the highest levels without that, and we all know it.”
Jennings certainly followed through on her commitments to become one of only three Huskers who have been inducted the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame (football players Dave Rimington and Pat Tyrance are the other two). She was also a Kodak first-team All-American and earned the 1993 Big Eight Conference Female Athlete of the Year distinction. And let’s not forget that Jennings, a 6-foot-2 forward from Persia, Iowa, also was named captain of Nebraska’s All-Century Team.
Edwards: Softball Team Was Hanging on Every Word
Anyone who wants to measure the impact of a Karen Jennings speech should talk to Taylor Edwards, a first-team All-Big Ten catcher on Nebraska’s 2013 College World Series softball team. Edwards had no idea that Jennings had earned so many national honors. But the senior from Murrieta, Calif., describes Jennings as a motivational speaker who’s way ahead of her own timetable. “She had our whole team hanging on every word,” Edwards said. “Basically, she told us that life is full of opportunities, and you have to work hard each and every day to succeed in anything you do. She talked about fundamentals in sports, in the work place, in family, her husband, her daughter, everywhere. I think our whole team took a piece of what she was telling us. She also stressed how we need to be students first. When you put school before anything else, everything falls into place.”
Nebraska Head Softball Coach Rhonda Revelle preaches the same values. “We really enjoyed Karen and her blue collar approach to SUCCESS…it is called W.O.R.K.,” she said while agreeing that extraordinary results require extraordinary effort. Jennings believes that if you’re asked to do something two times a week, make it three times. “If you’re supposed to practice the piano 20 minutes, practice 30,” Jennings said, acknowledging how her 8-year-old daughter now sets her own above-and-beyond goals without being asked because extra effort has become second nature.
Sitting near a fireplace in a quiet Student Life Complex late last Friday afternoon, I asked Jennings to compare the current surroundings with her own environs from two decades ago. “This environment exudes excellence,” she said. “It shows that we’re trying to improve and get better every day. When I played, I thought what we had was great. I appreciated it and I loved it. I thought it was plush and posh, but this place is night and day better than what we had."
Some Things Change; One Thing Always Stays the Same
“It shows we’re committed more to the times, and this is what it takes to compete in the Big Ten, which is probably the best academic conference in the entire country,” Jennings said. “We were always at the forefront of the country, and we still are, but this … this raises us to a completely different level to help everyone succeed. The environment has changed. Technology has changed. Our facilities are more modern and more upscale, but the most important thing of all has not changed – our attitude. At Nebraska, we’ve always known and will never forget what it takes to succeed.” Indeed ... a four-letter word, W-O-R-K, describes a seven-letter level of achievement – S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Ten years from now, when Jennings plans to become a motivational speaker with at least some measure of national prominence, she will talk about the benefits of hard work and explain why that fundamental fact will remain an important part of her overall message.
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