By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director
SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University student-athlete Gunnar Lee is skilled at balancing his academic and athletic endeavors. He's able to schedule his day in advance … he attends his classes, studies, finds time for a workout in the fitness center and practices.
So, when he realized that his efforts to complete a double major in chemistry (biochemistry track) and Japanese would put extra demands on him as a senior, he decided to focus on biochemistry in his fourth year and stay for a fifth year to complete his major in Japanese. He has left the men's tennis team for one season and will rejoin the squad next year.
"The senior year in biochemistry is really intense," Lee noted. "So I'm going to sit out a year before I have my senior year in tennis."
In addition to completing the requirements in biochemistry this year, Lee will be working on his senior thesis to complete the major. He'll work on his second thesis – for his Japanese major – in 2016-17.
Lee's decision-making regarding his double major seems good. Even so, it means he won't be a member of the Willamette men's tennis team this year.
"I pretty much have been playing tennis since I was 11," Lee said. "It's definitely going to be weird."
He won't be able to practice with the team or to take on outside competition. He'll be a spectator when he attends Willamette's tennis matches.
"I identify myself as an athlete. It's going to be pretty hard," Lee said. "Hopefully, that will make me want even more to put my tennis shirt on during my fifth year."
In addition to being organized, Lee also is great at being prepared as a member of the tennis team. He has led by example, keeping himself in shape even during the offseason.
"He's the one who comes in already in shape to play tennis," Willamette Head Coach Rick Wood said. "He's so much better on the court because of his off-court workout regimen. To play tennis at his level you've got to be in the best shape of your life. I've never had to tell Gunnar that. It's been great to have him as a role model."
Lee played mostly #1 singles and #1 doubles for the Bearcats during the 2014-15 season. Wood has to move on without Lee this year, but will be able to welcome him back to the team next fall.
"I just admire that he has a plan," Wood said. "He's got it all planned out. I think it's awesome … this is his life, this is his career. I'm just so thankful that I'll have him back for another year."
Lee almost didn't attend Willamette or play tennis in college. The parents of former Willamette men's tennis player Josh Wong ('13), played a key role.
During Lee's junior year at St. Joseph School in Hilo, Hawaii, he joined other St. Joseph students on a short field trip to a college fair. Josh's parents, Johnny and Kui Wong, were representing Willamette at the college fair.
"They're crazy hospitable," Lee said. "They're known throughout the tennis community in Hawaii … no matter what island you're on."
Johnny spoke with Lee about attending Willamette and encouraged him to play tennis. Lee took his advice and chose to join the Bearcats in the fall of 2012. Lee and Josh Wong were both on the tennis team for the 2012-13 season. Johnny, who attended his son's graduation in the spring of 2013, has since passed away.
Johnny left behind a big impression on many people, including Lee.
"I probably wouldn't have been playing tennis if it wasn't for him," Lee said. "He really helped me make my decision."
When Lee first arrived at Willamette, he was very nervous about attending his first class, which was in mathematics. In high school, he was in a graduating class of just 20 students.
Although Willamette is a small college with about 2,000 students, Lee remembered that "it didn't feel that small. To me, it felt gigantic."
A bit apprehensive, he entered the classroom.
"I sat down," Lee recalled. "The class was almost the same size as the class would have been at my high school. I felt at ease pretty quickly and everyone was very friendly. It felt like home even though I was across the Pacific."
Soon, Lee began work on his chemistry major. His plans are to continue his education after he graduates to pursue a career as a doctor.
"My dad's a doctor," Lee noted. "And he has a lot of friends who are doctors. I've always wanted a job where I could help people."
Working toward a chemistry major has been a key part of Lee's time as an undergraduate. He's had a tremendous experience with professors and students. He's developed an appreciation for his professors after taking at least two classes with most of them.
His desire to add a major in Japanese was strengthened after he served as a teaching assistant in Japan during the summer of 2014 following his sophomore year at Willamette. He taught English.
It ranks number one for me (among his college experiences) … Just to go abroad and use a language that I was learning. It obviously was very fulfilling," Lee said. "The classroom that I helped teach was an immersion classroom. We only spoke English. Being in Japan, it was like I had done two more years of Japanese studies."
On the tennis court, Lee has played in 48 matches during his three seasons with the Bearcats, including all 18 matches this past season. He has been chosen as an Intercollegiate Tennis Association Scholar-Athlete all three years. In order to receive the ITA Scholar-Athlete Award, a tennis player must earn at least a 3.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale during the academic year.
"I see his schedule and I see his grade point average … Wow!," Wood said. "It's just impressive …it can be done. Gunnar's doing it."
After so many years playing tennis at both the high school and college levels, Lee has to adjust to not being a team member this year. Even so, he'll find time to hit on his own and keep himself in shape. Still, it will be a difficult experience for him. Two members of the team – Samuel Wexman and Blake are seniors this year.
"It's hard knowing that they will be going through their senior season and I'll be graduating without them," Lee said. "That's a little bit sad. But I'm still 100% certain about my decision."
His confidence seems justified since he's spent the last three years doing a great job of organizing his time both as an athlete and as a student.
"I really want to pursue the Japanese major, play tennis and get the most I can out of my experience at Willamette," Lee confirmed.
"He's that perfect Division III student-athlete," Wood commented. "He balances everything so well. He'll definitely come back as a team captain. His tennis skills will not diminish. He'll hit on his own. I want him to come back and finish his legacy and be glad he made that decision."