Washington Week

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The Backup Career: Not quite Olympic athletes turned politicians

By Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellow

Decades before winning the White House, President Barack Obama had a different dream: to become a professional basketball player. After working his way up through the ranks of his high school basketball team to eventually play varsity, Obama wrote in the yearbook of a classmate who wanted to become a lawyer, "Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Some day when I am an all-pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I’ll call on you."

These days, Obama is happy to cheer on professional athletes, like the Olympians of Team USA, from the sidelines, having put dreams of athletic fame to rest. Other politicians also put away their basketball jerseys, football helmets or boxing gloves before competing at the ballot box. While they may have never been skilled enough to compete on the Olympic stage, here are eight other politicians with athletic pasts:

1. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: Fifty years before getting knocked out in the 2008 presidential election, McCain bobbed and weaved in the boxing ring of the U.S. Naval Academy. He was not the strongest, even for the lightweight competition, at 127 pounds, but, as one teammate said, "He was not the most skilled, but he was the most feared ... He never gave up."

2. Vice President Joe Biden: Biden was a standout receiver for his high school football team long before he showed any political chops. As his high school coach said of the future senator and vice president, "He was a skinny kid, but he was one of the best pass receivers I had in 16 years as a coach." Biden went on to play football briefly for the University of Delaware before moving on to law school and finding his calling in politics.

3. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.:
Ayotte now fights for the best interest of New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate, but as a college student, she fought for victory in New Hampshire’s official state sport: skiing. Ayotte participated as a competitive skier at Penn State before getting her law degree from Villanova and eventually returning to her home state to begin her political career.

4. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:
In college, Gillibrand felt much more comfortable on her squash team than with the political junkies: "I'd gone to one or two young Democratic events, and interestingly, it was almost all male -- and all of the men were very aggressive. And so I didn't really feel like I fit in." Instead, Gillibrand became one of her squash team’s co-captains and, years later, the envy of those young Democrats when she became New York’s senator.

5. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:
Booker has joked on Twitter that he "got into Stanford because of a 4.0 and 1600": 4.0 yards per carry and 1600 receiving yards in football. The New Jersey senator attended Stanford on a football scholarship, but his academics were not too shabby either. Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he earned an honors degree in history, before getting his law degree from Yale and entering New Jersey politics.

6. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:
According to his yearbook, Ryan was involved in a bit of everything in high school: from Latin Club to the International Geographic Society to the varsity soccer team. But the House Speaker probably does not recall many glory days from his soccer experience; the team went 5-9-3 his senior year. 

7. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii:
Growing up in Hawaii with three older brothers, Gabbard got used to "always competing in one way or another." That background has helped her serving as a woman, not to mention the first Hindu, in Congress, but it has also benefitted her as a surfer. As she told Vogue in 2013, "Every time I get home for a district work week, I make sure I get out on the water a couple of times for an early-morning session. It recharges the batteries." Gabbard even combined her two passions of politics and surfing in March, when she cut a campaign ad for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that showed her riding the waves.

8. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: Even the former presidential candidate has some athletic skills. Before becoming a senator from Vermont and even before his days as the mayor of Burlington, Sanders was best known for his mid-range jump shot and strategic elbows in pickup basketball games at St. Anthony’s Gym. His teammates may have even helped him secure his razor-thin mayoral victory -- just 10 votes. As fellow player Brian Doubleday said in February, "I bet there were 10 of us who lived within the city limits of Burlington. I can think of seven of them off the top of my head and we were all for Bernie. I can really see it."

Barack Obama [high school yearbook]
John McCain [U.S. Naval Academy]
Joe Biden [Getty Images]
Kelly Ayotte [Facebook]
Kirsten Gillibrand [Dartmouth College]
Cory Booker [Facebook]
Paul Ryan [Craig High School yearbook]
Tulsi Gabbard [Facebook]