By Tray Littlefield
Georgia Sports Communications
ATHENS, Ga. — Grant Norgan wasn’t sure what to expect in his final meeting with legendary coach Jack Bauerle.
The Houston, Texas native and accomplished freestyle swimmer had just put the finishing touches on his college career, but first he needed to catch up with his coach. It was an end-of- year get-together Norgan will not soon forget.
“One thing I will always remember is he looked at me and was just like ‘we are not the same as we were when you came here. This team is so much better because of you and your impact on all of us.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
It might sound like routine coach speak or praise, but not for Norgan. As a student-athlete and member of the LGBTQ community, making a decision about where to attend college came with some concern, mostly about acceptance and his role with the team.
Norgan had one question he wanted answered most of all – will I be able to make a difference? Fast forward three years, and his coach had delivered the final verdict.
“I did not realize that I would love a University like this,” Norgan said. “There is not a single person on this campus that, when my time in Athens is up, I am not going to keep in contact with. I love every single person. The alumni connection is incredible. I had such a great time and such an amazing experience that, literally, I don’t think I am ready to go.”
Norgan is part of a diverse student-athlete population at the University of Georgia. It’s a group full of unique backgrounds and stories.
“Being an athlete, especially at Georgia, has opened up so many doors. It has brought me friendships. It brought me a second family and a new perspective on life.”
Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the University of Georgia Athletic Association made a commitment to all athletes – when it comes to social and racial injustices, we hear you, we are here for you and we want to help inspire change.
Last December, Georgia appointed Dr. Courtney Gay to lead in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. During her time in Athens, Gay has witnessed inspired student-athletes who are making a difference.
The Bulldogs created and led in several community service projects, including Dawgs for Pups that raised close to $100,000 toward WiFi hotspots for Clarke County students, generated more than 27,000 pounds of food donations and provided numerous coats for children.
“As an athletic department, we have truly leaned on one another to navigate all that the past year has entailed, including the pandemic and the social issues facing our country,” Gay said. “Our student-athletes, coaches, and staff have come together to reflect, listen, and engage in critical dialogue as we have collectively sought ways that we can take action to effect change. Our student-athletes have been especially passionate about finding ways to make a meaningful impact, and we are tremendously proud of their efforts to utilize their platform to inspire change.”
One of the change makers is GymDog Alyssa Perez-Lugones. She saw 2020 as a time to serve as a positive influence for teammates going through difficult times.
“I saw my role as a supporter,” Perez-Lugones said. “We had a girl on our team, Sterlyn Austin. She has this amazing voice, and what she has to say is so strong and powerful. She would tell me ‘hey, you know I am getting a little exhausted,’ and I would sit there and say no if you want things to change you have to use your voice. I know it is exhausting, but you have to keep going, you have to use your voice. So, I would say, I’m a driver – I want to drive people to keep pushing, keep going and be that positive force.”
Another role model is women’s basketball senior Mikayla Coombs. The Buford, Ga., native was the only student-athlete in the country appointed to the NCAA women’s basketball competition committee and, alongside football standout Kearis Jackson, served on the Southeastern Conference Council on Racial Equity and Social Justice.
Coombs played a pivotal role in the Georgia Way’s initiative in making sure each student-athlete was registered to vote during the 2020 election. She also led in countless efforts with head coach Joni Taylor and her team, including the water bottle drive for the Boys and Girls Club of Athens, donating Christmas gifts to children at Stroud Elementary and taking in food donations for The Cottage of Athens Sexual Assault Center.
“Honestly, it has been really eye-opening, making a difference in your community,” Coombs noted. “I think student-athletes have always realized that we have a platform, just based off doing different social media videos for different issues, but I don’t think we realized that we had this type of platform, where we can actually commit to change around our community. It really showed me how strong our platform is.”
Whether it has been serving on panels, taking part in social and racial justice movements, leading virtual town halls and education courses, or simply lending a listening ear, Georgia student-athletes have been at the forefront of effecting change.
While this year has been a step in the right direction in so many ways, there is still a long way to go. Perez-Lugones put it best: “I think it would be naïve of us to say that we were perfect, because we are not, and that is completely ok. As long as the conversation continues and we actually start putting actions into what we are saying and what we are wanting to do, then we can say that we are getting there.”
Last June, the UGA Athletic Association released a statement in which we promised to ‘challenge every construct the Association was built on,’ and to be a ‘better support for students and staff.’ Over the last 12 months, all in the Bulldog family – student-athletes, coaches, supporters and fans – have come together to make a difference.
As those like Perez-Lugones, Norgan, Coombs and so many others continue to educate and influence our communities, it’s clear Coach Bauerle had it right – we are all better because of them; we are all better because of the entire Bulldog Nation.