Hidden Heroes: Lindsey Long

Lindsey Long poses for a photo, March 9. 

Christian Royston

Everyone faces adversity at some point in their lives, especially student-athletes.

But how can student-athletes learn to overcome those obstacles and gain essential life skills to help them succeed in the real world?

That’s where Assistant Athletics Director Lindsey Long comes in.

Developing crucial skills has been a major goal for Iowa State’s Student-Athlete and Letterwinner Engagement office since its inception in 2019. By combining the ISU Letterwinners Club with Student-Athlete Affairs, the unit can connect with alumni and help current student-athletes.

The merger was a long time coming and could not have been done without the constant efforts from Long. Throughout her time at Iowa State, from playing soccer for the Cyclones in 1999 to heading up the Student-Athlete and Letterwinner Engagement unit, Long has developed a strong pride for Iowa State and wants to give back.

“How do you take responsibility for your success?” Long said. “You are already doing that in your sport, and you are doing it in the classroom, and if you are not, how do you apply those same strategies into the classroom and life.”

Although Long was a student-athlete, a career in athletics was never her original plan. When the opportunity arose to oversee the Letterwinners Club, she took a chance, and the rest is history.

Long’s Cyclone journey

Praise for Long doesn’t only come from the people she works closely with but also from the students she talks with.

One reason student-athletes feel connected to Long is that she was in their shoes and has lived with the highs and lows that come with being a student-athlete.

“She’s easy to talk to because she’s been in all of our shoes,” track and field javelin alumni Bailey Righi said.

In the fall of 1999, fall sports were just getting underway, and one of those was women’s soccer. Among the incoming freshmen class was a new defensive phenom from Denver, Lindsey Lees. 

Long, who still had Lees as her last name at the time, was recruited to the University of Iowa first before realizing the environment was not for her. However, stepping foot on the Iowa State campus was enough to know that she had found her new home.

“I fell in love with the campus,” Long said. “I fell in love with the team and the culture at that time.”

The transition to college can be hard on freshmen, as being alone in an unfamiliar environment can be scary. Of course, going from the mountainous Denver area to the flat farmlands of Iowa has its own struggles as well. 

Long was homesick throughout her time at Iowa State; she said how much she missed the mountains and, even to this day, still misses her hometown.

“I didn’t understand the social atmosphere,” Long said.” It was a hard acclimation.”

Eventually, she met her husband at Iowa State and built a family in Ames, so although she does miss the big city and the landscape of Colorado, Ames will always have a special place in her heart.

“I appreciate the access and the opportunities that I had growing up in a big city, and I also appreciate the access and the opportunities that a small community offers,” Long said.

Long joined the soccer team while it was still in its early stages of growth. The team was ushered into the Big 12 Conference in 1996, with Long coming in at the tail end of the Cathy Klein era, the team’s first head coach.

Long was a key component to the Cyclones’ success in her first season with the team. As a freshman, she saw quality starts against many tough conference rivals, earning game defensive MVPs for her strong performances against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Going into the next season to start the new millennium, Long was at the peak of her physical ability, and hopes were high for the team to prove how good they were. With a new head coach, Stephanie Gabbert, at the helm, things were looking up.

That would all change in the blink of an eye.

The stands were packed on the opening day of the soccer season. Long took her natural position on defense, ready to play. She loved to tackle, and 1:56 into the first game of the season, she went in for a tackle like she’d done time and time again.

However, this time was different.

Long’s foot got stuck in the paint as another player jumped in to poke at the ball. In that split second, her right ankle was broken, and her season was over.

Facing that level of adversity can be tough, especially at a young age with not many resources to get through the process. That was a large motivator for Long to pursue the opportunity to help those who dealt with similar situations.

“I know what it is like to have everything that you know and you are taken away from you,” Long said. “I didn’t have people in my circle investing in me the way that I feel that we can be investing in the athletes that endure those kinds of levels of adversity.”

After redshirting her injured season, Long would take the field again. A year of painstaking recovery built her up stronger than ever. However, change was coming again. 

In just her third year at Iowa State, she would be playing in the final year of another Cyclone coaching career as Gabbert ended the 2001 season by ushering in a new head coach, Rebecca Hornbacher. It was hard to adapt to constantly changing cultures, but it didn’t stop Long from being named Cyclone MVP in the 2001 and 2003 seasons.

The coaching carousel and the newborn legs of the soccer program proved volatile for a while, and in Long’s time at Iowa State, she played for or worked with every head coach at Iowa State. Long knows how to relate and connect with current students because of the struggles and adversities she overcame in her time at Iowa State.

Although Iowa State soccer presented many challenges, all the people around Long talk about how much she gives back to the program and helps out because of how important it is to her. Student-athlete engagement specialist and close colleague of Long’s, Allye Bodholdt, said how much soccer truly meant to Long.

“She will always have a special place in her heart for soccer and for the Iowa State soccer program,” Boodholdt said.

The road less traveled

Long wasn’t immediately fond of the idea of a sports-related career.

Although sports had been a large part of her life, she was ready to move past the turmoil and challenges she faced and join the workforce.

Marketing was the career path calling Long’s name, as that was what she had studied throughout her time at Iowa State. A majority of her first five years out of college were spent working in fields outside of athletics.

Advertising, marketing, technology and even healthcare provided Long with unique experiences across all the fields to give her more tools in her repertoire. Her experience in technology fields benefited her when she created the database that connects past letter winners with current student-athletes. 

Marketing and advertising helped her develop connections and networking throughout the Ames community. Building life skills that would later become the foundation for the unit she oversaw.

“A lot of those collective experiences have also helped influence things that are maybe unique because it brings an external, corporate concept of a focus to some of our programming and how you make connections,” Long said. “It has also allowed me to be very integral to the business community within Ames.”

Living and working in Ames for a long time allowed her to stay close to her Cyclone roots as well. Soon the gravitational pull from the university would pique her interest yet again.

Long met her husband through Iowa State athletics; he was a track and field athlete competing in the high hurdles. She got married on campus, right under the campanile, with the reception held in the Great Hall. She reminisced about her love of the seasons changing on campus and the welcoming Cyclone community.

“I really have grown fond of the people at Iowa State,” Long said.

Ames was her home, but more importantly, Iowa State was her home. So when the opportunity presented itself to work for Iowa State, she took it in a heartbeat.

It wasn’t the athletics department knocking on her door, however. In 2008, Long started working for Iowa State’s College of Engineering. She worked doing program outreach and was involved with the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) for a while.

It’s a time that she looked back on with fond memories. It seemed that teaching and higher education were something worth pursuing. Long loved connecting with and helping students when she was involved in student programs.

Long spent nearly four years in the College of Engineering and started working on her master’s degree in education, leadership and learning.

She was coaching soccer at the time, and with the birth of her second son, she had a lot on her plate.

“I’ve always been very career-focused. To balance a successful career and a successful family life takes a lot of work,” Long said. “It’s messy, and that’s okay, and I’m learning that it’s okay to talk about the mess.”

And that’s when the call came.

Lindsey was offered a position in the athletics department to oversee the Iowa State Letterwinners Club. She was perfect for the position: past student-athlete, letter winner, strong ties to the community and a passion for helping students.

The ball was now in her court, or rather, in front of her cleats.

Her biggest fans

Although a job in athletics might seem like a perfect fit for a former student-athlete, Long was hesitant. Not only was life extremely busy at the time, but she also wasn’t eager to step back into the world of Cyclone athletics.

Long had come to Iowa State with hopes of contributing to the improvement of the young program. She had great years of success but also faced a lot of turmoil at the same time. 

“I didn’t have the experience that I set out for. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to that, relive that, be faced with that again,” Long said.

She was content with the life she had created. But was there more that she could do to help those around her?

There was an opportunity for her to create change and better the experiences of Iowa State’s student-athletes. Not only that, something was nudging her in the right direction; family.

Family has always been very important to Long, especially her husband, who has been her No. 1 fan since day one. As a former student-athlete himself, he could tell that she missed sports.

“Sports have always been part of my life, and I missed it,” Long said.

One main factor in Long’s decision to head up the Letterwinners Club was how accommodating the athletics department is with life in general. Athletics Director Jamie Pollard has built a department that recognizes the importance of connecting one’s work life and home life. 

Working in athletics meant that Long could involve her family with her work and allow them to join her in her journey. It wouldn’t just be a career for her; it would be a career for everyone.

“What I love is that Jamie has created a family atmosphere of inviting and welcoming your families to take part in your life in college athletics,” Long said.

Taking the leap

A decade ago, the Iowa State Letterwinners Club was very different than it is today. Long took the job in hopes of better connecting with Cyclone alumni and creating strong ties with the past.

The importance of building strong connections with the past is insurmountable.

“It’s important not to forget your past and not to forget the history of your program,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Nick Joos said. “It didn’t just get here overnight. So she’s able to tie the past with the present.”

Many sports at Iowa State have seen major changes over the years as well. Baseball, men’s tennis, gymnastic and swimming and diving have all come and gone, with many alumni still recognized in the hall of fame. It would be easy to forget about the milestones for the smaller sports, but Long’s goal for the Letterwinners Club was always to remember the efforts of past student-athletes.

“People want to be recognized, they want to come back together with their teammates and reminisce about good times,” Joos said.

Not only do they want to be connected, but they also want to give back to the community. Helping the younger generation by being leaders and mentors is very important for alumni.

Big events that Long puts together to celebrate alumni are the All-Sports Reunion and the Hall of Fame ceremony. Both those events help bring recognition to all the sports Iowa State offers.

When asked about the engagement across the reunion weekends, Bodholt said, “Those have been really awesome ways for people to come back and connect across eras, to connect across sports, and it’s been fun to see engagement across those really grow.”

Bodholt started working with Long as an intern when the current unit was two separate units. A lot of focus was put on developing the Letterwinners Club and creating engaging events for student-athletes after leaving Iowa State.

Thanks to the efforts of Long and her staff around her, they have been able to successfully create a welcoming environment for alumni. Bodholt said that the unit does a great job of helping alumni recognize that they are student-athletes for a short period of time, but they remain part of the Cyclone family forever.

“We are all about creating those really memorable experiences for people and helping them to really be able to come back and enjoy and celebrate their time at Iowa State,” Bodholdt said. “Being able to create those connections for people is what makes it so worth it.”

Even though it is very important to recognize the past and keep alumni engaged, for Long, it felt as though the current student-athletes were being left out. She remembered the experience she had at Iowa State and understood how it could be hard to bring back past student-athletes if their time was filled with struggle and hardships.

They had resources set up to help student-athletes in their time at college, but there still seemed to be a gap from life as a student to life after. A bridge needed to be built to connect the two worlds, and Long was the perfect person for the job.

Long said, “Through that process, we would celebrate the traditions, but we really didn’t build relationships with our student-athletes while they were here.”

Time for change

The idea of merging the Student Affairs office with the Letterwinners Club was a long time coming.

For years, Long thought there was a better way of being part of the student-athlete experience. There had to be a way to support them in their transition into school and help them succeed after all is said and done.

Long understands what student-athletes go through and knows the tools that would be most helpful with their success.

“A lot of the things that we are building are the gaps that I experienced in my transition so that it’s become more purposeful,” Long said.

So in 2019, her dream became a reality. 

With the combination of the two original units, Long could now focus on programming classes in a way that helped build essential skills for student-athletes. She could also connect current and past student-athletes much easier.

The unit’s two main focuses are making the students’ transition into college easier and preparing student-athletes for the real world.

“When our student-athletes leave, we want them to be ready to get a job and go into the workforce,” Joos said.

Important skills are built in the new unit to help students in all facets of life. To ease the transition out of college and help them find jobs, they work on resume building, internship hunting and networking.

Long’s years spent building connections in the Ames community help her not only connect students with people they should know but also helps her teach skills that she has developed over the years.

Bodholt was taken under Long’s wing many years ago and has seen how she works and connects with people.

“Her ability to not just network but build meaningful connections and relationships with people is something that I really admire about her,” Bodholt said.

Pushing students out of their comfort zone to build up essential skills is a big piece of the program’s success. Students are able to grow through the program and start networking early in their college careers to pave the way for success later on.

The NCAA has recognized the need for programs to provide better experiences for student-athletes. The students get help in their sport to improve and better themselves, so there also needs to be support for them outside of athletics as well.

Especially with the changing landscapes of college athletes, such as the introduction of NIL deals, it is more important now than ever to gain experience dealing with real-world matters and set the student-athletes up for success.

“Through that experience, we can build those relationships, support self-awareness, personal development, professional development, career exploration and then maintain that connection for when they are done with their college experience,” Long said.

Long also understands the importance of building up those life skills sooner rather than later. There was no one in her corner she could turn to for help with her transition to and from college, which meant she had to figure everything out on her own.

Now she can use her experiences to her advantage. It is more challenging for student-athletes to navigate issues in the real world when they are actually in the real world. 

“How can our student-athletes experience those things while they are in this time that has a bit of a safety net?” Long said.

With how new the unit is, roadblocks were sure to arise sooner or later. However, one massive obstacle presented itself early. 

In less than half a year since the unit’s launch, COVID-19 hit the U.S. and shut down operations for all of Iowa State. For the majority of 2020 and 2021, the unit was fully online.

They didn’t have a dedicated space for the unit to call home, and they couldn’t have face-to-face conversations with the student-athletes. It is easier for everyone involved to connect in person, making the conversations more genuine.

Finally, in late 2021 when the athletics department was back up and running as normal, Long’s unit got a place to call home. The Stark Performance Center was opened and allowed the student-athletes to have a place for themselves.

It is also where the Student-Athlete and Letterwinner Engagement unit moved to. Now with a dedicated space and easy communication access with the student-athletes, the unit could thrive and continue to grow.

“We’re a part of their daily routine, which I think gives us visibility and helps them to realize that we have resources to support them when they are here in addition to when they’ve left Iowa State,” Bodholt said.

This visibility and ease of communication have helped the student-athletes engage more with the program. Connecting with Long and other people in the athletics department would benefit the student-athletes long-term.

The unit could also create a more individualized approach to teaching those skills. Everyone learns differently and comes from different backgrounds; cookie-cutter programs wouldn’t be as effective.

“When something really matters to somebody, the engagement is different,” Long said. “When you see the investment and start taking individual responsibility, it’s not something that’s just being provided to you; it’s taking ownership and being the CEO of you.”

Worth it in the end

Although the unit is still very young, it has seen great success already.

Student-athletes, current and past, have been very receptive to the program that has been put in place. That is largely in part due to Long’s efforts. 

“She’s always coming up with new ideas to improve the experience of the student-athletes,” Righi said.

Long has been working hard to create a program that is inclusive of everyone and grows along with the students. The individualized approach she takes has helped students become not only responsive to the program but to her as well.

Long has always been great at making connections, which helps her build meaningful relationships with all the student-athletes. She can relate to the struggles they deal with and open up to them as well. Being vulnerable has been a challenge for Long, but it has led to more success in the unit.

“Taking a step back and sharing those experiences,” Long said. “I didn’t accomplish what I had set out to achieve here. Some of that was not in my control, but that’s life. So then, how do you take ownership of being successful in other areas?”

She makes sure that she is there for the student-athletes and lends an ear whenever necessary. Most of the time, student-athletes just want someone in their corner.

It is immensely important for the athletes that there is someone that they can turn to that cares about what they say. Someone they can rely on and give them a different view on the issues they might be facing.

“It was nice to have someone in my corner with a different perspective,” Righi said. “The fact that she remembers the stuff that we talk about, that’s good enough for me, but when she follows up on things, that tells me she really cares.”

Student-athletes have the chance to talk with Long outside of the classroom on many occasions. The openness of Student-Athlete Advisory Committee meetings and letter-winner events allows her to connect with students from every era.

Often, when student-athletes turn to someone to get help or talk about problems, it is in one ear and out the other. It can be hard to find someone that will take the time to listen and understand.

However, Long does genuinely care about the student-athletes. The whole unit gains more success when the people in charge are open to hearing and understanding what happens in student-athletes’ lives.

Long can help provide resources to student-athletes when she knows what resources they need. She is able to be successful in her position because she follows up with the success of those resources and provides ideas for more skills the student-athletes can hone.

“She’s an amazing individual, and she really cares about people, and I think that’s what helps make her so good at what she does,” Bodholt said.

When talking about how student-athletes talk about how it feels as though she cares about them, Long said, “I do. I genuinely do. I didn’t feel like I had those people in my life.”

The journey to where Long and the unit are now was not easy. Long has spent over 20 years in Ames, with over a decade spent making waves in the athletics department.

The Iowa State she knew when she was in school has long since vanished and heeded way to a new, better version of the Cyclone community. All the adversity she faced in her life has made her stronger and given her a strong passion for the work she does now.

For Long, the vision was always there. She wanted to help student-athletes on their journey because she was in their shoes. When that opportunity to help presented itself, she seized it without a second thought.

“I found my purpose in athletics of being able to connect the opportunities that I pursued outside of athletics,” Long said. 

“I took a chance, and I’ve been able to mold and evolve the unit into something that has become incredibly meaningful.”