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How This ‘Goofy Science Teacher’ Made It to the U.S. Open in Golf

All teachers could use some downtime in the summer to relax and recharge for the upcoming school year. High school science teacher and golf coach Colin Prater could probably use more than most.

It’s not just because Prater carries a full class load, plus year-round coaching responsibilities for his high school’s girls’ and boys’ golf teams and the needs of his growing family—in a few weeks, he and his wife will welcome their second child in less than two years. That’s all part of it.

So, too, is the energy that Prater expends as he’s teaching. In his six years in the classroom, the 29-year-old teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been known to stand atop classroom tables and desks to express his excitement about the wonders of the science world, hoping his enthusiasm spreads to his adolescent students. Even when his feet are on the floor, Prater says he works to maintain an energetic, “kinesthetic” vibe in his classroom.

On top of his high-energy balancing act, Prater this spring completed a whirlwind—and successful—bid for a spot in the U.S. Open, one of the world’s most prestigious and historic golf tournaments, known for its rigorous scoring and high prize money (this year’s earnings totaled $21.5 million).

in June, Prater and just 15 other amateur golfers joined 140 pros to compete in this year’s 124th event—a dream come true for a professional golfer, and a near impossibility for an amateur whose primary job leaves little time for improving his golf game. As it turned out, having a finite amount of time to prepare may have inadvertently helped Prater reach the U.S. Open, where he played two rounds.

Prader shared this revelation and others with Education Week mere weeks after achieving the athletic dream of a lifetime. As in his daily life, Prater covered a lot of ground during the conversation: his spontaneous sprint through qualifying tournaments while end-of-year high school events were ticking up, his use of golf metaphors to explain biology principles, his attempts to impart tough lessons to his high school players on the golf course, and his recent efforts—and success—at achieving a balanced perspective on his own golf game. His story has been edited for length and clarity.

Slotting a shot at golf greatness around his teaching and coaching schedule

I hadn’t tried to qualify for the U.S. Open for a couple years. It just didn’t work with my school schedule and everything else. So it was almost on a whim that I went to the first qualifier. That was May 9, outside of Denver. There were 84 golfers, and I had to finish in the top five. I tied for the win and earned one of the five spots to the final qualifier. I’d done that a couple times previously, so that was really nothing new. But I hadn’t really performed very well at the final qualifier in previous years.

This year, I didn’t have a ton of time to work on my game before the final qualifier. I was very lucky in that one of my buddies and I qualified for the U.S Amateur Four-Ball Championship in Philadelphia in late May. I actually missed finals week at school to go. My administration team at school, they were amazing to me. They supported me a ton while I was gone.

Then it was on to the final qualifier in Bend, Ore., on June 3. There were 45 golfers there, and there were two spots, and I got one of them. It was very surreal. I was so, so fortunate to be able to go play in the U.S. Open, and to meet and learn a ton from pro golfers. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What was really, really neat was when I qualified for the U.S. Open and a lot of my former students reached out to me and said things like, “You’re such an inspiration, I remember when you were my goofy science teacher.”

Using golf course metaphors to explain biology principles

I’ve taught biology, chemistry, environmental science, physics, anatomy, and physiology, and next year, I’m teaching a sports medicine class. My No. 1 goal in all of it is to get kids interested in science. So I just try to make it fun and hopefully some of them, like myself, will fall in love with it and will want to pursue it later on in life. But even if they don’t, at least they will have a little bit of background knowledge. When something comes out in the news—for instance, the asteroid that just passed by Earth a couple days ago—at least they kind of know what the heck’s going on.

You want them to be engaged. And, especially with abstract scientific concepts, you have to make it interesting. In biology, we always do a cell analogy project, where we’re talking about the different organelles in a cell and all their functions. I use a golf course analogy. The pro shop is the nucleus, right? Because it controls everything at the golf course, just like the nucleus controls what the cell does. And you can move, obviously, all down the list, like how lysosomes clean up the cell. That’s kind of like the janitorial staff.

I also like to talk about it in terms of ecosystems and ecology, and how the animals within the golf course are relying on the microbes. I talk about the water cycle and how golf courses are really trying to figure out how to use less water, but still, obviously keep the golf course in good shape for the golfers. There’s so many different avenues you can dive down if you really want to.

Coaching: Balancing goals, imparting lessons

Golf is really popular at Cheyenne Mountain High School. We’re definitely one of the high school golf powerhouses in the state. I really like being in the assistant coaching role. Maybe at some point I’d like to take over the program; we’ll see. Right now, my wife’s due with our second daughter in a couple weeks. We’ll have two under 2 for a little while. So for now, I just like being in the assistant role, teaching kids about golf and trying to encourage them to fall in love with the game, just like I did.

Especially with the younger kids on the team, development is huge. We’re really trying to teach them about the game. You’re even trying to teach some life lessons about perseverance, pushing through obstacles. At the same time that you’re trying to improve them as golfers, you’re also trying to improve them as young adults as well. With our top six or seven golfers, we still want to improve, but we also want to go out and win golf tournaments as well. I think it’s all the above—development and competing.

I want my players to do well. But sometimes I have to temper my expectations. Whether one of my players shoots 72 or 100, it’s not going to change how I treat them. It’s not going to change how I coach them. But I want to see them be successful. So it’s definitely a fine line between pushing the players to play better and to work harder and to get better, but at the same time still praising their achievements and, when they play great, making sure to share with them that: “Hey, you’ve done really well, you’ve worked really hard, but the job’s not done. We’ve still got to be engaged, we’ve still got to work hard. We want to play even better.”

Most days, during practice, I’ll get a little practice in as I’m coaching. I might play a game with some of our higher caliber players, or work on fundamentals with other players. I’ll normally stay after practice for a half hour or 40 minutes and work on one aspect of my game, whether it’s hitting short putts or hitting bunker shots—whatever I’ve decided is my goal for the day. My time crunch makes me hyper-focused. I only have so many swings, so many balls, because I need to get home and spend time with my daughter before she goes to bed.

Family brings perspective

I always joke that my daughter doesn’t care whether I shoot 65 or 85. No matter what, I’m going to go home tonight, see her, she’s going to have a smile on her face, we’re going to cuddle, we’re going to laugh and run around together. I’m just so incredibly fortunate to have her and an amazing wife and so much support all around.

It makes playing golf way easier because I don’t think about it nearly as much now as, like a life or death situation, like everything is riding on me playing well. I’m just out there playing and having fun. There are way more important things in life than my golf score.

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