Drexel Nutrition Students 'Jump In' at the 2017 World University Games in Taiwan

Fiona Pelly, PhD, director of nutrition of the World University Games is discussing food quality with Drexel's Nyree Dardarian and Coco Ellis.
Fiona Pelly, PhD, director of nutrition of the World University Games, is discussing food quality with Drexel's Nyree Dardarian, left, and Coco Ellis, center.

Drexel University’s Department of Nutrition Sciences is currently fueling the USA team during the 29th World University Summer Games (WUG) held in Taipei, Taiwan from Aug. 19–30. With 7,700 student-athletes from 131 countries competing in 22 sports, it is the second-largest multisport event on the globe — only the Olympics are bigger.

Team USA is represented by over 400 student-athletes from more than 70 NCAA teams to showcase their talents on a world stage. Team Drexel Nutrition, which is providing nutrition guidance for the American athletes, is led by four Drexel graduate students and University faculty from the College of Nursing & Health Professions.

On the front lines, graduate students Coco Ellis ’17, Leah Tsui ’17, Kylie McKenzie ’18 and Kira Sy ’18 work around the clock to keep the Games going — something they have prepared to do for over a year . Every day during the Games, these Dragons assist in the athletic training room and in the athletes’ village dining hall. They are gaining valuable experience in working with world class athletes, learning about large scale food delivery systems within a sports context and getting a behind the scene look of an Olympic-size sporting event.

Of course, learning by doing is one of Drexel’s pedagogic staples, and it fits well with the WUG.

Stella Volpe, PhD, chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, encourages Drexel’s involvement with the Games, stating that, “the amazing work Dardarian and her team does, extends throughout the entire world, and will continue, since she has been asked to be the USA team's sports dietitian again in the 2019 Games.”

Drexel nutrition intern Leah Tsui checking out the stacked carbohydrate plate of a member of the Italian men's soccer team at the athletes village dining hall.

The students not only live in the athletes’ village — they also have gotten to know the athletes and occasionally attend events to cheer for them.

“I am grateful for the opportunity I have been given to not only represent the USA team, but also Drexel University,” said Ellis. “Drexel stands out from other universities due to the emphasis they place on experiential learning.”

Overseas and on the job, the students have gotten a taste of that experiential learning when working with the athletes from all different backgrounds.

“There are vast differences in nutritional knowledge that the athletes competing here have,” said Ellis. “Not only does it vary between countries, but also within countries, and even within specific sports.”

One of the most interesting facts is that the Taiwanese do not know much about food allergies. Accurately labeling foods with nutrition information including allergens is one of the most difficult tasks, since the information is simply not available. Neither are gluten-free foods. A small table with five boxes of gluten-free cereal are controlled for distribution to athletes diagnosed with celiac disease.

Drexel's 6'2" Tess Kracíková, representing the Czech National women's basketball team, is seen here competing against Team USA at the World University Games.

“It is eye-opening to see what foods athletes are familiar with, and what new foods they are willing to try in a new place,” said Tsui. “The athletes at this level know good nutrition is essential to their performance, so it is interesting to see how they fill up their plates! As part of the research we've been able to do here, we take pictures of athletes' plates to see how they're fueling for a game or recovering from a workout.”

Surprisingly, or maybe not, popcorn chicken is the most popular food item among the athletes. Another “nugget” of the Games for the Drexel students were 16-hour flights to travel to Taiwan and a 12-hour time difference.

The WUG also have a Drexel “feel” on the courts and fields. Drexel University junior and member of the Dragons women’s basketball team Tess Kracikova is representing the Czech Republic. Eve Badana, a graduate student and former Drexel women’s soccer goaltender, returned to the games to compete for Ireland.

Nyree Dardarian is an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and director of the Center for Nutrition & Performance at Drexel University. She is also the team sports nutritionist for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Philadelphia Union.