One of Gene's stated goals in the first half of the novel is to become the top student in his class. Only one student is ahead of him in grade point average and Gene feels that if he applies himself fully he will be able to overtake that student to become the head of the class.
Gene sets this goal for himself as part of a natural ambition and will to suceed and also as a way to compete with Finny. Finny is a gifted athlete and a special, fearless and charming person. Gene recognizes this.
Finny achieves "certain feats as an athlete".
Unable to compete with Finny is this area, Gene chooses to prove himself in the academic field.