by Robert Sullivan
Robert Sullivan, a longtime veteran of Time Inc. magazines, has contributed to SwimSwam’s website in in recent years. Beginning in the 1980s, he covered—for Sports Illustrated, Time, and LIFE magazines—nine Olympics. He has also written several books including Flight of the Reindeer. He is currently working on a sequel to that story as well as a sports-themed novel for middle-schoolers entitled Mercy Rules.
The college I attended was, way back when I was there, very old. It’s even older today; in fact, it’s turning 250.
As you might imagine of such a hallowed and august (let’s not think “geriatric”) institution, the place was, in the early 1970s, thoroughly old school in its mores and methods. It was also, however, Division One — and still is. Therefore, to compete athletically now (which it does pretty well), the college has needed to throw off its dusty old-school cloak and get down to some serious new-age recruiting of 24/7 semipro athletes.
Since our college is choosing to celebrate its sestercentennial with great fanfare, it has produced, among many other things, an historical coffee-table book. A while ago, this tome’s editors, both of whom are friends of mine, called and asked if I’d chip in with a piece on sports. Sure, I said. What to write about? we wondered.
“Didn’t you play tennis?” I was asked.
“Well,” I said, “I was on the team. But that was back in the day…”
The theme we agreed upon was, in short, The Death of the Walk-On.
A few excerpts: “When I walked on, ‘walk-on’ was not yet an archaic term. Walk-ons were just regular people; you might pass them on the Green on the way to class. I walked on to the freshman tennis team, which was a thrill for me if not necessarily for the coaches who, per standards of the time, had welcomed such as me to walk on.
“That quaint scenario, seemingly out of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days,’ doesn’t exist anymore. Our school and the others in its league are ‘D-one.’ I put that in quotes because no one says ‘Division One’ but talks about ‘D-one’ and ‘D-three,’ in shorthand. All is thereby understood. The even shorter shorthand is ‘D1’ and ‘D3.’
“I saw the inescapable future on the horizon not long after I graduated and began working at Sports Illustrated, where one of my beats was the NCAA and where an annual assignment was its annual convention, where university presidents always caved, having been beaten to a pulp by beefy university ADs (athletic directors). Big-time sports, which is to say D1, were increasingly becoming a full-time job for athletes, and ADs were becoming the most powerful figures on campus. One story I covered in the 1980s saw the president at a renowned school of higher education fire his AD for proven crimes and misdemeanors on a Friday, then being summoned to appear before an emergency session of the Board of Trustees on Saturday, whereat he himself was canned while the AD was reinstated. The football team was doing well. (And, I see, it continues to).”
Now, this isn’t just about big-time football anymore — it’s about hoops and tennis and, as you well know, swimming. (It’s probably about chess and robotics, too.) The unfair advantages and increasingly infamous problems of D1 try to hide, none too effectively, in the nooks and crannies of any D1 athletic or admissions building. Basketball’s one-and-out or two-and-out argument is merely one sport’s math. Prospective D1 hockey players are now asked (told) to spend a year in Canada’s junior leagues to toughen up before matriculating. My former woebegone tennis team is terrific these days; it vigorously competes for the league title each year and often qualifies for the NCAA Tournament. But a kid with my marginal talent, from a non-tennis-hotbed like Massachusetts, would not be allowed to walk on the court, never mind walk on to the team. Last year, there were seven foreign players on the roster.
In the past year and a half I have seen the new order in swimming firsthand rather than as an abstraction. Our son is named Jack (photo right). He’s talented by most estimations. As a high schooler in New York state, he was co-captain of his successful winter team, the Marlins, and of his sectional champ school team, the Quakers.
Jack and his parents realized that, diligent as he was, if there was to be anything further in his swimming “career,” it would be in D3, not D1. He might be able to contribute to a D3 team with his times. D1 coaches would see those numbers as nice for a D3 swimmer.
One day during Jack’s admissions season, we were visiting a New England Small College Athletic Conference school, which is to say among the Williams/Hamilton/Colby crowd in the Northeast. At the beginning of our campus tour, each guide recited their brief biography. Jack and I accompanied a bright young woman because she was on the swim team. At tour’s end, I bothered to ask, privately, “Can swimmers walk on here?” She understood the term and demurred politely: “I think we’ve had a walk-on since I’ve been here…”
This was from a D3 athlete. I said to myself: Wow, it’s gotten that tough.
To very briefly restate and embellish: As we know, a zillion kids worldwide are recruited now for every team in every division, from Harvard’s finagling fencing team to Stanford’s swamped sailing squad. Parents in our neck of the woods are ferocious, contacting coaches first, admissions departments second.
If you’re a parent, you know all of this, and there’s no sense beating this dead horse any longer. If we (or the courts) fix what’s crummy today, then someone is bound to find a way around the fix by nightfall.
But back to Jack. Unbeknownst to me when I talked to the pleasant young NESCAC woman about walking on, Jack was already being recruited in a semiformal fashion. He had, without especial zeal but because it was expected, joined the online info mill that grinds times into grist for college coaches. Jack was in touch with a young man who was diving into his inaugural season at Hamilton College, hoping to build a unit that could climb from NESCAC’s basement. Jack liked this coach instantly but told him honestly, “Don’t waste a recruiting visit on me. I don’t want swimming to color where I might choose.” And on and on, as young folk go on and on.
So Jack, on his own, winds up choosing Hamilton after all, and my wife, Luci, and I deliver him to the sublime upstate campus. He’s to live in a quad known as the Fishbowl for its array of large, soon-to-be-grimy windows, with three also large, very polite, obviously friendly roommates — recruits on the football, basketball, and soccer teams who will see varsity action in their first seasons. Luci and I, after being introduced to the Fishbowl and its new tenants, reached two quick conclusions: One, the caloric intake of the Fishbowl will be absolutely astonishing, and two, the Fishbowl is destined to become Party Central for Dunham’s first-years (as soon as the parents go home).
Jack’s the only non-jock in the quad, and for the moment he’s OK with this. He is, in his mind, the recently retired athlete who will now, in his tranquil but serious-minded next act, continue the noble pursuit of book-learning. He may take up pipe-smoking.
But Hamilton has several old-school traditions still in place. One maintains that Hamilton doesn’t want its newest students to die by drowning. Before convocation, everyone this side of swim-team recruits must pass a test in the pool — 25 or 50 yards, something like that — or enroll in swim lessons with the PE program. As you know, winter swimmers cannot camouflage their strokes; they are who they’ve become. So Jack very rapidly passes his test. Monitoring on the deck is the team’s coach, and he beckons Jack: Who are you?
Jack tells the coach, John Geissinger, that actually they’ve spoken before and that now here he is, by choice and by chance, at Hamilton. The coach expresses enthusiasm and lays out his vision. Jack doesn’t really need much swaying — it’s nice to be wanted, after all — and he becomes what, in the modern age, is a gravely endangered rara piscis: the walk-on.
The big difference between D1 and D3 athletics is that one of them is not supposed to be a profession. Furthermore, NESCAC schools are often called the Little Ivies principally because the confederation harbors precious attitudes about affairs such as education and, under that umbrella, athletic pursuits. All playing fields are part of the school, but the school is there for schooling. Because of this, Hamilton was perfect for Jack, the inspiring John Geissinger was the perfect coach for Jack, and Jack’s first year at school, including his time with the team, would progress something close to perfectly.
Nevertheless, even in D3 Jack found himself working harder than he ever had in pursuit of higher grades and lower times. The Continentals swimmers, though lowly regarded within NESCAC, were asked to churn stronger and longer than Jack’s Quakers or Marlins ever had. The winter training trip in Florida, when Coach Geissinger didn’t have to worry about any upcoming midterms, laid the Hamilton boys and girls to waste.
Not long after the kids returned north, I was chatting with the dad of one of Jack’s teammates. “Alex came back dead,” the man said. “He lost 10 pounds. I sent him a care package from Murray’s Cheese Shop.”
I thought: How very great! I hadn’t thought about Murray’s since Luci and I were living in the Village and used to be big-time cheeseheads. I also thought: I’ll bet D1 swim teams, with their salaried nutritionists, don’t allow parents to fatten kids up with happiness from Murray’s. I called Murray’s myself that night and placed an order.
Luci and I first saw the team compete (and win) over at Wesleyan in Connecticut. I was impressed with how strong the swimmers all seemed on the deck. D3 physiques — heights and weights — are often not equal with D1’s, but fitness levels are. That evening, Jack reported to us, over a large steak, that the team was improving. He said the training trip had been worth it. He was very glad he had stuck with his sport.
He slumped, as several teammates did, during Hamilton’s academic finals season, then tapered and shaved as Championships approached. They were held at Middlebury, which has a facility that many D1 programs would envy. Luci; Jack’s twin, Mary Grace; our springer spaniel, Lulu; and I piled into our ages-old minivan, which has rested in the parking lots of more natatoriums than I could possibly count, and headed north to Vermont.
Jack let us know there were certain rules: Only on Saturday could the swimmers dine with their parents, there was a curfew at the hotel, and so on. These were sound edicts, more modest than what you’d find in the strict segregation of D1, what with its training tables and all that, but firmly expressed by the coaches. Alex’s parents approached Coach Geissinger to see if we adults might host the boys at a bonding lunch, and he said sure. Could it be on Sunday afternoon, after the meet ends? Absolutely.
I thought back to the tailgate lunches that my mom used to make for the tennis team when we competed in Boston, back when D1 was not unlike today’s D3.
During the meet it became clear that NESCAC men’s swimming is tiered, as a lot of sports leagues are. On this weekend, the Continentals competed well and emerged from the cellar they had occupied 12 months earlier. Some of the boys enjoyed performances they had hoped for, while others didn’t; it’s just the way things go in sports. The underclass swimmers left Middlebury hoping for continued improvement next year, perhaps a leap into NESCAC’s mid-level. Coach Geissinger supported the notion with characteristic optimism.
NESCAC swimming’s Yanks and Sox seemed to be Williams (the Ephs won by a hair this year) and Tufts (the Jumbos won by a hair in 2018). (“Yes,” my friend and former colleague Steve Wulf wrote resignedly in reminiscing about his own son John, who played baseball at Hamilton, “NESCAC teams have some strange nicknames.”) The Tufts team featured the meet’s best swimmer, junior Roger Gu of Ashland, Massachusetts, who dominated the sprint free events. Consider that he would go on after the Championships to become the first Jumbo in 37 years to win an NCAA swim title by busting a 19.49 in the 50 free, meanwhile coming in second in the 100, with 43.70. He would go on from that to a 23.12 in a long course 50, thus becoming his school’s first Olympic Trials qualifier. So shortly after graduating in Boston next spring, he’ll compete in Omaha.
The point is: Roger Gu could have swum at whatever college in whatever country in whichever division he wanted. He chose Tufts and D3. I’m sure a lot of intangibles factored into Gu’s decision-making. But this piece isn’t really about Roger Gu.
Or maybe it is.
Well, as once poetically expressed by Bill Bradley when roaming the spheres of a basketball court in Princeton, New Jersey, his movements metaphorically interpreted by his Boswell and fellow Tiger, the writer John McPhee: It’s about a sense of where you are. It’s about where you hope to be.
I was moved to get these ruminations down by a small squall of coincidences that, in my head at least, swirled around the eye of a somewhat amorphous subject. To me, suddenly, everything I was reading or hearing about seemed to concern old school versus new school, fields and classrooms, pressure and sanity, pros and amateurs, values and choices, young people like Jack and young people unlike him. Maybe this info onrush started with the admissions scandal, but I don’t think so. It was a few other things that, taken as a triad, presented themselves in sequence.
Jack and I are both fans of all sports — and I mean all of them. (I used to cover luge. Luge. I am turning Jack and his sisters into luge fans.) Jack, of course, brought me periodic updates during the swimming World Championships, which he was following on his phone. We were cheered by Katie’s tenacity and Caeleb’s super-meet. In passing, Jack mentioned that Bob Bowman had launched an interesting online initiative in which he talked about habits, goals, and what you might call orientation. Bowman pointed out that Michael Phelps, back when he was a boy busily becoming Michael Phelps, played several sports and wasn’t devoted to some of the things that are obsessive in junior swimming today. Since we live in the age we live in, Bowman, of course, was attacked by the nattering nabobs who saw him as an old fool who doesn’t realize the value of bench pressing for a 3-year-old. A vitriolic thread led to calmer responses by those such as Janet Evans, saying, well, she never lifted at all.
“I wonder,” I said to Jack, “how you kids can even figure things out, what with all this yelling going on.”
His response had something to do with the fact that at a certain maturing age you try to tune out much of it, select pertinent advice, choose your values, and decide where you’re headed. He was sympathetic to Bowman and felt a bit bad for the guy.
A few days later, I clipped something from the newspaper for Jack. There was a Q&A on what Usain Bolt was doing after hanging up the spikes. Among other things, Bolt was asked what advice he’d give a 13-year-old who showed sprint talent. “At that age it should just be about enjoyment,” Bolt answered. “A lot of people put so much pressure on the other kids to do well, but at 12 or 14, you just get to high school, just have fun, enjoy it, because when you put too much pressure on these kids too early they kind of lose their way.” Surely the nabobs considered Bolt a dope too.
Meanwhile, I happened to read a story by Shirley Jackson. Yes, that Shirley Jackson. Seems that when she wasn’t scaring the bejeezus out of us with “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House” back in the ’50s and ’60s, she was enjoying a sideline career as a writer of charming domestic-life sketches. One of them was about Little League baseball. The plot: Jackson’s son and her neighbor Dot’s boy sign up for this new enterprise in town, which is already imagining the D1 outfit that Little League certainly is today. There will be fanfare and anthems at the games; the boys will wear uniforms; there will be umpires. The first contest of the season is a thriller on the field, causing unbearable tension in the stands. The run-amok passive-aggressiveness of the parents, including Shirley and Dot, provides Jackson with her chuckles.
Amid their parents’ descent into the maelstrom (not unlike what happened with the townsfolk in “The Lottery,” now that I think of it), the boys remain sanguine. Until today, theirs was a D3 world. Now they’ve had a taste of D1. Their conclusion is that this might be great for some kids — maybe even them — and not so great for others. Jackson ends her account with the boys interrupting their parents’ celebratory postgame party by dropping by to change their clothes. “There was a pickup game down in Murphy’s lot, they explained, and they were going to play some baseball.”