Sandro Luis Lorenzo/The Miscellany News
Long ago, in a sepia-toned time, some of America’s most exclusive academic institutions were also its most athletically rigorous. Over time though, leather-headed powerhouses such as the University of Chicago and Yale shifted to investing more in recruiting America’s intellectual elite than the “infernal nuisance.” The NCAA’s Division-I has since developed collegiate athletics into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Some of the largest stadiums in the Western Hemisphere can be found in college towns like Tuscaloosa, AL and Ann Arbor, MI.
Competing in quaint contrast are Division-III athletics, what my high school cross country coach used to say was “the last bastion of amateurism in sport.” Schools like Vassar are a final holdout of the “student-athlete”; where the mantra means equal parts “student” and “athlete.”
And yet, the student-athlete balance isn’t always desirable or even feasible for some. Vassar athletes occasionally burn out, lose their passion for their sport or feel trapped by the insular reflexes of team life. I spoke to a few former athletes about what compelled them to end their athletic careers and what campus life is like as born-again NARPs (Non-Athletic Regular Persons).
In the quiet weeks before classes start, fall athletes have an empty campus all to themselves. It’s the preseason and during this time teams build up the rhythm of inseparability: a morning meeting, lunch with the team in a near empty Deece, afternoon practice, more meetings, dinner and evening shenanigans. It was in the first of these palmy weeks that Matthias Howley ’21 and Vidal Gutierrez ’21 met.
“Concussion testing. Like the first day we got onto campus,” Vidal recalled. “You were sitting in the back and you had long hair. I thought you were a girl for a second.” Just a week into preseason, other teammates were taking notice of Vidal and Matthias’s fondness for each other: “I guess we just bonded. I remember I knew we were good friends when someone made a joke, oh, Matthias and Vidal are like a married couple.”
Matthias is an uber-extraverted senior hailing from Greenwich, CT, the affluent New York City suburb. He followed in the footsteps of his two sisters, both highly accomplished runners in their own right. Vidal is from a working class Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles. He started running to supplement soccer, and although he was an exceptional runner (he ran the Los Angeles Marathon at 15), he felt out of place on the team at Vassar. “I always felt like there was something missing there for me. I never felt fully connected with everyone, and I never felt like anyone fully understood me,” Vidal remembered. In high school, his cross-country team was made up of entirely Mexican runners, and showing up to race nearly all-white opponents bound his team in an uncommon solidarity. But at Vassar, Vidal was part of one of those all-white teams and struggled to feel accepted. “I just never really felt like everyone saw me as just another guy. I felt like at least the point was made that I was different,” which isn’t to say the team is obviously racist, rather they struggled to make the team inclusive for a person from a different background.
Matthias had long grappled with understanding why he ran, having followed his two talented sisters into running, but at Vassar, he found a sense of joy. “When I first got to Vassar,” he said, “that definitely was the most I’ve ever enjoyed running. It was cool to be part of the family. It was cool to run the fastest that I’ve ever ran.” But after a while, the grinding nature of collegiate running caused his newfound elation to slip. “The moment when you break your PR [personal record] you break five, and break this and that, that was the best feeling ever at the time. But after a while,” he realized, “that doesn’t happen a lot. Most of the time, I’m just suffering. One percent of the time I have that glory moment.”
Vidal also felt his passion slip in college. “I would be more romantic about the sport when I was in high school… I just used to really daydream a lot more about winning big races,” he recalled. “Then when I got to college, it feels like it all became so scientific. You know? Super methodical. And to the point where it wasn’t that fun anymore. For me.”
Matthias and Vidal made standout marks in running during high school (there are a dizzying set of running competitions with too many benchmarks to try to contextualize here). At Vassar, they were middle-to-back of the pack, a reminder that the talent of DIII athletics can be taken for granted. One of those exceptional athletes is Ella Foster ’22. Ella is from Northern Ohio, ten minutes south of the border with Minnesota. In high school she was a three-season athlete in field hockey, basketball and lacrosse, and the latter she played for one season at Vassar.
Ella picked up lacrosse her first year of high school, eons late to the highly competitive, pay-for-play pipeline of the sport. But Ella was the best player on her high school team by far: “everyone would just get the ball to me. And then I’d just score,” she said, gleaming. Excelling made her confident. “It’s the most fun way to play a sport!” she joked. Vassar was an abrupt introduction to the products of East Coast lacrosse culture. “A lot of the women on the women’s team here have been playing since they could walk, basically since they were like five, six, and they’ve played club every summer,” she said.
Lack of playing time didn’t deter Ella at first. The plan was to work hard, encourage her teammates and have fun. As her first season wore on, however, it became more difficult to engage with the rigorous practice schedule and mandated conditioning. She wanted to support her teammates, but scattershot spells of playing time made her question the small reward for the effort that she put in. That summer, she worked in Spain, a country where lacrosse simply does not exist. Her lacrosse stick made the trip with her but she found nowhere to use it. The pause proved to be enough to break the momentum of her training. She came to one fall-ball practice the next semester and made the decision to end her career. It turned out to be more fortuitous than she even hoped.
The burden of managing time was a theme which every athlete I talked with spoke to. In-season sports meet up to six times a week, the spare day owed to an NCAA mandated rest. That doesn’t cap weekly meetings at six, however. Teams lift up to three times a week in addition to daily practice; Vidal and Matthias doubled their runs a few times a week to reach mileage goals, sometimes on the same days as lift. Meets, tournaments, matches and games suck entire weekends down the toilet. It’s easy to understand what makes the turf seem greener on the other side.
Lena Stevens ’21 found her niche at Vassar by leaving the women’s volleyball team. Similar to Vidal, Lena spoke over Zoom about struggling with a sense of placelessness as an athlete of color on a nearly all-white team. She detailed that experience in a Misc piece last Fall. She wrote, “I was oceans away from everyone and I couldn’t bridge the gap no matter how hard I tried…Even with my name on the roster and a jersey on my back…To this day, I have a difficult time identifying why I felt so alone.”
Lena went to high school in Hawaii, where volleyball is a brutally competitive sport. At her school, playing on an outside club team was all but compulsory to get on the team. After an extensive college application process, Lena got into Vassar and promptly decided to reach out to the volleyball coach, who invited her to join the team for tryouts. A couple days in, a captain turned to her and said, “You know, you’re on the team, right?” She didn’t believe it, but the captain insisted: “We saw your tape. You’re on the team.”
When I asked Lena if she had planned to play all four years at Vassar, her expression seemed to travel back in her mind to that painful moment in time. An untimely mix of tragedy, an undiagnosed anxiety disorder and estrangement from teammates made her freshman season unbearable. “There were times when I would spend all morning really dreading going to practice,” she recalled. “I was having a hard time going to class at all, and just staying focused.”
Her testimony speaks to the silent struggle for some athletes as they fight inner-turmoil while striving to maintain their robust academic and athletic schedule. “Trying to just perform as a student…was hard, on top of going to practices, sometimes twice a day,” she recalled. Her struggle questions a refrain that athletes are told throughout our athletic lives, that the field or the court are escapes from life’s miasma. But when a problem becomes burdensome in a way that dominates every point of life like it did for Lena, athletics becomes a stressor itself, compounding the exhausting fight to make it through the day.
It’s easy to imagine how life changes for an athlete once they’ve left their sport. Their schedule loosens up, obligations fall away, but they lose an underlying structure that had outlined their lives since they were guided by their parents. Some find it difficult to fall into a new rhythm of discipline. Finn Balenger ’21 found himself searching for that structure when he left the swim team after his freshman year.
Finn is from Hamilton, MT, a town of a just few thousand people that lies east below the verdant, granite peaked Bitterroot Mountains. Growing up an hour from the nearest indoor swimming pool, Finn could only compete three months a year in the town’s summer league. He started swimming there when he was just 10 at the urging of his dad, a collegiate swimmer himself, who got both of his sons to swim in his wake. “Ever since I was a baby I loved to be in water…,” he reflected. “I feel like it’s the closest I’ll ever be to flying.” He put emphasis on that poetic musing, but he also felt too uncoordinated to play other sports.
As a former athlete without the oversight of coaches and training, he took time to explore his own desire for structure and exercise. “I was never able to appreciate it [swimming] because it was so constant and I was so tired…every afternoon, I would just be exhausted. Incapacitated. I would fall asleep in every class I had in the 3:10 to 4:25 slot,” he remembered.
Quitting helped him recognize the value of exercise and discipline in a more pleasurable way, and it helped him thrive socially. The constant athletic training contributed to a team culture that he felt was too insular, so he branched out from the beginning of his freshman year. He found that the non-athletes he was friendly with were surprised to hear he was on a sports team. “There’s such a divide between athletes and non athletes socially at this school,” he said. He felt that the two groups are distinctly defined, to the point that “when you meet someone they associate you with a certain side of Vassar.”
When Matthias left the team, he found he could finally breathe. “I literally made triple the amount of friends. I got hyper social…And I feel like that actually made me the Vassar person I was,” he remembered in a fond tone. After Vidal left the team at the beginning of his sophomore year he also became more involved in the Vassar social scene, and joined several student orgs. He even joined an acapella group.
“Everything feels more valuable when it’s your choice,” he explained. He found a freedom in running he hadn’t known since highschool. A lot of your day to day activities aren’t your choice,” he said of being a student-athlete. “I feel like life is a lot more gratifying. When you’re able to build it.”
Ella found it hard to put away the cleats for long. She rediscovered the joy of sports by joining the Boxing Nuns, Vassar womens’ ultimate frisbee team. She was initially surprised to hear that it was normal to practice plays for ultimate. “I thought you just kind of like threw this,” she said, mimicking the motion of flicking the disc. On the Nuns, a student run team, she can dictate her involvement, which she finds to be gratifying. “I just, I really love to sprint,” she said, “and found that that’s a pretty prominent part of the game.”
Lena on the other hand, who had dealt with such a difficult first year and had in her own words tried to provide others with the comfort and support that she was lacking, stayed on the volleyball team for one more season. She wanted to see the upperclassmen she cared for graduate, to play with them a final time. In a way, she felt, that year was more enjoyable playing with the knowledge that it was her last.
After leaving the team she blossomed on all plains of her experience on campus. She took on a leadership role in UJIMA, a group of artists of color of which she’s now co-president. “Finding a collective of other students of color to share with brought me so much joy, and so much peace of mind,” she said.
But she didn’t fully put her experience with volleyball behind her. “One of the reasons I felt comfortable quitting was that I knew that the meaningful relationships I’d built on the team were not going to go away. I wanted my time at Vassar to go to something that was more restorative,” she said. “I wanted to invest my time and make Vassar a healthier and safer space for students like myself, and for students to come.”
As they are elsewhere, sports at Vassar are a microcosm of the issues that divide us, and Vassar Athletics have gone through something of a campus opinion shakedown in the last year. “One of the reasons that entitlement is even able to take place here is because athletics can be extremely insular,” Lena said, describing the division between athletes and “NARPs.” I think her analysis gets at a bigger issue, one that may be a fundamental conflict with the way sports function at Vassar.
Coaches here stress the importance of athletics as part of a Vassar liberal arts education, and there is much wisdom to be gleaned from the pounding of tired legs on long gravel roads or from sacrificing playing time to support a team-first ethic. But as Lena says, and I agree, “You can go your whole career just playing on this team, studying whatever major you’re studying, and never have to face the reality that your experiences aren’t universal.” Her testimony seems at odds with Vassar’s liberal arts mission. The school should be concerned that aspects of its student-athlete culture are failing some of its athletes-of-color, or perpetuating elitist athletic pipelines or stunting the multidisciplinary whims of its many talented students-athletes. Though these voices represent a few of the hundreds that continue to play sports at Vassar, administrators and coaches would be wise to take heed of these stories, if not only for the betterment of their players but for the resilience of their rosters and the sanctity of liberals arts at Vassar.