Harvard students are more known for their academic prowess than their athletic achievement. But a small group of Harvard students who have aspirations of competing in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia next summer have taken great steps toward debunking that perception.
Harvard students will be going for the gold in track, crew, laser sailing, fencing, diving and ballroom dancing in the next year.
"When I think back on college, I'll probably think of lab and rowing," says senior Olympic hopeful Ollie Rando.
The "lab" part of Rando's college experience garnered him a perfect score on his MCATs. The score helped him get accepted at Stanford University's M.D.-Ph.D. program where Rando hopes he will build the foundation for a successful career in research.
The "rowing" aspect of Rando's Harvard career many land him at the Olympics in crew.
Olympic rowing consists of several "sweep" and "sculling" events. Rando it more accustomed to the sweep style of rowing, which requires the rower to handle only one oar, because he has practiced the technique during his four undergraduate years at Harvard.
Rando, along with his current teammate, senior Nick Peterson, hope that they will be able to win a place on the Olympic squad in the straight pair event.
Peterson and Rando were both on the Harvard team that lost to Brown by one second in the national championship race last year. Both say that even though they lost, the race is among the highlights of their crew careers.
Rando describes the "hell" of a crew race in a very matter of fact way: "It's sort of a blur of lactic acid and adrenaline. You start out very frantically...build up close to maximum lactic acid build-up and try to hold," Rando says.
In addition to Rando and Peterson, senior Sara Simmons may also vie for a chance to compete in the Olympics.
Simmons says she has been "embarrassed" by recent rumors swirling that say she may be going to the Olympics because, realistically, her chances are small.
She will also have to switch from sweep rowing to sculling if she wants a spot on the Olympic team.
"The most talented oarswomen can make the switch, but its difficult," Simmons says.
Because of the transition, Simmons says that her chances of making the 1996 Olympics are slim, although she may have a better chance in 2000.
"I think for me, rowing is all about just gutting it out one on one," Simmons says. "A North-eastern coach compared it to going into battle."
Less "violent" in nature but requiring no less energy and skill is ballroom dancing, which (along with surfing) has recently been given provisional recognition by the Olympic committee.
Sophomore Jennifer Fung and her younger brother Victor are the current U.S. amateur champions in the sport.
Fung is currently on the Harvard Ballroom Dancing team and helped the team win the national intercollegiate championship.
Ballroom dancing is scored much like figure skating, according to Fung. The competition begins with all of the couples on the floor. Judges then begin an elimination process until the field is narrowed to the top 12 couples. The couples are then ranked one to six.
Judges rate the athletes on their execution of basic steps and techniques, artistic ability, footwork, interpretation and timing. But the Olympic committee has yet to decide whether ballroom dancing will be a winter or summer sport, according to Fung.
"I really find that I enjoy it because of the fact that it's a way of communicating with someone else," Fung says. "It's a different medium.
"It's just a togetherness, a oneness, a connection," Fung adds.
For Fung, dancing is a family activity. She first got started in the sport when her mother began taking lessons 10 years ago. At Harvard, Fung dances with another younger brother, freshman Alex Fung.
Like ballroom dancing, fencing is a sport that invokes romantic images of brilliant swordplay and dashing heroes like those famed in the Three Musketeers and Zorro.
If Harvard were to knight an official Musketeer, it might well be senior Kwaame Van Leeuwen, the 1993 NCAA champion and four-time All-American.
"I envy them for their amazing moves. It's too bad that they're illegal," Van Leeuwen says of the technique of the famed swashbucklers.
Van Leeuwen competed for the Dutch national team on the Junior World Cup circuit when he was in high school, but hopes for the U.S. in 1996.
In order to garner a spot on the Olympic squad, Van Leeuwen needs to perform well in five domestic trails and certain events on the world cup circuit over the next year.
In 1992, Van Leeuwen was able to finish second in one of the domestic trails, but the rigors of his college schedule prevented him from competing overseas, forcing him out of running for an Olympic spot.
"I'm very confident of my chances," Van Leeuwen says of the possibility of an Olympic spot. "I've fenced a lot of the competitors on the collegiate circuit. I've beaten most of them."
"The Olympics for me is an amazing goal," Van Leeuwen says. "I would be incredibly honored to be a part of that"
Training in Florida
While Van Leeuwen will spend much time over the next year on the "strip"--the area in which fencers joust--junior Brett Davis will spend his time preparing for the Games off the Florida coast.
Davis, who plans on taking next year off so he can devote himself fully to his sport, will compete in laser sailing.
The Olympics sailing competition consists of several heats of different classes of boats. Lasers are boats manned by a single person, and Davis has been sailing them for the past six years.
Davis won high school nationals in the event for three consecutive years. In addition, Davis is a member of the Harvard sailing team, which has been ranked in the top 10 among collegiate sailing teams throughout the year. Davis garnered an All-American honorable mention last year.
"[The Olympic Team] is the highest goal for me right now," Davis says. "I'm not going to be an academic. My focus is on the Olympics."
According to Davis, 50 boats will make the cut for the Olympic qualifier in Savannah, Georgia. Currently, Davis is ranked number 20 in the country in laser sailing, so he estimates his chances of raking high enough to move onto the trails as very good.
"Winning at the trails will be much harder, although it's possible," Davis says.
Several members of Harvard's track team are also hoping for a shot at the Atlanta Games.
Sophomore Karen Goetze, sophomore Ian Carswell and senior Bryan Henry all have Olympic aspirations. Carswell and Henry hope to compete for Canada.
Like many of the Olympic hopefuls, Henry admits that the rigors of Harvard academics run counter to performing to his full athletic potential.
"I'm sure I could have gone faster," Henry says of past track meets. "But I have no regrets on how I balanced everything. I realized that there is no professional future for me in track."
A Little Luck
A little luck is what freshman Lara Jacobson is hoping for this summer in her own quest for the Olympic Games.
Jacobson, who has been diving only since her sophomore year of high school but had 12 years of prior gymnastics experience, needs just one more point (which she can accumulate by finishing in the top 12 in national tournaments) to qualify for Olympic trails.
The first-year from Austin, Texas also plans to take next year off to devote herself to her Olympic dream.
"I definitely feel a lot of pressure to get [a spot on the Olympic team], especially since I'm not going to school next year," Jacobson says.
Jacobson says that especially in national competitions, the mental aspect of the sport is crucial, allowing anyone on a given day to step up and win.
"The women's tower is usually pretty wide open," Jacobson says. "Basically, everybody has a shot at it."