Jamaica Kincaid called me a "master swimmer" during a dinner gathering
last week, which threw me for quite a loop.
At first, I did not understand why her comment--an especially flattering
one--made me uneasy, but I have realized that it was awkward because I
do not identify myself as an athlete in academic settings.
As I spoke with Ms. Kincaid about her literature and the world at large, I
was an intellectual, a scholar, a thinker. I was in my academic mode.
My world of athletics was a mere shadow in my mind--if present at
all--certainly not part of my self-image during such an amazingly stimulating conversation.
Perhaps I was unusually submerged in literary thought after receiving my thesis grades and comments the day before. Perhaps I was thrilled by the opportunity of meeting one of the most incredible minds of our time. But the intrusion of this other life at Harvard abruptly disrupted this otherwise mellifluous intellectual exchange.
Now, gentle reader that you are, do not misinterpret my reaction to the
Kincaidian compliment. I do not feel intellectually inferior, nor am I embarrassed or ashamed by my participation in collegiate athletics.
Quite the contrary, really.
However, when I question who I am--or more precisely, who I am at
Harvard--I picture myself foremost as a student, a student like most
others here. I'm not sure if the Harvard population at large realizes this.
You may say, "But Tim, you wear your DHA sweats and swim parka around the Yard and to class. Don't you wear them because you identify yourself as an athlete?"
To this, I must confess that I do indeed dress in stereotypical athletic
garb throughout the week, but this is only a matter of comfort--if you have never worn DHAs, you are missing out on something special--and convenience. I may adorn myself with this jockish attire, but when I speak in section, when I picture myself walking through the Yard, when I enter the Barker Center, I envision a student and I hope that is also what others see.
I am not an athlete.
I am a student--perhaps a student-athlete, but more the former than the
latter. If I wanted to be an athlete, I would have attended a college where I could disregard all that is thought-provoking I if so chose.
That is the beauty of the Ivy League athletic experience: it is a separate aspect of student life that keeps the sport on the field.
As I officially end my college athletic career tonight--with our
season-ending banquet--I realize that when I revisit my memories of
Harvard, those rich swimming moments will not be among them.
I will remember meeting Ms. Kincaid, taking a seminar with Professor Gates, eating with housemates in Adams, and perhaps even writing for The Crimson.
The personal sports moments of triumph and defeat, belonging and
alienation, are not lost in a horrible psychic void, but rather they will
emerge when I remember my entire swimming career or specifically swimming at Harvard--but they will not commingle with those images above.
Athletics and academics are not compatible: you cannot experience either while in the mindset of the other. If you do, you will inevitably miss
the boat. These are two separate spheres; they do not overlap, nor do
they coexist. Rather, I have always moved from one identity to the
other--an easy transition--keeping Kincaid and coaches at a safe distance.