Harvard’s Comeback Kid

Pep Rally
Jabulani R. Barber

After taking a year off to retain athletic eligibility, sophomore co-captain Walter Peppelman made a successful return to the mat. On Sunday, Peppelman finished in eighth place to garner All-American honors.

What defines an All-American? According to Walter Camp, the great 19th-century Yale football coach, it is defined not only as one of the best players in the nation, but also one who possesses “unselfishness, sincerity, [and] leadership in the interests of sportsmanship and fair play.”

The criteria for being named an All-American today are more based on athletic performance than the content of one’s character.

This weekend, another Walter—this one from Camp’s rival Harvard—earned the lofty distinction in the 157-pound wrestling division at the 2011 NCAA Championships.

Though sophomore co-captain Walter Peppelman earned the honor with an eighth-place finish at the championships in Philadelphia on Sunday, according to his teammates and friends, Peppelman also successfully fits Camp’s 120-year-old ideal.

“He’s such a good person, always willing to help out with whatever you need,” says sophomore Steven Keith, who also competed at nationals in the 125-pound division. “Whether it’s problems with friends, family, [or] school, he’s always there for us.”

Peppelman came to Harvard as a prized recruit out of Harrisburg, Penn., and impressed teammates as soon as he arrived in Cambridge for his freshman season.

“From the get-go, we knew he was really tough, and it’s been great seeing him put in so much hard work to improve,” co-captain Andrew Knapp says.

Last year, Peppelman started off his sophomore campaign in the 149-pound class. But in December, before the heart of the season began, Peppelman suffered a partially-torn elbow ligament that put him out of commission for the rest of the year.

Due to Harvard’s eight-semester limit, Peppelman chose to withdraw from school in order to maintain his athletic eligibility.

During his time off, he returned to Harrisburg to serve as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Central Dauphin High School, where he helped coach his younger brother—now wrestling at Cornell—and the team to a state championship.

After the season, he worked in his local state senator’s office and got the opportunity to travel to Russia to work out in what Peppelman calls “the mecca of wrestling.”

The grappler returned to campus eight pounds heavier and ready to meet challenges on the mat, filling the shoes of 157-pound national champion J.P. O’Connor ’10.

Peppelman also succeeded O’Connor in the locker room, assuming the role of co-captain as a sophomore.

“[O’Connor and Peppelman] are both class acts and their relationship is tremendous,” says Crimson coach Jay Weiss, who has coached 17 All-Americans during his tenure at Harvard. “J.P. talked to him a lot in preparation for nationals, helping him manage expectations and get rid of those first-year jitters. Clearly, it made an impact on him.”

Entering the season unranked, Peppelman was able to battle his way to the No. 8 spot, an impressive feat that Weiss attributes largely to his toughness as an individual and his role as a co-captain.

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