Harvard Student-Athletes in High School: All-Time Greats

Published by Michael D. Ledecky on September 20, 2012 at 3:12AM

In recent days, awkward, oversized high school students have been following awkward, oversized freshmen all over campus.  It’s that time of year again: varsity recruiting season. As the verbal commitments roll in, one must wonder whether a legend will emerge from the Class of 2017. Does one of these recruits have what it takes to be the next Harvard athletic great? Here’s a look at the pre-Harvard careers of some of the finest athletes to wear Crimson.

Jeremy Lin began to perfect the art of coming out of nowhere as a high school baller for Palo Alto High School in California. Lin became a local folk hero after he led his underdog team to a state championship over nationally-ranked powerhouse Mater Dei during his senior year. But Lin’s high school days were not all gravy and beans. UCLA failed to offer him a spot on its varsity squad, and even Stanford passed on the talent shooting hoops in its backyard. In addition, clumsiness plagued Lin’s high school career. As a junior, Lin suffered a season-ending injury in a pick-up basketball game the night before a regional championship game. In the midst of his senior year Cinderella run, Lin dropped and broke the California Central Section Championship trophy.

How many high school athletes win an Olympic gold medal? Well, this writer’s little sister did, but people tell me it’s a relatively rare thing. As a senior at Choate, Harvard hockey great Angela Ruggiero won the first gold medal in women’s ice hockey as a member of Team USA at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. She would go on to win another three Olympic medals over the course of her career. Harvard’s other four-time Olympic hockey medalist, Jennifer Botterill, was the youngest player on the losing side of the 1998 Olympic final as a member of Team Canada. She and Ruggiero joined forces as freshmen that very next fall and shared a triple in Leverett as sophomores.

After his senior year of high school, swimmer David Berkoff placed 31st in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. According to a 1985 Crimson article, Berkoff was a “late bloomer” who enjoyed a solid, but not world-class, senior year at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. But the 5’9” Berkoff quickly rocketed to international attention at Harvard as he pioneered the “Berkoff Blast-Off”—a now-prohibited technique that involves kicking underwater for more than half the length of an Olympic-sized pool. Berkoff won the 100 back at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials and is Harvard’s most decorated Summer Olympian.

When Ryan Fitzpatrick sat down for his first class at Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz., he did not appear destined for athletic success. According to azcentral.com, the scrawny freshman was just 5’4” and 120 pounds. But the Amish Rifle grew up quickly.  Fitzpatrick lettered in football, basketball and track, and he quarterbacked Highland High to a regional championship as a junior. Yet Fitzpatrick’s secondary school career followed the same trajectory as Jeremy Lin’s: great local success coupled with little national attention.  Arizona State passed Fitzmagic up, forcing him to play in the Cambridge cold.  What a bummer.