Harvard Olympians Share Incredible Stories

Blame It on the Al-koe-hol

In addition to late nights at the Kong and a couple of long-term projects with friends, this summer I had the pleasure of covering the Olympics for the Crimson. I use the word “pleasure” very deliberately. Rarely do you hear summer interns refer to their jobs so favorably, but despite time differences and forced acclimation to sports I was unfamiliar with (see: rowing), reporting on the stories of Harvard’s nine Olympians alongside Jacob D. H. Feldman ’15 was nothing short of a wonderful experience.

The Olympics are often criticized for excess media attention and particular focus on human-interest stories. Before this summer you could count me among the foremost of those critics. A general rule of thumb I’ve used is that—unless you’ve won a championship or are an MVP—if my grandmother has heard of you while watching Good Morning America, chances are you’re not worth the price of admission to a pure sports fan.

I didn’t care who Derek Jeter was dating or how hard Shawn Johnson’s parents had pushed her; I watched sports for the experience of watching the sport.

My time on the Crimson sports board has contributed to that cynicism. My fellow editors would come to our weekly meetings pitching a story about a water polo player who had a really cool upbringing and my initial reaction would be, ‘Who cares, if he’s a scrub?’

If a friend praised an athlete for their work ethic or ‘mental toughness,’ I rolled my eyes. As a very quantitatively minded person, this is hard to admit, but after two months covering and getting to know some of the best athletes in the world, I’m beginning to see value in looking past the numbers.

Whether it was Samyr Laine ’06 competing for his parents’ home of Haiti in an effort to raise support for the struggling island nation’s youth athletic programs or Esther Lofgren ’07-’09 bringing home Olympic gold 28 years after her mother missed out on her Olympic dream at the 1984 Los Angeles Games—leading to, as her mother put it, “her post Olympic conception”—these people all had incredible stories to tell.

Even if you separated them from their athletic accomplishments, their stories were worth telling. In addition to being the subject of four separate stories by deadspin.com concerning the size of his penis, bronze medalist Henrik Rummel ’09 was born and raised in Copenhagen before moving to America and taking up crew as a result of his middling talents on the basketball court.

These weren’t the stories of stereotypical jocks either. Two-time gold medalist Caryn Davies ’04-’05 is a year away from earning a law degree from Columbia. Laine just finished his J.D. at Georgetown. How’s that for your self-esteem?

Alex Meyer ’10 embarked on a personal mission to honor the memory of a fallen friend, fellow long-distance swimmer Fran Crippen who died in competition in October 2010. Meyer and Crippen bonded as roommates on the world tour. After sitting out due to fatigue in a competition in Dubai, Meyer led the search party that eventually found Crippen’s drowned body in the 87 degree Fahrenheit water. From then on, he wore Crippen’s swim cap under his own with the hope of wearing it on the podium as the “Star Spangled Banner” played over the PA system in London.

Forget the fact that Meyer finished 10th in London, that is a story! It’s a story that makes grown men everywhere pretend they have something in their eye. It’s the kind of human interest BS story that my grandma always fell for, and now I was falling for it too.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the only reason I was writing about these people’s stories was because of incredible success on their respective playing fields. But in a way, that only reinforced something we at Harvard and indeed we as humans, too often overlook.

Whether it’s because we don’t have the time or lack the interest, people often miss out on the incredible stories that are so readily accessible if you just have the courage to ask. Luckily for me, my job this summer necessitated it.

A couple weeks ago I found out that one of my blockmates spent part of the summer recording and producing a mix-tape of raps that he’d been writing since high school. I had no idea. At a family gathering in August I decided to ask my grandpa to clarify some of the stories he used to tell me as a kid. Turns out while living under Nazi and Italian occupation in Greece during World War II, he and some neighborhood friends helped smuggle Jews out of the port of Kavala and to freedom. Consider my mind blown.

So next time you find yourself sitting in a d-hall having a generic conversation with someone about what classes they’re taking, what party they’re going to, and “he said, she said,” take a moment to step back and look past the numbers and really find a story. Chances are you won’t regret it.

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

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