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An Unlikely Path to Harvard

By Michael J. Mosca

When I began at Harvard this fall, I wasn’t like a lot of the other freshmen. I wasn’t my high school valedictorian. I hadn’t invented anything, let alone Facebook, although I spend way too much time on it. I never aspired to be president but thought it would be cool to have a future president as my roommate. I hadn’t spent the last 19 years dreaming about going to Harvard. In fact, all I really hoped for was to get through middle school. Although I have become a decent diver, I didn’t win—or even place—in my first U.S. diving competition; in fact, I had the dubious distinction of coming in dead last. Unlike my classmates and teammates who may have spent much of their youth trying to stand out, I spent most of mine trying to fit in. An inventory of accomplishments is not what garnered me a coveted spot at Harvard or the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in diving. Quite the opposite, a lengthy list of failures paved my way.

Just two weeks into kindergarten, my parents received “the call.”  My mother hung up the phone, looked at my father in bewilderment and asked, “Is it even possible to flunk out of kindergarten?” My teacher had told her that I needed to be reigned in, or else I was headed for major problems. The plan the following year was to enroll me in a private elementary school with a smaller class size, but I was rejected. My parents described me as “spirited,” but when my first grade Sunday School teacher told them I could no longer come to class without an adult accompanying me, they began to wonder. We moved to a new town when I was in second grade and my teacher raised concerns about passing me to third grade. By third grade I had so much difficulty keeping up that the principal told my parents it would be best to have me evaluated and repeat the third grade.

After extensive testing I was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and an expressive language disorder. For me it just confirmed that I was “insufficient” and was consistent with my report card much of the time. I was sent to a psychiatrist but refused to talk to him, so we played chess instead. Stalemate was a safe place for me, and the best thing about it was I couldn’t fail, even though I knew it was because I didn’t try. I was given no choice but to face my fear of reading and worked with specialists after school until I was a sophomore in high school. When I was younger, I hated looking out the window at the other kids on the playground because it frustrated me that I wasn’t like them. Now I see that I was actually given a gift and a chance to make a difference for other children who can’t seem to blend into society like everyone else.

Of all the interventions that tried to help me, in the end it was a sport that saved me. The summer I turned eight, my parents decided I should bounce off a diving board since I spent most of my childhood bouncing off walls. I was immediately hooked, and ultimately the sport taught me the rewards of resiliency, resolve, and focus. The challenge of diving is mental toughness and confidence. It does not matter if you are the best in practice if you cannot perform in front of an audience in complete silence. Diving is not a place where you can hide from your fears. That is the gift of the sport; it forces you to face your demons while the world watches. Eventually I taught myself through innumerable hours and countless failures that you will succeed only if you stare failure in the face and are not afraid. After a few years I had dominated my local competition and my 10-year trek toward the Olympic Trials began. Ultimately, the confidence I gained from diving translated into academic success when, as a boy who couldn’t read until third grade, I got near perfect standardized scores as I applied to college.

I never really understood the motivational mug that says, “What would you attempt to do if you thought you could not fail?” I live by my own standard: “What will you do when you know you can fail?” I have come to appreciate that the greatest gains come from going for the goals you convince yourself are impossible. Theodore Roosevelt said it perfectly; “…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; who fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Michael J Mosca ’15 lives in Hurlbut Hall. He is a potential member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Diving Team and broke the Harvard Men's Swimming and Diving record at his first Ivy League competition this season.

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