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Walking On, Trading Off: Athletes Reconsider Varsity Life

The Other Field of Study

For Luke Morgan-Scott ’18, a 5:50 a.m. alarm makes winter days stretch longer than most. By sunrise, Morgan-Scott, the only freshman to walk on to the varsity men’s swimming and diving team this year, hits the water at Blodgett Pool. But it’s only his first practice of the day.

“By the time you actually get to Annenberg, it’s 9:15 or so,” Morgan-Scott said. “You eat with the team right afterwards until you have class. Normally you eat with the team during lunch, then you’re back in the pool at 2:45. After that, you’re hungry, so you go to dinner with the team again right after.”

The expansion of practice hours into team meals and down time is a work week ritual familiar to many athletes at Harvard. And at just over four months, the swimming and diving team’s season is one of the longest in the school’s Division I program, which includes 42 varsity sports teams.

Morgan-Scott knew this when he decided midway through high school that he wanted swim in college. “It was the first time I’d truly dedicated myself to a sport,” he said later. Months of practice, weekend meets, and team-filled days since, the swim team is “the biggest part of my life here,” he said.

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He is not alone in recognizing that walking on to a varsity team changes life at Harvard. The choice to walk on to a Harvard sports team has major social and academic implications that non-recruited students might not anticipate before they join, influencing the make-up of their social circles and their course schedules. Those factors often combine to define walk-on athletes’ time in college in a way they did not originally plan.

The Hours Add Up

In the most tangible of ways, the structural limitations on walk-on athletes are no different than those of any student who was recruited to play a varsity sport at Harvard. They share demanding practice schedules, trips to and from away games, and obligations to comply with NCAA regulations.

Yet the contrast freshman walk-ons find between Opening Days and life on a roster offers a unique lens through which to view the scheduling demands of varsity sports. It’s uncommon for students who were not formally recruited to walk on to a varsity sports team at Harvard, especially on major sports such as football and basketball. Out of 117 members of the varsity football team, only 2 walked on last fall, according to Tim Williamson, the director of communications at the Athletic Department.

Morgan Brown ’06, whose path to baseball team captain and two-time All-Ivy recognition began as a freshman walk-on, still remembers that transition.

“All of a sudden, if you make it, you have 3 hours of practice a day,” recalled Brown, who now serves as the director of baseball operations for the Athletic Department. “That’s if you draw it up on a calendar.”

But practices for most team sports tend to pile up—take the dual-practice schedule of the swimming and diving teams—so, as Brown added, “it’s very easy to get lunch with teammates on the way to practice, and have dinner on the way back. The time extends to half of your day.”

“And for walk-ons, you’re not always anticipating that,” he added.

To walk-ons who arrive at Harvard with a range of academic and extracurricular priorities beyond athletics, the adjustment may be more jarring than that for recruited athletes, some walk-ons say.

“It’s a really big difference,” said Lucy E. Rogers ’18, now on the women’s varsity heavyweight crew team. “I think a large part of it is that I didn’t come to college expecting to be an athlete, or expecting to row, and so I had this vision in my head of what I expected college to be like and didn’t expect to include athletics in it.”

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