After finishing my junior spring competing on the Harvard-Radcliffe Heavyweight Crew Team, I knew I needed to take the next semester off of rowing. This is probably not how you expected a senior student-athlete reflection article to start.
I was exhausted mentally and physically and just felt lost and unhappy with who I was as a rower and as a Harvard student. As any Harvard rower will tell you, the sport requires an intense amount of grit; you have to be willing to push yourself at all hours of the day, nearly year-round, in order to be competitive. Being a Harvard student requires similar willpower and discipline; you have to be willing to put in the extra hour of studying when all you want to do is sleep and work to maintain your sense of identity amidst a sea of similarly driven students. Being a student-athlete was my “thing,” so for the better part of my college career, I clung to the need to be both a student and an athlete, both an electrical engineer and a rower, in order to view myself as successful. Even as the sport no longer sparked the same joy for me as it had during my freshman and sophomore years, I was determined to push through it and show up for practice day after day. But in my junior spring, I hit a breaking point where I could no longer hide from the mental toll rowing was taking on the rest of my Harvard experience. I made the hard but necessary decision to not row during my senior fall. Taking a semester off during your senior year feels wrong; this is supposed to be the year when you lead the team, when you’re supposed to be wise and capable. And yet here I was. Rowing was something that had defined me for three years of college, and suddenly the incoming freshman didn’t even know my name.
Taking the fall off of rowing wasn’t the “silver bullet” solution I had expected it to be. When people asked me what extracurriculars I did, I no longer felt like I had enough things to list. As I submitted resumes and interviewed for post-grad jobs it was a delicate balance between using rowing anecdotes and admitting that I was taking a semester off. But without fully realizing it, I did grow to find joy in new parts of my Harvard experience. I took up mentoring, I attended classes and events that fell during practice times, I spent more time with non-rowing friends, and ate sit-down lunches instead of Fly By. In short, I just felt more present.
As Senior Spring approached, I realized that for the first time in a long time I was excited by the prospect of getting to row. I missed having my team and the indescribable high of racing next to another boat. From January through March, I once again gritted my teeth and pushed myself through tough practice after tough practice. But, I was now a student-athlete on my terms. When I was in the boathouse, I tried to be as present and competitive a rower as possible. But unlike in previous years, when I left the boathouse, I tried my best to be as present a student and friend as possible. Finally, I felt like the sport that I’d fallen in love with in high school was back.
And then, as I sat studying for a midterm in the library on Tuesday, March 10, I received the email informing Harvard College students that we had to move out “as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15.” In the coming days, the Ivy League and later the NCAA would make announcements that the Spring 2020 competition season was canceled.
I want to believe that the personal growth I achieved over my senior year is enough of an accomplishment, but inevitably I feel the hole left from missing out on having a final season of racing and a final couple months with my teammates. I don’t have the heart to delete the races from my Google calendar, so periodically I’ll get a reminder that “Race v. Yale and Northeastern” or “Ivy Championships” is coming up. It opens up the hole slightly wider, and I’m reminded again of what I’ve lost.
College is often framed as being this narrative arc from naive, overeager freshman to wise, finally-able-to-have-a-reasonable-sleep-schedule senior. I expected senior year to be the year when I’d figured it all out. And instead, I spent the first semester of it taking a break from my sport and spent the greater part of the second semester living and taking classes in my old childhood bedroom. I am still coming to terms with the way my Harvard experience is ending both as a rower — an abrupt departure from campus — and as a student, closing my laptop after my virtual graduation on May 28. What I failed to realize for too long was that success was not the same thing as happiness or finding true joy in what you’re doing. My identity became defined by the things that labeled me as successful not the choices that were truly making me happiest. Giving up rowing, even for a semester, felt like failing. It felt like I was giving up on my chance to have that perfect “narrative arc” of four years of being a student-athlete. But it was only through abandoning that narrative that I was able to actually grow in my understanding of myself and renew my love for the sport. As I move past my time at Harvard I hope that rather than forcing myself to grit through until the metaphorical “senior year,” I can remember to be present and accept what I am feeling. Sometimes senior fall is the right time to take a break. And sometimes I won’t get a culminating senior season. But if I can be present during the process, hopefully, I can come to find greater enjoyment in whatever it is that I’m racing towards.