Harvard’s female athletes

May 8, 2002




By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff


It takes a lot to slow down Michelle Guerette.

She seems to talk as fast as she thinks, which for a Harvard crew captain with a 3.49 grade point average, an Academic All-America nomination, and a fast boat, is a dizzying speed.

But late Monday morning, the father-son relationships in Virgil’s Aeneid have given the senior pause. (It’s the topic of her term paper for a Literature and Arts course called the Rome of Augustus.) The paper is due that afternoon, and Guerette finds her mind wandering. She’s still recovering from Sunday’s stirring race, a charge down the Charles in which the Radcliffe crew left open water between teams from Boston University, Northeastern, and MIT.

Radcliffe (crew retains the name) leaves Friday for the Eastern Sprints Championship, and after throwing down its best time of the spring (6:43.3) Sunday, it’s hard to think about anything else. Seeded fourth in the East and ranked eighth in the nation, a strong performance by the varsity eights can ensure an invitation to the NCAA Tournament for the boat, and perhaps the team.

But it’s reading period at Harvard. As the last few weeks of the academic year play out, Guerette has four term papers to write, four final exams to take. That’s some senior spring.

“Well, there were four great classes I wanted to take and they all had papers and a final,” she said, shrugging.

Virgil’s fathers and sons will get their due. But Guerette, 6 feet 3 inches of animated strength, rations her energy, saving the best for the hours on the water.

A novice as a freshman, Guerette is now a candidate for the national team with an eye on the Olympics. She is an eager student, but when she thinks about her years at Harvard, Guerette knows what she will say:

“I’m going to say I rowed at Harvard.”

What’s it like for a young woman to be a varsity athlete at Harvard these days?

In his annual report to the college, Dean Harry R. Lewis described the many extracurricular activities of the student body, and wrote that the numbers “support the widespread impression that many varsity sports demand an excessive time commitment on the part of the students participating in them.” Nearly a third of recruited athletes spend more than 30 hours a week on their sports; four-fifths spend more than 20 hours.

Lewis said yesterday that Harvard and the other Ivy League schools have had preliminary discussions about imposing – perhaps redefining is a more accurate word – limits on the time spent in athletics. Lewis worries about overextended students.

“Yes, we have the same worries about the theatre kids,” Lewis said, “but we have more responsibility for the athletes. We hire the coaches, we set the practices. It’s not the same as students putting out a student newspaper.”

Harvard’s academic demands are assumed. But the athletic demands keep growing. Only two years ago, the question was whether a student could manage two varsity sports at Harvard. Now, it’s whether she can keep up with one.

The Crimson boast an array of extraordinary student-athletes. Guerette, who won a gold medal with the national four at the 2000 Nations Cup (Under 23 World Championships), and her teammate Caryn Davies, a member of the US junior national rowing team for two years, have been invited to the national team selection camp this summer.

Ice hockey captain Jamie Hagerman played on the 2000 US under-22 national team and attended the 2001 USA Hockey Women’s National Festival, though nursing an ACL tear (from lacrosse).

Caitlin Butler, next year’s soccer captain, will be home in Winchester much of the summer, plotting a work schedule around soccer workouts and playing for the Rhode Island Braves of the W-League.

Freshman tennis player Courtney Bergman has qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an individual, and teammate Susanna Lingman is an alternate.

Each of these Harvard students is playing her sport at an elite level, on the national stage. And there are many others.

Dean Lewis, here is some news for you. Most of them would rather work out more, not less. They’re not willing to give up the Harvard education, they just consider time management part of their daily routine. The dropouts (from teams, not from school) tend to be benchwarmers.

“The big thing at this place,” said soccer coach Tim Wheaton, “is not what they do, it’s who makes the decisions. The reality at Harvard is the kids make the decision.”

It is also true that as women arrive at Harvard as increasingly accomplished and experienced athletes – mirroring the changes in the larger world – pressure has grown to push athletic limits. It’s not enough to show up at the boathouse and go out rowing for a hour or two.

Consider a day from the spring semester of Davies, a sophomore. At 7 a.m. Monday, she rolls out of bed in Eliot House and heads across the street to Weld Boathouse. She takes a single scull out on the river for an hour and half, although this is not practice, just a little something extra.

After breakfast (at 6-4 and always working out, she doesn’t miss meals), she heads to a lecture on the second British Empire. After lunch and a few errands, she’s off to Evolution of Human Nature. A quick stop at her room and then it’s back to the boathouse to lift weights for an hour before the real workout with the rest of the crew team. A couple of hours on the water, time for a shower and dinner, then a “section” (a small-group discussion) for a human behavior course and at 8:30, she checks in at the computer lab for two hours of studying and writing papers. At 10:30 she heads back to her room and it’s lights out at 11.

In an average week, she spends about 12 1/2 hours in class and at least 22 working out. And then there are the competitions, which can eat up the whole weekend.

Then there’s the offseason weightlifting and conditioning sessions, which are voluntary.

Hagerman describes a similar scene for the hockey team.

“Some like to do bike sprints [sometimes after a game] because that ups your endurance,” said Hagerman. “Kids get away with not doing it, but if you want to be competitive and up your game, there’s no way you can not do it. To be a performer at Division 1 women’s hockey, you’ve got to put the extras in.”

So they don’t drink, much. They don’t stay out late, often. They don’t party, at least in season.

Harvard coaches generally make it clear that academics come first, but varsity athletes admit they schedule their classes around practices, not the other way around.

“Rowing is one of those things you can’t do halfway,” said Guerette. “It’s not so much you cut things out, you get more efficient. You have a purpose.”

“It’s easier to fudge your way through academics,” Davies admitted.

Butler tore her ACL in a preseason practice before her sophomore season and found the framework of her life crumbled.

“I was injured my entire sophomore year,” she said. “I finally had that time that college is all about and I definitely did worse in school and was less motivated. I had no social network, no purpose.”

Freshman year can make or break a Harvard athlete. Bergman and Lingman are still losing sleep figuring it out. Neither gets to bed much before 2 a.m.

“I was a little bit overwhelmed,” Hagerman said of her first year. “I tried to play fall ball [lacrosse] and then with hockey, it was 6-7 hours of workouts every day. That’s when I got mono and I realized this isn’t something you should do to yourself.

“Looking from the outside, you might say, ‘God, you do a lot.’ For me, it’s kind of routine.”

Many of these women chose Harvard, which offers no athletic-based financial aid, over a full athletic scholarship to another college.

“I almost went to Michigan,” Davies said. “I decided to come here because of a), if I were injured, and b) after I graduate I’d like to have gone to Harvard.”

“I wouldn’t have rowed if I hadn’t come here,” said Guerette.

“Coming here was the chance to try anything.”