Bubbles stream up furiously, erupting from the swimmer’s mouth. His legs work powerfully as he propels himself towards the wall—just one final push, he’s almost there. His arm reaches out, groping for the wall, prepared for victory. But his fingers can’t quite brush the chilled concrete.
This wasn’t how Michael Hamman (W'17) envisioned his swim career ending. He hadn’t envisioned it ending at all, actually. After hundreds of practices, years of early wake–ups and hours spent training, one race against the University of Delaware didn’t end with a victory—it ended with a tingle. A tingle in his arms, to be exact.
“I went to push my hand against the wall to grab the wall and I couldn’t do it,” Michael explains. “l was diagnosed with this heart condition…[I have an] undeveloped ventricle in my heart... basically, my heart pumps like 75 to 80 percent [of the amount of blood pumped per minute] of a normal person.”
Penn’s athletic department boasts 33 sports teams. Each team is comprised of carefully selected athletes, most of whom had been scouted and recruited in high school, perhaps even earlier. About 900 athletes are distributed over the varsity teams, with new recruits funnelled in every year. They make up about 10 percent of the student body.These hundreds of student–athletes walk campus, proudly sporting personalized Nike backpacks and jerseys. Football players nod with recognition at passing rowers, a volleyball and soccer player embrace on Locust, excitedly exchanging conversation and comparing bruises. Sport–specific houses are scattered throughout campus, and hoards of athletes, no matter what team, can be found swarming Blarneys, a favorite bar amongst athletes, on any given night.
Entering Penn as an athlete immediately provides a close–knit community, filled with students who face the same academic, physical and social challenges. While most freshmen fumble desperately for an identifier, college athletes arrive with a concrete identity and social sphere. However, this identity is shattered when an athlete can no longer play his or her sport. Injuries and illnesses don’t just force athletes to reconstruct themselves physically—they shatter not only bones, but social lives, mental states and identities.
“Tri Row is our sorority...we have big–little week,” Taylor Byxbee (W ‘18) explains of her crew team. Byxbee details her lineage, her “Greek” tanktops (the name “Tri Row” itself is a playful pun on Greek life house names) and her crew family.
Being a student–athlete means having an obvious, incontrovertible identity, a built–in family made up not only of teammates, but of all athletes on campus. Penn’s varsity athletes make their bonds clear to themselves and to the rest of the school. Girls on the volleyball team bring hand–painted signs to football games; athletes note the labels on each other’s team gear and sit next to each other in class.
And when something goes wrong, on or off the field, athletes will do everything they can to get back.
“The overwhelming feeling...in the locker room is that most people try to come back,” says Will Williams (C '18), an offensive lineman on the football team. “People always joke like, ‘Oh, I wish I didn’t have practice today,’ but when you’re injured and you can’t practice, you realize you really do want to practice.”
Anders Larson (W ’18), a squash player, has a “laundry list” of injuries: hurt ankles, a strained forearm and hamstring, a broken finger. He made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open when he was a junior in high school and was on his way to compete in the British Open when, he says, “Everything fell apart.” Larson was diagnosed with pneumonia and sick for five months. Now that he’s back in the game, he says injuries are another, almost expected, part of playing a college sport.
“You get through ‘em, right?” he says. “You survive.”
But sicknesses usually just require a couple of weeks in bed spent counting down to practice. And while most illnesses slow you down, injuries can end careers. Sometimes, getting back isn’t an option at all.
Jack Stein’s ankle ached with loose metal. A few of the 30 screws that had been surgically implanted after a diving accident moved around in his body, causing swelling and pain. The injury occurred two weeks after he won state finals in high school his junior year.
“It had kinda gotten gotten to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore,” the Wharton junior said. By the time he stopped swimming, halfway through his sophomore year, he could barely walk. “I was limping everywhere and in constant pain and irritable,” he says. “It was really time.”
Jack isn’t ready to leave swimming behind, though. He watches practices and goes to every meet. He helps coach divers, especially strong freshmen. And his housemates are all members of the swim team.
But even though he stays anchored in the swim community, he says he doesn’t wish he could go back. He can register for classes that fit in any schedule; he can sit down to do a problem set without crumbling from exhaustion.
“At the end of our season we don’t have practice or anything, and that’s the best part of our year,” he says. “So now I just have that permanently.”
Jacklyn D’Alleva (C ‘18) didn’t stop playing lacrosse after one concussion. Two didn’t stop her either. Three wasn’t quite enough to take her off the field, but after four concussions, Jacklyn officially decided to quit.
Her initial three concussions occurred during high school: The first from a snowboarding incident, the second during soccer and the third while playing lacrosse. However, her most recent concussion, which she got during practice last April, was different from the rest. More severe. Jacklyn explains that, “[At] end of last year a girl on the team accidentally checked me during a drill… It was a three–month recovery, I had to do physical therapy for my eyes. My vision was stuck.”
The concussions didn’t just affect her vision. Jacklyn lost much of her short term memory during the recovery time. She recalls heading to CVS Pharmacy after a doctor’s appointment, intent on doing… something. Jacklyn remembers calling her doctor, frightened, hysterical and sobbing. She knew she had something to do. She just didn’t know what.
The decision to quit was difficult, but medically necessary. Jacklyn remembers that, “My willingness to stop [playing lacrosse] was really low.” However, she admits that, “I can never be as sick as I was. I would never ever want to experience that again. There are so many studies about the longer your recovery time is, the more brain damage [from concussions]. My first recovery time was a week. My fourth was three months. You definitely see an increase, and you can’t reverse any of the damage you cause. So it’s really not worth the risk.”
Although she no longer plays on the team, Jacklyn can’t quite detangle her Penn life from her lacrosse identifier. She still considers herself part of the lacrosse team—she attends its parties, lives with girls on the team. Jacklyn chose not to remain on the team’s roster, noting that, “I don’t want to commit to having to stand on the sidelines for the three years if I’m never going to see any field time.”
Jacklyn now chooses to stay busy during team practices, filling her empty hours with community service—including teaching lacrosse to young girls back home in Long Island. And while she’s adopted less contact–heavy exercise regimens–mainly yoga and spin classes–Jacklyn refuses to give up entirely on her sport. “If I could play tomorrow I absolutely would. I would kill to play,” Jacklyn says thoughtfully. “There are girls who, for personal reasons, are no longer on the team, and I would give an arm and leg to get on the field.”
Michael Hamman sits on the bench, eyes focused on the boy gliding through the lane in front of him. Splashes echo across the pool, water flecks the deck, the benches, perhaps even Michael himself. The boy in water pushes faster, harder, and on the bench Michael can feel his heart pumping, too—adrenaline racing, body and mind caught in the rush.
Michael knows this swimmer—where he’s from and what his athletic ranking is, if he’ll qualify for NCAA. He can predict the race time.
“Kids on the team say I’m a big swim nerd,” Michael says. “If anyone has any questions, they come to me.”
Although Michael no longer swims on the team, he still enjoys watching his former teammates practice and compete. He recalls, “As soon as I started having issues, the coaches had me come out of the pool and started having me do splits and do things for other people and they kept me really involved.”
And while he himself does not participate, Michael maintains that, “Being on deck and watching people swim is just as enjoyable for me because I still get kinda that thrill of competition, without having to do it anymore, I still get that adrenaline rush.”
However, that neglected part of his identity will always remain, waiting for another chance. “I never considered not [being an athlete in College],” Michael remembers. “I had a pretty legit shot at trying to do something special.”
Keara Jenkins is a sophomore from New Jersey studying Modern Middle Eastern Studies. She is a Highbrow Beat for Street.