Each Wednesday after environmental engineering, Vanessa Haas ’04 wraps her books in a T-shirt and boards a plane bound for West Palm Beach, Fla. There, an Olympic coach and a 6-foot-tall gelding named Rainbow await her.
Haas is a political science major in Ezra Stiles College from Monday through Wednesday, and a professional athlete Thursday through Sunday. Yesterday, she schlepped to Linsly-Chittenden Hall; today — April 16 — she jets to Belgium. Rainbow has already travelled with a trainer, in an exclusive “air-barn,” and is ready to meet her on the other end.
Haas has just qualified for the super bowl of the sport that is also her full-time profession. While most Yalies dream of finding a calling and then reaching the top of the field, Haas has been there and back.
It hasn’t come cheaply.
She has worked two full-time jobs, as student and professional athlete since the age of 7. Now she is the youngest by far of the 11 horse jumpers who will represent the United States in the World Cup finals in Leipzig, Germany during Yale’s reading period. Her teammates include six Olympians and the No. 1 rider in the country.
Her roommate and confidant, Whitney May ’04, herself a rider, said she had heard of Haas’ professional talent before arriving at Yale. But she had not imagined her friend could have become such an international success at age 20.
“Vanessa’s been competing against some of the world’s best riders in a sport where experience is everything,” May said. “Some of her rivals and teammates have been doing this for 40 years.”
Moreover, the majority of her professional colleagues have dedicated themselves since high school exclusively to riding. For this reason, Haas said her life as a full-time Yale student is perceived as an anomaly in the riding culture.
Although she competes in major national events about 30 times a year, her balancing act never goes unremarked.
“They always announce I go to Yale when I compete,” she said.
Haas pursues her two careers with equal intensity.
“When I’m here, I’m pretty much working all day long,” she said. “When I’m competing, I try not to do schoolwork; I try to give it everything.”
And though her shadow life at Yale may make Haas somewhat of a mystery to her classmates, she is not your typical pampered professional Yalie.
Like many of her classmates, she is poised, articulate and loves Yale. But in this liberal arts institution, she is that rare student who has found the defining passion and vocation of her life, and can’t let it go.
“I’ve found something in my life, that if everything else is terrible, I still love to do. I wouldn’t choose to do anything else, riding is such a privilege,” she said.
Her face grows serene as she describes her experience of riding today as a joy both timeless and intimately connected to her earliest memories.
According to her father, Haas developed maturity at a young age, even as she missed out on most social rites-of-passage in her school.
“Very early in her life Vanessa experienced a microcosm of life overall,” Robert B. Haas said from the family’s home in Dallas, Texas. “When her friends were going to dances in the seventh grade, Vanessa would be on an airplane, studying somewhere at 11 o’clock at night.”
She also had the responsibilities of keeping up with her tutor, avoiding the sketchier corners of her big-money sport, and asking herself when, and if, she would go to college.
“Now I give school and riding equal attention, but in my heart, riding will always win. It may take the lead at some point in my life, soon,” she said.
She is determined to make this critical decision before her four years of college are gone.
“For now, I accept the fact that I sacrifice certain things, but I don’t want to go through my whole time here like this,” she said.
But the prospect of a life without riding is hard for her to relish. If she seriously cuts back her riding time when she returns to Yale, it will be the first time in nearly a decade that she has made school the center of her life.
Her coach, Olympic rider Lauren Hough , said she does not know whether Vanessa will choose to stay in the ring or give her astonishing success up for the comforts of New Haven. Hough, who is also Haas’ teammate on the elite World Cup team, went into professional riding straight out of high school.
“Vanessa is very dedicated to her studies, and I don’t know how she does it. It is beyond my imagination,” Hough said.
Roommate May said Haas’ choice will tear her away from “one of her two worlds, where the people in one don’t know what her life is like in the other.”