Walk-on athletes toe the varsity line

Many freshmen arrive at Yale having played sports during their high school days. Some believe that they now must hang up their sneakers or cleats because they were not recruited to be a varsity athlete at Yale.

The truth, however, is that there are several opportunities to get involved in Yale athletics even if you were not recruited. Often, students who “walk on” end up playing important roles on Yale teams.

For example, women’s squash captain Miriam Fishman ’02 walked on to the squash team her freshman year with no previous experience.

“Walking on to the squash team was probably the best decision I’ve made at Yale,” Fishman said in an e-mail. “Playing on a team is an unbelievable experience that gives you a self-confidence and a pride in your school that I think very few other activities can provide.”

And while Fishman and head coach Mark Talbott both said it is rare for a walk-on to become a captain, Fishman illustrates the opportunities available to talented Yale athletes.

Walking on to varsity sports like squash, crew or fencing is possible, but it requires hard work and perseverance as well as athletic ability.

Walking on to the women’s squash team is harder now than it was when Fishman was a freshman, Talbott said.

“I would say its tough to walk on now because we may have the best team in the country,” Talbott said. “I don’t separate the varsity and the JV, and it’s just difficult if there are a couple of weaker players.”

Fishman said she did not think that she could have walked on to the team this year because the team is so much better.

Other sports that often accepts walk-ons are men’s and women’s varsity crew. Dan Kilpatrick ’03 walked on to the lightweight crew team and he said there were six walk-ons when he started, although all but two have quit now.

He said it can be difficult to start a new sport, especially a demanding, year-round sport like crew. But Kilpatrick said that if you are willing to work hard and persevere, being a varsity athlete can be incredibly rewarding.

“It can certainly be discouraging especially if you’re not as good or if you start out slowly,” Kilpatrick said. “[You should] give yourself some time. I certainly wasn’t one of the better walk-ons to start, but that quickly changed. If you were a good athlete in high school chances are you’ll be a good athlete in college.”

Kilpatrick said that walk-ons play an important role on the crew team.

“Some [walk-ons] can be some of the best on the team,” Kilpatrick said. “Others provide depth. I believe, having been a walk-on, that they add a lot to a team.”

Meredith Hughes ’05 walked on to the Ivy League champion women’s fencing team. She said her coach, Henry Harutunian, loves walk-ons.

“Coach [Harutunian] knows that walk-ons are the heart and soul of the team,” Hughes said.

She added that she was very glad that she fenced this year.

“It was humbling, but I didn’t really have high expectations for myself,” Hughes said. “It was a really amazing experience to be able to fence such high quality fencers all the time. I think it was really amazing for my fencing.”

Fishman said once an athlete establishes her skill level and commitment to the team, it should not matter whether she was recruited or is a walk-on.

“On a team full of recruited athletes, walking on is a daunting and potentially humbling task,” Fishman said. “It’s not easy, but it does happen — I had a pretty fortunate, but probably pretty rare experience.”

Fishman said the coach makes a big difference in the quality of the experience.

“My coach is one of the kindest, most considerate and honest coaches I’ve ever played for, and I’ve been playing organized sports for 16 years now,” Fishman said.

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