Athletes bond over meals in Commons

Students often say Commons reminds them of Hogwarts.

The soft light of the chandeliers barely penetrates the upper reaches of the rafters. Long wooden tables and high-backed chairs preserve a sense of order. Portraits, chronicling the historical progression of facial hair styles from muttonchops to the handlebar, peer down from the walls.

But on any given night, there are no find wizards in robes. Owls will not fly overhead.

Instead, athletes are wrapped in ice packs and sweats, the uniform of choice, and echoing calls serve as the only means of communication.

After the grind of a late-afternoon practice, athletes strut or stagger their way into Commons, the only dining hall still open. Convenience draws them through the rotunda after dark, but camaraderie and tradition keep them there.

For these teammates, there is something reassuring about dinner in Commons. They usually hear the din before they see it, but they already know what awaits. Swimmers will be at the first table, slumped in sweats, headphones and earrings. Men at the right end, women to the left. Next sits baseball, the loudest of the bunch. And so on down the line — on this night, soccer, track, basketball, football and gymnastics.

Commons plays host to a microcosm of the athlete’s life at Yale. Seniors take the lead with obvious respect from the underclassmen. The veterans appear calm, collected and deliberate. They have done this before. Joslyn Woodard ’06, a star sprinter and jumper on the women’s track team, said her perspective on Commons is different now than it was three years ago.

“Freshman and sophomore years, Commons is the place to be,” Woodard said. “You don’t really have a grasp that time here is so short. But now I only go to dinner there on Tuesday, and the only reason I go is for my team. It’s not mandatory, but it’s sort of an implied mandate. The point is to get to know your teammates outside of practice.”

This spirit dominates Woodard’s table. Her teammate, Katie Greene ’06, took advantage of the bonding time there to extend it beyond dinner. Before each meet, runners fill the infield, warming up in blue T-shirts of Greene’s own design. On the front rests a pun — “WTF” — and the back reads, “First Team All Commons.”

With the chaos of academics and athletics, teammates rarely are able to sit down together as a group. But athletes can regain their breath and catch up on the rest of each other’s lives over a meal. Time seems to slow, and concerns about a sore Achilles or an aching knee wait until after dessert.

Teams take advantage of meal times as a forum for bonding that becomes so regular that it is unspoken and habitual.

Brendan Everman ’06, captain of the men’s swim team, said there is no explicit pressure to attend these ritual meals, but athletes know where they are expected to be.

“Eating in Commons after practice has been a tradition for the swim team since before I got here,” he said. “There is a general understanding that if you are on the meal plan, you go to Commons for dinner after practice.”

Anne McPherson ’06, captain of the women’s gymnastics team, said dinners provide a necessary change of pace while keeping the team together.

“I think it is a great bonding time,” she said. “Practice is as well, but in a different way. At dinner we can joke around more, gossip and socialize more than we do in the gym.”

Of course, different schedules force some teams to vary their meal plans. The women’s softball team convenes for morning practice at 6 a.m., and then heads to Commons to relax before class. The morning of Valentine’s Day provided the chance to embarrass a teammate in front of other unsuspecting students. A surprise valentine from a campus comedy group seemed to fit the bill, and after the entertainment and the subsequent blushing, the softball players headed to classes with fellow students who had just woken up. Many of their non-athletes — or “normies,” as some athletes call them — do not suspect that some of their peers have already been awake for five or more hours.

The athletes eating at Commons say they share an understanding that a normie cannot imagine. These athletes live a double life, disappearing for hours at a time during the early mornings and late afternoons to push their physical limits. When one athlete sees another wrapped in ice, a knowing glance may pass between them.

Christina Guerland ’07, a second baseman on the softball team, said this understanding is visible every night at Commons.

“The commitment is something the other student-athletes know so well and understand immediately,” Guerland said. “I think it’s part of the reason why athletes are so tight. It’s hard for others to understand the time commitment involved with a sport at Yale, from the weight room to practice to traveling to away games. You get some sympathy looks at Commons when other teams know you’ve already been up practicing at six in the morning.”

When a Bulldog sits down to a mountain of soggy pasta and six glasses of violently blue Powerade, back aching and clothes damp with sweat, it is the end of a long day. But this does not mean the competitive spark has been extinguished.

Even Woodard, who said Commons has lost its novelty, followed Greene’s lead. Before her season started, she signed an e-mail with a competitive flourish: “WTF — First Team All Commons. About to be First Team All Ivy. Don’t get it twisted.”

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