A sense of place through sports

Two months before I left for Yale to begin my freshman year, I sat in a biomedical research lab in Cincinnati on an unassuming Wednesday morning and watched as Landon Donovan snuck an extra-time goal past Algeria in the greatest moment in U.S. National Team history. In the seconds that followed, chill-inducing cheers erupted around the medical complex — the U.S. had just advanced out of the group stage in the 2010 World Cup. With Yale just weeks away and the world united in football fever, everything felt overwhelmingly, optimistically alive.

Four years later, I’ve traded in my misguided biology aspirations for an economics degree, and I’ve realized how sports have framed my Yale journey along the way. In October of freshman year, I wanted nothing more than to attend the Reds’ first playoff appearance in 15 years. Homesick and stressed, I boarded a plane at Tweed and flew home for Game Three of the National League Division Series, much to the confusion of my Spanish professor and my new Yale companions. I had been away for only six weeks, but, as I’m sure many would agree, it felt like an eternity without my family and my friends. Yet as my high school friends and I watched the Reds get blanked from the upper deck, it became frighteningly clear that everyone was already moving in different directions. Something was off from the many carefree summer evenings we spent in the nosebleeds. The world was no longer optimistically big but uncontrollably monstrous, going out of its way to destroy my sense of home and belonging in the process. I was uprooted from one place but not settled in the next.

Over time, I’ve been able to file away that period as part of the natural coming-of-age crisis experienced by all freshmen (and it does happen to everyone, even if they say it doesn’t). Sports have remained my link to home and a clear reminder that it is possible to have roots in more than one place at once. I jumped on the Knicks bandwagon in the heat of Linsanity (and have since retracted my fandom) while rooting for the Bearcats. I braced myself for yet another Bengals playoff loss while I followed Yale hockey. Despite my early misgivings, new links, new interests and new friends didn’t crowd out my foundation and my old sense of self — they only improved and strengthened it.

And they’ve allowed me to enjoy everything that Yale has to offer, with sports playing a major role in the highlights. I’ve had the opportunity to see the Bulldogs win a hockey national championship and get right back to discussing political journalism in seminar the following Monday. Yale’s generosity allowed me to study economics in London in 2012 — and just happen to watch Michael Phelps become the winningest Olympian of all time in person. It’s unbelievable to think that I once had my doubts about what this Yale experience would hold.

My time at Yale has also confirmed that sports are a relevant allegory for life and an important barometer of social progress. Over the last four years, we’ve witnessed the brave actions and increasing acceptance of LGBTQ athletes from Jason Collins to Michael Sam. As we celebrate Monday’s emotional running of the Boston Marathon, we’ve once again been prompted to recall the power of sport to unite us and help us cope with unthinkable tragedy. The course of international geopolitics and athletics intersected in Sochi, and now, debates over labor rights and big business are centered on the unionization efforts of the Northwestern football team. The significance and weight of sports are unlikely to wane anytime soon.

It seems fitting that my Yale career began right after one World Cup ended, and will conclude right as another is about to begin. In Brazil, the world will once again come together in a place of great growth and promise for a summer of fantastic competition. It will once again be a milestone: a frame for me as I look ahead to what life holds next. Like all recent world sporting events, it will arrive with anticipation clouded by controversy and anxiety. On a far smaller scale, the same could be said for our post-Yale lives. But with four formative years under my belt, the world is no longer so scary or overwhelmingly big. I am not the same person who dumbfoundedly admired Donovan in that hometown lab. I am four years better — maybe four years less naïve, but also four years more excited about where my roots can take hold next. For that, I thank Yale, and I thank sports.

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