The Impact Player

Learning more than the rules of the sport.
Learning more than the rules of the sport. // Karen Tian

“Man up! Run the six shift!” Muffled shouts from the Kiphuth Exhibition Pool meandered around the maze of basement hallways, becoming clearer with each step as I emerged from the locker room onto the pool deck. I arrived late to our first club water polo practice of the year, struck by the familiar smell of sterile chlorine that wafted through the arena. Through the choppy commotion and sea of raised arms in the pool, I found my attention directed at an unfamiliar face, our newest addition to the team.

He couldn’t have been less than 30. A strong jawline and youthful blond curls, browned and wisped by the pool water, seemed incongruous with his weathered cheeks. As I reached for my toes in a sore hamstring stretch, I heard an excited call for the ball in a South African accent. Milliseconds later, the booming thump of the hard yellow projectile striking the tarp at the back of the goal.

Several kicks to the groin and mouthfuls of chlorine later, I introduced myself to Saul Kornik as we warmed down on the pool deck. At first I thought he was a graduate student. After all, two of our starting players, Thomas Lazzarini MED ’18 and goalie Paull Randt SOM ’14, have represented Yale Water Polo for more than six years. He informed me that he was a World Fellow. I nodded, surprised and impressed. I hadn’t met a World Fellow before, and certainly not in a Speedo.

 

My teammates and I shared a nervous optimism about Saul early on. He explained that he’d played with top amateur and club teams in Cape Town and London. Some of his former teammates now even play professionally in Europe.

Still, we were apprehensive about whether his commitment would last through the season. Would he show up for two hours of practice a night, Monday through Friday, for 10 straight weeks? Would he willingly play alongside those of us who hadn’t touched a water polo ball until freshman year of college?

It was like Christmas came three months early. Saul arrived at almost every practice at 8 p.m. on the dot, and often helped remove lane lines and install metal goals on the pool before practice.

He quickly took on a dual role on the team, with the attitude and energy of an equal, and the gameplay experience of a leader.

“As soon as I jump into the pool I’m no longer a World Fellow,” he would say, “but a water polo player.”

Of the many aspects of his character that surfaced during practice — moments of boyish mischievousness, hints of pre-Yale adventures, flashes of self-annoyance at a poor shot — his will to improve the lives of others stood out.

One time during a lull in practice, demonstrating to freshman Marios Tringides ’17 where to shift positions in our set-offense, Saul was struck by a curious revelation.

“Marios says to me, ‘Man, how do you know all these things?’” Saul later recounted, his cheeks dimpled in amusement. “I looked at him … and I said, ‘You know what Marios? I think I’ve been playing water polo for as long as you’ve been alive.’”

We became so engrossed by Saul’s water polo prowess that it wasn’t until Cyrus Nguyen ’15 emailed the team a video interview about his burgeoning nonprofit startup, the Johannesburg-based Africa Health Placements, that we discovered an even more impressive side to him.

Later, Saul explained the basic model to us while drying his hair with a towel: A human resources solution to integrate foreign-qualified doctors and health care workers in rural South Africa, in order to address the region’s massive public health care demand and alarming shortage of qualified physicians. His efforts have touched over 10 million lives and gained support from powerful aid agencies such as USAID.

“I don’t think that the work I’m doing is really changing the world, but I think it’s making an impact on people’s lives,” he said. “If we can set an example for how things should be done, maybe with profit instead measured in terms of social welfare or welfare of the planet, I think that’s a much more important part of the business.”

In the communal showers one evening, we learned how Saul balanced running his charitable business in South Africa and engaging with Yale and New Haven as a World Fellow.

His 18-hour days began and ended at his apartment on Chapel Street, and consisted of a full course load of undergraduate and professional classes, meetings with students and faculty members, Master’s Teas and special lectures centered on Africa Health Placements. It didn’t help that the CEO was provisionally anchored thousands of miles from Cape Town; on occasion he was forced to respond to certain business crises in the early morning hours.

 

Pass after pass, practice after practice, the season’s sinusoidal ups-and-downs embedded Saul in our team. In the locker room, we would form semicircles around him as he recalled alluring anecdotes from his travels in characteristically nonchalant tones. Our respect for his badassery was as if we were huddling around the water polo god’s human incarnate, or the grandfather of the village as he told stories in the glow of the fire, the setting lit instead by a shoddy light fixture.

Of all the experiences he shared, perhaps the most memorable story was about the time he participated in an extreme survival program, enduring 30 days on an uninhabited island. Participants could only bring what they could fit in a five-liter bag, and the initial group of 10 people dwindled down to two over the span of four long weeks. He was the hunter for the cohort, and would swim out in the bay for four hours each day to catch handfuls of fish for their sustenance. He lost 13 kilograms from his already trim frame.

The island also awarded Saul with an invaluable but hard-earned lens through which to view his mental state. He intentionally isolated himself, sleeping in a tree 20 minutes down the beach, in a setting devoid of any artificial stimulation. Boredom quickly set in; the sudden departure from normalcy made him irritable and frustrated. Then, on the 10th or 11th day, his outlook inexplicably changed.

“I started feeling this really deep sense of peace. I recognized my thoughts as being separate to myself. I started being able to question, ‘Do I really view the world like that?’”

 

Saul recounted this experience to me at a corner table in Cafe Romeo on Orange Street in late November, several weeks after the water polo season had ended.

He had arrived a few minutes late after a brisk walk over from a previous meeting. I felt a momentary revelation that Saul, taking off his beanie and smoothing his hair at the entrance, looked like the archetypal Yalie: navigating an impossibly busy schedule and holding it together with a smile. Worlds away from the desert island he had been describing.

Amidst the ambient buzz of the busy cafe, I struggled to imagine the mental tranquility he described. My previous few attempts at meditation, spearheaded by my yoga-inclined mother, lasted for a grand total of perhaps 10 minutes. Nevertheless, the contrasts between this vivid memory and the realities of our current environment were apparent to the both of us.

“If what I’m describing is the one extreme, I’d say the opposite extreme is Yale,” he said with a laugh.

Saul went on to explain the obsession with accomplishment that he felt captivated so many Yale students. His words rang familiar, echoing concerns surrounding the campus’s mental health support networks.

Saul traced his observations to two underlying cultural pressures: the circular groupthink induced by hundreds of high-octane high achievers in close quarters, and the ensuing mania for productivity that overwhelms much-needed mental quiet.

Over the course of just three months on campus, Saul had to continually challenge himself to live out his own personal values, recognizing how his identity began to blend in with the collective character. This was a challenge amid the din of campus life.

“You need the awareness that comes with stillness that doesn’t happen in a place like this,” he emphasized.

Yet, Saul was mindful of asserting too one-dimensional a cultural diagnosis. While exhausting, his experiences fielding Yale’s constant bombardment of stimuli had their positives too.

“I struggle to say ‘no,’ I really do,” he said about the opportunities to meet a mélange of people on campus. “I’m feeling like this even just after three months.”

Saul’s bottom-line was that Yale, overheated with enthusiasm, needed to develop a culture of independent reflection. His reasoning seemed compelling enough: a heightened understanding of one’s moods and values extends from prolonged mental tranquility.

From his perspective, having fielded more than a decade of professional twists and turns, we should all be taking a dose or two of the proverbial chill pill. He welcomed the opportunity to tell undergraduates, “You’re not that important,” a phrase that had a notable cooling effect.

“The reality is that no one here, no single human being is that important,” he continued. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we all need to pull together to do it. I get a strong sense that students here at Yale have a desire to do that.”

Over an hour and a half had passed in a stream of fluid conversation. Saul turned to greet his next meeting partner who entered the cafe, a School of Management professor seemingly eager to discuss the economics of running an NGO.

I thanked Saul for his time. He raised his beanie and half-finished coffee to move to another table, shifting effortlessly into more technical discussion. But, as I rose from my chair, he shifted back.

“Oh, and Charles -— see you at water polo scrimmage tonight?” he asked with a grin.

Correction, February 25: A previous version of the article stated that the World Fellows Program is administered by the Jackson Institute, and that Africa Health Placements is based in Cape Town. In fact, the World Fellows Program is administered by the Yale President’s Office, and Africa Health Placements is based in Johannesburg.

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