Every morning, I wander through the back gates of Pierson College toward the small walkway that cuts from Park Street to York Street past the African-American House and the Yale Daily News. I then turn left toward 220 York St., descend to the basement classrooms, and begin practicing my broken Chinese. If not there already, my classmate Kai Shuwen rolls in, his messenger bag slung over his leather jacket. Soon thereafter the class fills with the other faces to whom I can only attach teacher-formulated Chinese names (that’s right, I’ve been in class with these people for more than six months and when I see them on the street I’m still forced to call them by a name that is not really theirs).
Kai Shuwen, who sits to my immediate left, is a member of the men’s lightweight crew team. He frequently picks at the calluses on his hands. He and his boat recently rowed a particularly fast time, and he was happy about it. When the syllabus required us to ask each other about our spring break plans, Kai Shuwen reminded the class that he planned to go to Florida with his teammates. His boat lost on Saturday, but the Varsity Eight won the Johnson Cup against Navy by nearly three whole seconds. Kai Shuwen was content on Monday morning. He is proud to be a member of the team.
Across the round table sits a fairly odd pair — a senior girl and a freshman guy, both Californians. They almost always come in together, and they both wear sweatpants and sneakers. The girl, Ru Miaoyin, wears an Ivy League Championship women’s soccer trucker hat. The guy, Lan Tao, now has an oversized piece of bling on his left hand from the men’s soccer team’s 2005 Ivy League title. They come to class together because they often study together the night before. Their common bond, soccer, goes beyond the classroom, and thus they have a friendship that seems to transcend the standard age barrier.
Su Zijing takes her place two seats to my right, next to her boyfriend. She is one of two freshman sensations on the Yale women’s gymnastics team. Two weekends ago, she went to the NCAA Division I National Qualifier. Having qualified for the all-around event, she was attached to the end of Utah’s rotation. The morning after her return, she whispered quietly about how good the other competitors had been, how they all scored 38.7 when she only scored 37.7 (or something like that). She was excited from having been there at all.
These students all look completely different. No common denominator reveals their shared athleticism. Even the discerning eye would struggle to pull it all together. Kai Shuwen’s hands. Ru Miaoyin’s strong calves, which she exposes by rolling up her sweatpants. Lan Tao’s long, sinuous arms and legs. Su Zijing’s forearms and biceps, hidden beneath her Columbia winter jacket.
Together, they are only four of the hundreds of varsity athletes at Yale. And what is true of them is true of most of Yale’s athletes: they’re no more recognizable than you or me. Except for those male athletes who are just that much larger than most humans, the standard Yale varsity athlete does not stand out in the classroom as anything other than a student.
Despite this apparent similarity, a commentator on the Yale social structure would likely note the great divide between athletes and other students. The athletes usually hang out with other athletes. Their time commitment each week dictates that those people with whom they spend the most time, and therefore with whom they are most likely to form lasting relationships, are their teammates.
But they go to classes in the same lecture halls and eat in the same dining areas. Their boathouse jackets and screen-printed shorts can be slightly intimidating. But for the most part, the standard athlete is just as concerned about a pending paper deadline or oral presentation as everyone else.
And yet, this recognizable divide between Yale students and Yale students who play varsity sports still exists. We may look alike and we may share many common places, but something separates us. And that makes sense. People form friendships by spending time with other people who share the same interests. It is only natural that Yale students associate with their friends. It’s not a problem; it’s the result of a student body that cannot spend its time unnecessarily looking for friends in places it wouldn’t normally find them. Students don’t have time for that, and neither do student-athletes.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson. His column appears on Wednesdays.