As a little kid, Parth Bhatia ’20 used to play tennis with his dad. One day, when Bhatia was six years old, it began to rain hard outside. Indoor tennis courts were hard to come by in Delhi, India, so he and his dad decided to play squash with tennis rackets instead. “I never played tennis again after that,” Bhatia said.
By the time Bhatia was a junior in high school, he ranked among the top 20 squash players under 17 years old in India. This fall, he walked onto the Yale men’s squash team. Now, he is one of two walk-ons playing for the defending national champions.
Bhatia did not participate in the recruiting process. After a bulged disk in his lower back derailed his squash season during his junior year in high school, he decided to focus on academics as a senior, which meant that squash took a backseat; he practiced only once or twice a week. Bhatia got into Yale with no help from his athletic credentials. After he arrived on campus, he contacted squash head coach David Talbott, who offered him a tryout in the fall. He began practicing with the team on Aug. 29, and after a week, Talbott gave him a spot.
Yale’s 34 varsity sports teams are dotted with walk-ons who, like Bhatia, took a circuitous route to the Bulldog sporting scene. Some had their high school careers set back by injury. Others chose to forgo recruitment by other schools and set their sights on Yale’s academic prestige. A few took up a sport they had never played before.
Walk-ons are often characterized as second-tier athletes — passed on during the recruitment process and later looked down upon by their recruited teammates. But Bhatia and many of his fellow Yale walk-ons defy this characterization, devoting much of their nonacademic lives to carving out a niche on their teams. Teammates and coaches rely on walk-ons in many ways and strive to integrate them into their respective athletic programs. In the end, a walk-on becomes just another athlete, as integral to the team’s success as the recruits.
For sailing head coach Zachary Leonard ’89, filling his roster each fall is an uphill battle. Yale’s sailing team is allotted two to three recruits per year. While other Ivy League teams have similar quotas, some of the top teams in the country, including Stanford, Boston College and Georgetown, receive up to 10 recruits each class. As a result, much of Leonard’s work is structured around fielding a competitive roster. Roughly 150 high schoolers email him each year expressing their interest to walk on. After freshmen arrive on campus in the fall, he recruits athletes on an individual basis. The team is open to virtually anyone. “There’s everything from total beginners who like the idea of sailing to kids who are lightly experienced and hadn’t emailed us before,” Leonard said. “They’re like a pot of gold for us.”
Sailing is an experience-based sport — repeated exposure to racing conditions leads to steady improvement. And despite its reliance on walk-ons, Yale sailing swept the three national championship regattas in 2015 and finished in the top five of all three races the following year. Leonard’s program has long depended on walk-ons to race at the highest level. Shortly after Leonard began coaching at Yale in 2000, Kate Littlefield ’04 joined the team with no prior experience. By the time she graduated, she was an All-American.
Sports like volleyball, which is highly skill-based, fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. The women’s volleyball team has won seven Ivy League titles during head coach Erin Appleman’s tenure and is generally filled with recruits. Whereas Leonard gives his new sailors time to learn on an individual basis and places walk-ons in the same boats as veterans, the volleyball team hits the ground running. “There’s no grace period,” Appleman told me, chuckling. “We have to sprint.”
Last year, Kate Aitkenhead ’19 became Appleman’s third walk-on in 14 years. Graduating from The Spence School in New York City, Aitkenhead came to Yale having played club volleyball up and down the Eastern seaboard. She was recruited by several other Ivies and Georgetown, but she did not make Yale’s final list of candidates. When Aitkenhead got into Yale, though, Appleman was thrilled. “A lot of colleagues told me I got the catch of the century,” she said.
Aitkenhead was treated like a recruit after her Yale acceptance, joining the team for summer training. At first, adjusting to Ivy League play was a challenge. The pace of the game was much faster than in high school and she found herself “running in circles on the court.” Aitkenhead played in just three of the team’s 58 sets last year.
But soon, Aitkenhead felt like she belonged. “If you’re part of the program, you’re part of the program. It’s a binary,” she said. “The coaches here have jobs, they have salaries, they want to win. No one is ever on the team as a courtesy.” This year, Aitkenhead, a middle blocker, is fifth in the Ivy League in blocks per set.
For teams with small rosters like volleyball, coaches can’t afford to expend spots on athletes who will not have an in-game impact. On larger teams, though, the philosophy is often different. “I absolutely look outside the grain of athletics,” men’s cross country head coach Paul Harkins said. “[Athletes can] show they’re positive contributing members in terms of team morale.”
On his team, Harkins typically has two to three walk-ons each year. If a runner contacts him and meets the team’s time standards, Harkins gives him a time trial or allows him to train with the team for two weeks before giving him a spot. But sometimes, Harkins is willing to bend those standards if a runner shows extraordinary dedication.
Cross country is unusual in that athletes can elevate their performance to meet team standards through sheer perseverance. Adam Houston ’18 had a rough season as a high school junior — he got sick, and his times stopped improving, but he still reached out to college coaches and found Harkins especially welcoming. “Coach Harkins was great and took the time to respond to me, even though my times weren’t great,” he said.
College running was a step up the ladder. In high school, Houston’s speed workouts topped out at three miles, but at Yale the workouts are at least twice that length. Even though he had qualified for the Washington State Championships three times in high school, he had to learn to race from behind when he got to Yale. “Being buried way back in the pack was an adjustment,” he said. “I had to learn to keep my cool and move up slowly.”
In Houston’s sophomore year, Yale placed third at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, the team’s highest finish since 2003. He finished 17th in the race, third-best for Yale. The team’s fourth-place finisher, Duncan Tomlin ’16, was another walk-on. In high school, Tomlin suffered several stress fractures and ran only 20 miles a week, never putting together a consistent season of training. Yet Harkins still gave him a chance. Houston attributed his coach’s openness towards walk-ons to the success of athletes like Tomlin.
It takes only a few weeks for a walk-on to join a sports team, but assimilating into that team’s culture and feeling comfortable in the role of a student-athlete takes a longer time. Recruits meet each other on official visits and complete the NCAA’s clearance requirements in the spring before freshman year, but walk-ons often become integrated into their teams later in the process. Some, like Aitkenhead, feel like part of the team immediately after their admission to Yale. She began to chat with the recruits in her class in the spring and also participated in summer training, bonding with her teammates before school began. But athletes who walk on after school starts can find themselves playing catch-up. A deluge of paperwork, women’s lacrosse team walk-on Anna Thorndike ’20 said, was the first challenge she had to deal with when she joined the team this fall. “Getting cleared was the most involved process ever,” she said.
And while recruits enter college with an understood responsibility to their team, walk-ons voluntarily thrust themselves into the maelstrom of athletics and academics. Tomlin spent 30 hours on team-related activities each week. Sailing team walk-on Chris Champa ’18 commits 35 hours a week to sailing. And Bhatia spends six hours a day with his squash teammates. For all athletes, breaks and weekends are devoted almost entirely to team activities. Midterm season can be especially taxing — Kamsi Nwangwu ’19, a walk-on running back on the football team, said he’s gone two or three days with only four total hours of sleep because of exams.
Tomlin, who decided to take Directed Studies as a freshman, said he would binge on coffee and stay up writing his paper until 11 a.m. after Thursday cross country practices. “The workouts in college were exponentially harder than anything I’d ever done before, especially because I blew off coach’s summer training program my first year to go surfing,” he wrote in an email. As his grades slipped and his health deteriorated, Tomlin decided to quit the cross country team. But Harkins had two runners, upperclassmen who had previously taken Directed Studies, guide Tomlin through his workload, and he rejoined the team after a monthlong hiatus.
Because Lambie Lanman ’18, who walked onto the football team as a freshman, went through the NCAA clearance process months after his recruited teammates, he also could not participate in summer lifting and conditioning. Instead, he trained on his own and studied the playbook. When he arrived for fall camp, two months after the rest of the team, the transition was physically and mentally draining.
Most walk-ons find a way to manage sports and academics. Some, like Champa and Bhatia, commit all of their time to classes and sports, while others have time to pursue additional interests. Nwangwu joined an a cappella group, Unorthojocks, consisting primarily of varsity athletes. Aitkenhead works as a tour guide and is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. Tomlin worked on a radio show, researched in Yale’s Human Nature Lab and was President of the Yale Surf Team.
Other walk-ons, however, find that the commitment to college sports is more than they expected. In the end, some decide to walk off the team they had joined at the start of college. Given the investment that goes into the recruitment process, some coaches find it harder to let recruited athletes go. “The coaches are more reluctant to let that happen, because their jobs are on the line, and they think the recruited player can take the team to the next level,” Lanman said. But for walk-ons, walking off may seem easier.
When Lanman broke his humerus as a sophomore, he decided to leave the football team. The additional time gave him a chance to explore other parts of Yale — he joined a sketch comedy group, The Odd Ducks, at the beginning of this year and plans to study abroad in Florence next semester, an opportunity most varsity athletes cannot pursue.
“Like all Yale students, you’re involved in a ton of things in high school,” said Lindsey Combs ’19, a hurdler who walked off the women’s track team after freshman year. “I always loved to dance, and I was interested in entrepreneurship. I did not expect that I’d be classified as an athlete, because that’s not how I was ever classified at home.” Now, Combs said she feels more integrated into Yale student life. She has been able to attend office hours and college teas more regularly, and instead of going to practice in the afternoons, she now tutors at St. Martin de Porres Academy and Fair Haven School.
Some walk-ons ultimately decide that a more diverse Yale experience is what they want, while others live and breathe the sport they play. The experiences of walk-ons are as varied as the number of sports teams at Yale.
On one wall of the Brady Squash Center, a motto hangs: “The number nine player is as important as the number one player.” Integration is a core tenet of Coach Talbott’s philosophy. “There’s no separation,” he told me. “I don’t care. Within 24 hours, nobody knows you’re a walk-on.” Talbott ensures that everyone on the team, from his top player to his 15th, plays one another on a regular basis — and his top women train with his men, too. When I walk into the Brady Center, Bhatia is scrimmaging against Jenny Scherl ’17, a unanimous All-Ivy selection last year.
For Bhatia, the transition to collegiate athletics has been especially tough. “Squash in India is ridiculously different,” he said. “India is less about physicality and more about shot-making ability. In the U.S., it’s more about how strong you are.” Bhatia had never lifted weights before coming to Yale. He couldn’t squat 40 pounds when he started working out with Talbott’s team. Now, he can squat almost three times that weight.
Bhatia has been scrimmaging against every member of the team and analyzing film of his games with seniors to make small adjustments to his technique. As he plays against Scherl, five of his teammates gather around the exhibition court to spectate. Bhatia is playing on the crown jewel of the Brady Center, the only squash court in America with four glass walls, and he’s being watched from all sides. Scherl forces an error on his backhand, and he turns and looks at the crowd, shaking his head. “Wow,” he mutters.
But as the match progresses, Kah Wah Cheong ’18, the winner of the deciding match in last year’s national championship, leans over to his teammates. “Yo,” he says. “This is the best I’ve seen him play.” Bhatia is quick and precise, and his shots are thunderous. After devoting the majority of his waking hours to the team for two months, it seems like he belongs. He wins the match handily.