2008 Scholar-Athlete Dinner

Each May since 1994 the College has honored those varsity athletes nominated by their coaches who are sophomores, juniors or seniors who are starters or key reserves and have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.20 at the annual Scholar-Athlete Dinner.

A cumulative GPA of at least 3.20 is utilized as a cutoff because that is the minimum cumulative GPA for which a student-athlete may be nominated for the Academic All-America teams selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America (C0SIDA).

Senior honorees are allowed to invite one professor to the Scholar-Athlete Dinner and by tradition the event includes a speech by one male and one female honoree.

This year 213 scholar-athletes were honored. Senior Bill Ference, a four-year letter winner in cross country, and senior Laura Ellison, a four-year letter winner in cross country and track and field, were the selected speakers.

Time is Limited

by Abby Weir '08

When I got here four years ago, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about rowing.  I loved it in high school, even if I didn’t love the 5am practices, and I knew I wanted to be on a team again.  At the same time, I was incredibly intimidated.  So much so that when I met the experienced first-years who would be rowing with the Varsity, I thought all but one were juniors.  I was practically in tears early in the afternoon of our first-day-of-practice 6k test and actually coerced one of my entry suitemates, who had also rowed in high school, to come test and try out for the team.  We did, but that night at 2am, after a fantastic first First Fridays, my entry mate informed me that she, in fact, was quitting the team, having no interest in running a mile and a half at 7am.  So, five hours later, I hurried down to the track alone, joined by the one other girl I knew to be a freshman, now my co-captain.  Eventually I figured out who the other first-years were, and also that Friday night dance parties pre-practice were probably not a good decision. 

Our coach, Justin Moore, who some of you may know from his phenomenal team alcohol talks, frequently tells us, along with other quotables like “There is no bad weather, only soft people”, that “you can do anything at Williams, but you can’t do everything”.  The longer I am in Williamstown, the more that rings true.  Obviously, many of you in the room do countless activities outside of your sport, not only excelling in your academics but in singing or acting or community service.  At the same time, I found in rowing something I could commit entirely to, always sure that it would be worth the time, energy, effort, emotion involved.  I think all the teams here are like that.  For all the importance of our classes and other activities, I wonder if there is anywhere else you can experience the same feelings of achievement, of sacrifice, of companionship.  It is an amazing thing to strive with a group of people, all differences pushed aside to focus on a common goal, working toward something you could never accomplish on your own.
Rowing is a sport in which eight bodies move in perfect unison, and as I flew down the course of the grand final at NCAAs last spring, filled with so much adrenaline I couldn’t even feel my legs working, and saw the boat in second place begin to take a move forward, trying to decrease our lead, I knew with the utmost certainty that no one around me was going to let us drop back.  There was not a chance.  And having that much trust in my entire boat, created through hours and hours of hard work all year long, I knew they felt the same way, knew there was no way I could back off, not even for a single stroke.  I knew we would make it.  I knew I could go to place I had never been, because I knew they would all be there with me.  I think all of us in this room are lucky enough to have that kind of experience from time to time, on our respective teams, but most people never do.  Make the most of it, every second.  Because the truth is, as I am seeing now as a senior, it is just an instant, a golden moment. It can’t last forever.
Last weekend it was the Williams Crew’s New England Championships (where, by the way, we won the all-team points trophy for the efforts of the men and women’s programs).  I worked hard every day all season to be in the seat I wanted in the boat I wanted, but come Saturday, I wasn’t out there.  Moving through a fast season of racing, ranked second nationally and looking toward NCAAs in a month, I found out I have two rib stress fractures.  Hoping not to have my ribs explode (the racing protocol then apparently being for me to unhook my oar and fling myself out of the boat in order to let the boat maintain speed) I was switched from competitor to spectator. 
It’s funny to watch something you’re used to doing.  Even riding in the coach’s launch for practice my heart would race as I watched the boats battle through the pieces of the workout, surging forward or falling behind.  More than anything, I wanted to be out there, oar in hand.  Given the chance you could’ve put me anywhere: in my seat from before, or with the novice men, wherever.  I just wanted to be racing.  As exciting as it was this past weekend, watching the boats head out onto the lake and then watching them zoom across the finish line, experiencing a regatta from the shore was a totally eye-opening experience.  Cheering for something I worked so hard to be a part of was tough.
Sure, I can always row again later.  You can play pick-up basketball at the gym, or join some kind of grown ups’ hockey league, but I doubt that’s really the same as right now.  The lessons I learned here at Williams, and the experiences I have had with my team, are probably some of the most important and will carry through as I go on in life.  How to trust; how to fail, how to triumph, how to take risks, how to push myself.
Time is limited.  We each only have four years, so make the most of it.  It won’t always be there.  The morning of May 31st, I might not be sitting on a starting line.  I might be cheering, screaming at the top of my lungs, or holding my breath until the boats go by.  But I do know that when I take my last strokes, they will be the strongest and fastest of my ability.  I will race with an open heart and mind, empowered by the efforts of my teammates around me.  At Williams, we are all given that opportunity.  We have only to decide to reach out and grab it. 
I know everyone here has worked hard to sit in these seats, and I applaud that.  In spite of our many differences, that is something we all share: the drive of a collective effort, the desire to work towards something greater than ourselves.  In my time here at Williams I have rowed pretty much everywhere imaginable: the freshmen boat, the third varsity, a random two-person pair, the second varsity, and the varsity 8.  What matters, though, isn’t where I ended up, but rather how much I accomplished with whomever was around me.  Looking over it all, and around me right now, I think the important thing is to make every effort to gain the most from each opportunity that arises.
This is always a fun night.  It's a nice time to step back and be recognized for the successes we've all had as individuals in the classroom and on the playing field.  And a time to celebrate each other's successes.

How I got to be King Slow Boy

by Matthew Simonson '08

Note: What follows in a rough transcription of my remarks at the Scholar Athlete banquet.  The actual speech was improvised.

So I wrote this speech for you all that uses steeplechase as a metaphor for my four years at Williams.  It talks about all the academic hurdles I had to get over, the fatigue of final semester, how I occasionally fell into the water pit of despair… That’s stupid.  I’m a senior.  I can do whatever I want.  [Picks up large stack of papers from podium].  I’m just gonna wing this.  [Tears papers to sheds. Throws remains of the “speech” in the air and lets them drift down like a cloud of confetti.] I’m just going to talk to you about what it’s like to be Matt Simonson.  [Throws off suit jacket, leaves podium, and picks up black Mongolian robe with Chinese dragons on it.  Places a large yellow crown on his head with the letters “S L O W” on it.  Begins tying sash.] This is the story of how I became the King Slow Boy of the Men’s Cross Country Team.

Now the Slow Boys are a group of Williams runners who weren’t recruited, don’t score any points in big meets, and basically stick around for four years because they like running up mountains and causing themselves pain.  We have various traditions like the lead baton (we run a relay really slowly and blame it on the baton being so heavy), Division IV Championships, and breaking the four-minute mile—that is, with 8 guys each running 200 meters.  We even have a new tradition called “getting girled.”  If you’re so slow that you get caught by the women’s race (which starts 15 minutes later), then the young lady who beats you can say to you, “You got girled!”  It’s happened to Chris Furlong on occasion.  The King Slow Boy is a tradition going back at least 30 years.  Basically, it’s an office bequeathed upon a rising senior who has almost no athletic talent but a long history of sending out rambling emails and finishing dead last in meets.  The King has various important responsibilities like coming up with pairs for the team screw dance, screening quality works of cinema like Undercover Brother, and damaging our relations with the women’s team beyond repair.  As you can see, it’s a very high honor.

    But when I first got to Williams, I didn’t want to be the King Slow Boy.  I wanted to be fast, damn it!  I wanted to be one of the top seven, up there on the podium at nationals, surrounded by all the beautiful babes that flock to cross country meets.  Back in high school, I was the captain and one of the top runners in my league (well, a league of tiny DC private schools).  I knew I wasn’t a recruit, but I figured that if I worked really hard [puts hand on heart], and ran every day [feigns deep emotion], and tried my very hardest, that I too could be great!  Yeah, I was kind of naïve back then.  Most freshmen are.  Like many of you, I spent my freshman year getting lost and making bad decisions.  For instance, one time I was on a run with Bill Ference along the Taconic ridge.  We were almost back to the vans when we came to a fork in the trail.  Now I was pretty sure Pete, our coach, had told us to go left at the fork, but Bill thought he had said to go right, and since Bill was the wise all-knowing upperclassman, I decided to follow.  Well, we started going down.  And down. And down…  We were running in a creek bed for a while, then we were running in a creek…  After about 20 minutes I turned to Bill and said, “Hey, this is starting to look familiar.”  He said: “It does?”  We popped out by a house somewhere in New York, probably west of Albany, and had to hitchhike back up to the top of the mountain.  When we got there, Pete takes one look at us, turns to the driver and says, “This has got to be the stupidest bunch of Williams runners I’ve ever seen.”
So that’s freshman year for you.  You get a little lost academically; you stay out too late at First Fridays.  Your parents aren’t around so you start cursing and gambling, staying up till six in the morning, eating four bowls of ice cream in one meal…  That summer I was on a run in Ghana, West Africa, where I again got lost, ended up in a strange village I’d never seen where they took me in, fed me, persuaded me to marry one of their daughters… yeah, I’m sure we all made a few mistakes like that freshman year.   The next fall though, I got down to business. I started running more miles, working harder, taking everything more seriously… well, except for the Mr. Williams competition in the middle of the year where I turned my pants inside out, stripped down to a Speedo, and did a dance on stage in front of the whole school… otherwise, I was taking things more seriously.  Then, in the spring I discovered a new talent… the steeple chase.

For those of you who don’t know what steeple chase is, it’s basically a horse race for people.  You run around the track seven times, jumping over hurdles as thick as traffic barriers and the height of your average football lineman.  One of the hurdles has a large pool of water behind it and you’re supposed to jump off of the hurdle, land in the water and keeping going.  But I’ll tell you, nothing makes seven laps around a track more bearable like thinking your life’s about to end every eighty meters.  If you’re running the regular 3000 meters, it gets monotonous, you start thinking about math problems, what you’re going to have for dinner, the cute Wesleyan sophomore cheering for the guy passing you… but when you’re in the steeple chase, boy, I’ll tell ya, nothing takes your mind off the pain like having to fight for your life fives times a lap.

One day Pete was going around picking out all the freshman and sophomores who he thought should run steeple, saying “You, you’re tall and lanky.  You’re really buff.”  And he’d send them off to jump over some hurdles and see which ones survived.  Well, all that jumping looked like fun, so I raised my hand and said, “Hey coach, can I do it, too?”  He gave me this look like “Are you kidding me?”  But he let me and that’s how I became a steeple chaser.

I worked really hard that spring to master my new event.  You know, the great thing about steeple chase is that you can improve your time without getting in better shape.  It actually requires a bit of skill!  Now this might seem a bit crazy to you since, after all, the reason most of us became distance runners is that we lack any sort of coordination, skill, or athletic talent to begin with.  But in steeple chase all you have to do is figure out how to get over all the hurdles and you can improve your time tremendously. Each hurdle you get over without falling saves you a least a minute.  Every week my time would improve, so much so that at Little Threes I even scored one point for my team.  I was so proud to have contributed my one point to the Ephs, even if it was at a meet where we had more points than Amherst and Wesleyan combined.

At Little Threes, I was pushing myself so hard that in the second to last lap, I kind of forgot to focus on the upcoming water barrier.  As I jumped, my foot caught on the edge of the hurdle turning my body into a giant lever.  Everything seemed pretty normal until all of a sudden I noticed that water was about a foot away from my face and I was horizontal.  “That’s not normal,” I said to myself.  I made a huge splash and the crowd let out a horrified gasp, the kind you hear when a marathon runner trips just inches before the finish line.  But I did a push-up, popped right back up, and shouted “YEE-AAAAH!” [Puts fist in the air.]

After that race I resolved to do better.  In two years time, I told my coach, when I’m senior, I want to make it to Division I New England Championships.  It’s a race against all the New England schools Div I, Div II, and Div III.  It has the second hardest qualifying time after nationals.  So I resolved to train.  I ran well my junior year.  Studying abroad in Mongolia that spring, I would jump over sheep, yaks, and nomads, go for 30-mile runs in snow when it was 50 below, climb icy mountains, wrestle bears, and ride off into battle with the Mongol army.  I got back that summer and worked at a summer camp called Seeds of Peace, teaching Israeli and Palestinian teenagers how to get along and played softball by day and going for 10-mile runs around the lake on my nights off.  I raced well all fall; it wasn’t easy with my thesis, tutorial, and the burdens of my new office.  It’s not easy being king.  There are a lot of important duties involved like writing the odds for the team screw dance, organizing ice cream eating contests, and sending out lengthy emails written in the royal “We.”  Then one night in December, when I was wandering around campus in the dark looking for my bike, I slipped on a patch of ice and sprained my ankle.  I was on crutches for weeks, training indoors on the elliptical all winter, and spending lots of quality time with Frawls in training room, just like many of you.  Spring rolled around and since I knew that jumping off hurdles into a sloped trench full of water probably wasn’t the best thing for my ankle, I kept it secret from the trainers and did it anyway.  Somehow, I survived all spring, just doing the workouts and skipping the easy runs to keep my body from breaking.  And all of a sudden, there I was standing on the start line at Little Threes, my last chance to qualify for the New England championships.

All week I’d been thinking to myself what times I needed to run each lap—82, 82, 82 seconds each time, playing the race over and over again in my head.  For once in my life, I’d made sure to get enough sleep, skipping class to ensure I got my full 8 hours. I ate right, rested right, and did everything just like I’d been taught to prime my body for the perfect race.  The gun went off and we rushed out in 80 seconds, not bad, and the second lap I settled down to an 82.  But when I heard my time for the third lap, 84, I knew something was amiss.  My body felt like I was running 82s, but as the splits came in 85 seconds, 87 seconds, 88 seconds, I knew my dream was slipping away.  

And yet, by the sixth lap, I came to peace with myself.  I knew that even though my body wasn’t able to run the time I’d been aiming for that day, I was doing the best I could.  It took me four years, but I finally came to accept that a good race is not one where you get your best time, but where you put in every last ounce of energy, whether or not you’re feeling good, whether or not you’re going to win. Now I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that winning doesn’t matter, that it’s all about sportsmanship and having fun, and all that kumbaya crap.  I hate that!  I like to win!  We’re varsity athletes and winning does matter to us. But winning doesn’t matter for its own sake. It matters because by trying our hardest to win, we make ourselves better people.
The reason a school like Williams has varsity athletics is not so that we can all grow up to become professional athletes, nor is it just so that we can have fun.  It’s because by trying to win, by putting yourself out there trying as hard as you possibly can to achieve your goal, you grow up to become the person you want to be.  Most of us don’t try our hardest on every quiz and paper, or commit every inch of our mind, body, and souls to a good class discussion.  But when you’re out there playing the sport you love… when you’re really trying as hard as you can to win, it can bring out the best in you, regardless of the outcome.  So for all the slow boys out there, for all the athletes who weren’t recruited, who don’t score points or qualify for nationals, my hope for you is not that you became the best player of the team.  After all, this is Division III; even if you win nationals, you’re still just the tallest midget.  My hope for you is that you try your hardest at whatever sport you play, that you become the best athlete that you- -can be, and that at the end of four years you can look back and say, “I am damn proud to be a Williams Varsity Athlete.”