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A Personal Look at Four of MIT's Athletes

Keith Lichten '95

At the 1995 NCAA Division I National Championships, Keith Lichten '95 achieved what no other MIT athlete in any sport has ever done: He brought home a silver medal.

Lichten, now a graduate student in environmental planning at UC Berkeley, started fencing at about age six with his mother, who had fenced in college. Keith began to fence seriously in junior high school along with his twin brother, Rob.

Lichten transferred to MIT after a year at Harvard, and began to train under coach Jarek Koniusz, who is also a member of the Polish National team. Lichten attributes much of his success to Koniusz. "Jarek not only understood what I needed to do as a fencer, but understood the best way to get me there based on who I was."

Competition with his brother, a student at Northwestern, also prompted his success. "I didn't want to have to tell him [that I] lost to some fencer Northwestern had crushed last week," Lichten said.

Lichten was captain of the MIT team last year, and was also twice nominated for the Cointe Sportsmanship Award at the IFA championships by his peers at other schools.

"Keith was an excellent captain who was able to effectively be a bridge between the team and the coaches," Koniusz said. "His efforts in practices and competitions were an excellent example for the rest of the team. He was always helpful and instructive, not only in fencing, but in team spirit and attitude."

Despite the emphasis on academics and the long fencing season at MIT, "If anything, fencing helped me out academically," Lichten said.

"I had to organize what I was doing so that my work would get done outside of fencing," Lichten said. "More than that, success in fencing tended to carry over into academics."

Sports are also a good way to de-stress since although "a lot of the competition in the academic environment spills over into practice, the team is also a place for fencers to get a respite from MIT's pressure."

Lichten recalls one incident where he stayed awake for 72 hours studying before going to the Junior Olympics. Ultimately it was worth the effort; Lichten not only finished his work, but took second place at the tournament as well.

While MIT cannot recruit strong fencers with athletic scholarships, coach Koniusz's experience helps make MIT competitive with the best collegiate fencing teams, Lichten said. The team is proud of the strength of its schedule, which boasts competition against strong fencing schools such as Notre Dame, Stanford, Columbia, and Penn State.

Fencing can be difficult to watch because it is not as understandable or dramatic as other sports. "Here's an elegant and athletic sport that requires great endurance and flexibility, and that relies on the fencer on the strip to be able to discover the weaknesses in his opponent's game, and to defend his own," Lichten said. "It requires both a physical and a strong mental game, and a certain subtlety."

"There is little that has given me greater frustration or pleasure than this sport," Lichten said. "The opportunity at MIT to be coached by Jarek Koniusz is one I never expected, and one which I never knew how much I appreciated until after I graduated. Fencing is a lifelong sport, and I expect to follow it about that far with a little luck."

- Written by Jennifer Mosier

Carol Matsuzaki '96

Senior Carol Matsuzaki began her tennis career four years ago in a physical education class. She now plays both first singles and first doubles on the women's tennis team, and she is also co-captain of the team.

Although Matsuzaki didn't get much time on the courts her first year, she was proud to be on the team. The team did really well, winning the NEW-8 championship and competing at National's for the first time.

Matsuzaki was a starter in her junior year, playing third doubles and first singles. She and her doubles partner almost made it to the NCAA championships that year.

Last year, Matsuzaki played first singles and first doubles on the MIT team. She also advanced to the semifinals of the New England tournament, and she was ranked 12th in the East.

"I'm mostly a serve-and-volley" player, Matsuzaki said, describing her attack style. "I've tried to be more of an all-court player this year [but] I like to go to the net [and] rely on my serve to set myself up for the next ball."

Matsuzaki attributes her success to the support of her coach and teammates. "It's important to me what kind of person the coach is," she said. Coach Candy Royer "taught a lot of technical skills, but the thing that stood our was her teaching us mental attitude to know you're going to do well."

In addition, "It's fun to play with people who have fun playing rather than worrying about the lineup," Matsuzaki said.

Royer also teaches and coaches squash, so Matsuzaki took the squash class and tried out for the team as well. Matsuzaki plays squash much differently than she plays tennis. "You have to have so much patience in squash. I don't think it has as much variance as tennis. It's a game of mistakes."

In general, Matsuzaki is happy with sports at MIT. The Institute "doesn't give scholarships so it's mostly based on whether or not you want to play. There's less pressure here." Despite practices as early as 7 a.m., Matsuzaki feels that "it gives my schedule more structure. It helps me get up to do the things I need to do."

Matsuzaki is proud of how her accomplishments at MIT. Her proudest moments are "going to National's and doing well with my doubles partner my junior year."

- Written by Thomas Kettler

Katherine Merrilees '97

For two-time MVP Katherine Merrilees '97, being part of MIT's varsity field hockey team is more than just practicing for two hours every day. "The reason I play it is because it's fun," Merrilees said. The most rewarding part is the teamwork, "when it clicks with the people around you."

Merrilees played soccer in high school, but wanted to participate in a fall sport. Choosing field hockey, she made the Toronto provincial field hockey team, which competes 10 months out of the year. Merrilees was also on Canada's National Training Squad. With her national-level training before coming to MIT, Merrilees has been invaluable to the field hockey team.

From her position of center defense, Merrilees can see everything around her on the field and tell people how the play is going. But this year, with a strong offensive line, Merrilees hasn't had as many opportunities to score as in the past.

The field hockey season goes from September to November, and midterms always fall during the most busy time of the season. Many players go to practice straight from class or work. It's a lot to expect somebody to mentally switch in five minutes, "really being there and getting the most out of it," Merrilees said.

Merrilees was considering other schools where field hockey was more competitive, but decided on MIT. "I had very low expectations when I came here, but I've been very surprised," she said. "Nobody here is just smart."

Playing a sport or participating in any activity also keeps a person sane, Merrilees said. "If I've had a bad day in class, there's still field hockey" practice afterwards, she said. This feeling influenced her decision to continue playing lacrosse in the spring.

"The coaches here are understanding," Merrilees said. They are willing to work around a lot, which is "one of the greatest strengths of the program."

Like most of MIT's sports events, it's hard to get spectators. Field hockey is a slow game, and scores are often in the single digits, Merrilees said.

The players really appreciate when they do have a cheering section, but usually only friends of the players show up. Sometimes, athletes from different sports try to attend each others' meets.

It's hard to notice when there are few spectators, but sometimes the team has a Next House fan club, Merrilees said. She recalls a game where there were over 100 spectators. It makes a lot of difference when people cheer for you, she said. "It was just fabulous."

- Written by Eva Moy

Sheila Rocchio '97

Sheila Rocchio '97 started gymnastics when she was four years old and has excelled in the sport since. When she went to college, it was something that she wasn't willing to give up.

"My parents thought all little girls should do ballet," Rocchio said. Her three older sisters started with ballet, but later switched to gymnastics. When Sheila was growing up, it was just the thing to do.

Rocchio was hesitant to come to MIT because she wanted to attend a Division I school. But it would be hard at an Ivy League school to compete against other Division I schools that attracted top athletes with scholarships. At MIT, a Division III school, it would be easier for her to make National's in both individual and team competition.

Gymnastics at MIT was very different than club competition during high school. "Gymnastics was such an enormous part of my life," Rocchio said. But "especially in club gymnastics, you're very wary" of teammates. At MIT, the gymnasts compete more as a team than individuals.

"There are other gymnasts on the [MIT] team that had done it forever," Rocchio said. "I felt a little more experienced [but] was impressed with the people who were new."

Although the season runs from December through March, practices start in early September. "It's a sport that needs a lot of maintenance," Rocchio said. It takes a lot of commitment to participate in a sports team, for both the gymnasts and the coaches, and practices runs about two-and-a-half hours every evening during the semester.

The coaches "understand that you're at MIT," Rocchio said. They don't get mad, but it's frustrating when students miss practice for academic reasons, she added. The coaches give a lot of their time to make sports at MIT succeed, in addition to their full-time jobs and families. "They only do it because they like gymnastics."

Although it is generally assumed that sports are secondary to academics at MIT, Rocchio, like many other athletes, is frustrated by "the feeling around school that sports is something that detracts from academics."

With only 12 people on the women's gymnastics team, everybody helps each other. The coaches spend time spotting people and helping with the bigger moves. "The [gymnasts] who are more experienced end up coaching," Rocchio said. "When somebody does well, you feel good for them."

Last year, the women's gymnastics team made it to National's for the first time ever, Rocchio said. "Our goal is to make it to National's again this year."

-Written by Eva Moy