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The Athlete Factory

Guest Column
Douglas S. J. De Couto

Let me tell you a story about athletics at MIT.

This past Saturday and Sunday I spent a few hours down at the MIT Sailing Pavilion watching some of our Coed Varsity sailors at the Atlantic Coast Dinghy Championships. Hosted by MIT this year, and held every fall, this regatta is arguably the most competitive regatta in college sailing, perhaps even more so than the national championships. I went down there in the cold wind, not alone in hoping that this year, for the first time in over 20 years, MIT would win the regatta.

Well, we didn’t win. But Sean Fabre ’00 and Erin Shea ’02 missed winning their division by only 2 points (they were second, and their results depended on the last race), less than 3 percent of their total score, and (Captain) Alan Sun ’00 and Madhulika Jain ’00 finished 5th in their division. Overall, we finished fourth out of 16 schools -- with a score that showed we were clearly one of the top players in this sport right now.

Meanwhile, our Varsity Women’s sailing team was competing at Hobart in the Women’s Atlantic Coast Championships, where sailors Jessica Lackey ’00 and Nikki Spinello ’01 finished third in their division, and Susanna Mierau ’00 and Jen Shapiro ’01 finished 14th, for a ninth place finish overall -- a great performance.

This weekend marked the end of the fall season for MIT sailors, after three weeks of early morning practice, sailing until after dark, and making all the other sacrifices that are made by committed athletes at MIT. But what makes it more amazing is that of the eight MIT sailors who sailed this weekend, turning in performances of the highest caliber at the most competitive college regattas of the year, five of them had never sailed before arriving at MIT.

As a former member of the sailing team, I know what these athletes have had to do to reach this level. I have watched the sailing team slowly and steadily improve from a no-name team in 1993 to a powerhouse in 1999. This didn’t happen by magic. MIT didn’t recruit star sailors, like some of the other big name sailing schools. The sailors worked -- they did extra practices, they traveled, they sacrificed. The coaches worked and sacrificed. Slowly, over a few years, it happened. MIT sailors reached the top level.

I am telling this story for two reasons. I wanted to congratulate the MIT sailing team for their achievement; not just the few sailors who sailed this past weekend, but everyone who has sweated with them and practiced with them to get this far. I look forward to great achievements by the team in the spring season.

But I am also telling this story to illustrate for you an amazing fact about athletics at MIT. The kind of people who come to MIT are the kind of people who can learn to sail and become top-ranked competitors in only three years, having never sailed before. They have the drive, determination, and that special MIT something that makes them do nutty things, like make sacrifices for a sport they learned last month.

That is truly education in action.

This doesn’t just happen in sailing at MIT; it happened a few years ago when the pistol squad turned a neophyte shooter into a national champion. And I know it happens all over MIT athletics at various levels: from the varsity rowers enjoying the 7 a.m. chill of the river, to the late-night intramural soccer players comparing astroturf burns.

But I think that some of the things going on at MIT right now will make it impossible for achievements like those made by MIT sailors to happen again. Reduced squad sizes means that fewer people will be involved in varsity intercollegiate sports. I don’t mean to belittle intramural competition, but I believe that intercollegiate competition at the varsity level requires a level of focus, commitment, and effort that in general are not found in the intramural program.

Interscholastic competition is a crucial component of education at MIT. The lack of increase in the athletics department budget over the past 13 years has meant a decrease of the budget in real dollars. This has only harmed athletics at MIT. The sailors are luckier than most: they needn’t always travel far to find the necessary caliber of competition. But I know there are other teams out there that need to spend money to have a good competitive schedule and get the most out of their season. Equipment costs money; facilities cost money to run and maintain. Why has the budget for all these expenses remained flat, while their costs rise?

In many ways, the “educational triad” proposed by the task force on student life and learning rests a significant part of its weight upon athletics, especially intercollegiate athletics. All forms of athletics at MIT provide valuable health, relaxation, and community opportunities. And of course the impressive physical education program provides a very tangible form of education. But varsity intercollegiate competition provides the environment necessary for the highest and most focused level of personal achievement, commitment and growth. And this achievement, with its accompanying challenges, is a significant factor in education at MIT.

I don’t know who is in charge of giving money to athletics at MIT. Perhaps our Athletics Director needs to be more active in coaxing money from the administration. But more likely, perhaps our administration needs to pay more than lip service to slogans like “the academic triad” and the results of the student life task force report; the administration should step up to the plate and provide more support for day-to-day operations in athletics, an essential and valuable component of student life that already exists here at Tech.

Buildings are nice, and dormitories certainly aren’t all bad, and not everybody is the athletic type. But look around, and I think you will see that athletics and sport are significant components of many students’ lives here at MIT. About 900 undergraduates are involved in MIT’s varsity athletics program, filling a total of 1,200 spots for varsity competition -- that is more than 20 percent of the undergraduate population. In addition, 65 percent of the entire student body is involved in intramurals.

So build that new sports complex, build that new computer science building, and build that new dormitory. But first remember to properly support what we already have here at Tech: an athletics department that provides rewarding experiences in varsity and recreational athletic programs, which leads to happy alumni and fond memories of student life at MIT.

Copies of this letter were sent to President Charles M. Vest and Director of Athletics Richard Hill.

Douglas S. J. De Couto G was a member of the MIT varsity sailing team from 1993 to 1997.