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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Scholar-Athletes/ In a contest, there can be only one winner, but athletic competitions have never been mere contests.

By Michael Balchunas

Loud beeping programmed into his battered, taped-together cell phone drives first-year Tyler Barbour out of bed on a dark September morning. His first class of the day is nearly three hours off, but he’s headed to the Rains Center for an hour of weightlifting and agility drills. Football team meetings and practice will start in late afternoon and last about three hours.

He may spend time afterward in the training room, a bag of ice wrapped around his shoulder or slung on his hip. It’s nothing, he says. Complaining about minor aches and pains is taboo. Some players take ibuprofen, but he thinks that could mask a more serious injury and be counterproductive. The worst thing is not the pain, but getting up so early after studying until midnight or 1 a.m.

“It’s brutal,” Tyler says. But he is smiling.

The lights at dusk cast a matrix of silvery dimples across the pool’s surface at the Haldeman Aquatics Center. With a score of swimmers churning back and forth across the lanes, the sound is like continuously breaking surf.

Coach Brian LeDuc’s voice booms out over the water with instructions on breathing and stroke patterns: “Eight 150s hypoxic, three-five-seven by 50. Thirty seconds’ rest.” A minute later: “Pick it up! Pick it up!”

When the practice is over, senior Anisha Nathwani will have swum about 5,000 yards. There will be six more practices this week, plus early morning workouts at Rains: treadmill, elliptical trainer and weights.

A senior thesis is overshadowing all of her schoolwork this season. She’s set her music system to wake her gently, but it sometimes isn’t enough. A second alarm, loud and harsh, is set to go off 20 minutes later.

Anisha, in her third season swimming for the Sagehens, has never won an individual collegiate race. Never come close to winning. Often, she has finished last. Her father thinks the swim team is a waste of time for her. She has thought of quitting. Why not?

A dream.

The football team doesn’t have any special dispensation to reserve the Rains weight room for itself. There’s a curious scene as the rising sun floods the room with white light and Jimmy Buffett croons in the background. As a 250-pound offensive lineman slams away on one side of a dual-station Cybex weight machine, on the other side a 95-pound, silver-haired grandmother daintily, resolutely, pumps iron. Neither bats an eye or misses a beat.

In the gym is another anomaly. Tyler and a group of teammates, formed into lines, are hopping, skipping and jumping down the length of the floor, sometimes adding a delicate midair twist.

Most of them are large, and all are powerfully built young men. It takes a minute to realize that you’ve seen these lithe and strangely graceful movements before, in a strikingly different context: a ballet class of 6-year-old girls.

Tyler, 5-feet-8 and a muscular 170 pounds, was a star quarterback at Grossmont High School in La Mesa, near San Diego. His senior year, he also played cornerback on defense. Few players have the skills or stamina to play both offense and defense every game.

Tyler’s short stature was sometimes mocked. “People would say things like, ‘How can you play quarterback? You can’t even see over the line,’” he says. “It would make me want to work harder just to prove that I could do it.”

He is a starting cornerback for Pomona-Pitzer on defense, fending off blockers and tackling runners who typically outweigh him by 30 to 80 pounds. The pass receivers he covers are almost invariably taller, heavier, more experienced.

The worst thing would be to let one of them get behind him. “You know, for seniors, this is their last year, so I don’t want to mess up and have them lose a game because of something I did,” he says. “Letting someone catch the ball behind me to lose the game for us—that would be bad.”

Most of the games this season go well. A few times, not so well, and he slams his palm against the turf.

Tyler considers himself a perfectionist. He says he knows that perfection is not always possible to achieve, but it’s something to strive for.

For six months, he has continuously worn a yellow plastic bracelet he got in Tijuana, with the words Vive Feliz stamped on it. He says it’s a useful reminder sometimes.

“Live Happy.”

Anisha, tall, serious, and quiet, was 17 when she came to the United States, shortly before her first semester at Pomona.

“I thought it would be very good for me to go away, to get out of India, to gain a little independence and learn to live on my own, and to see different ways of life and a different culture,” she says, speaking softly in British-accented English. Home is Bombay, 8,740 miles away.

In India, Anisha had swum mostly for fun. Not until she was about 15 and a student at Cathedral and John Connon School, a prestigious British school, did she start to swim competitively, mostly for Bombay clubs, because sports were not emphasized at school.

At least she thought it was competitive. “After coming here, the word ‘competitive’ has sort of taken on a new meaning,” she says. “By Indian standards, I suppose, I was fairly good because I did manage to place fairly highly at state-level and national-level competitions. There were a lot of Bombay meets that I did manage to do fairly well in. But if I look back on my training there, I don’t think it was anything close to what I’ve been doing here.”

She won a state championship once in India, but such things have little effect on her demeanor. Her response to that achievement, as she recalls, was just a smile.

She knew that swimming in the United States would be a different matter. As a first-year student at Pomona, she was hesitant about trying out for the Sagehen team.

“To me, it was always kind of a distant dream,” she says. “It was something that I was always sure at the back of my mind would never become reality, because I knew I did not have the level of talent to be on a varsity swim team here. I think the people who swim here are just exceptionally talented, and I know I do not have that in me to the extent that the other members of the team do. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

“But it was just kind of like, I adore the sport. My mother told me, ‘Anisha, maybe you’ll get to swim there,’ and I said ‘Yeah, maybe,’ but inside I was like ‘No.’ I mean, who am I fooling?”

Shortly after starting classes at the College, and brimming with misgivings, she went to the pool and met Penny Dean, who was then the coach. “I told her, ‘I’m really slow, but I would love to do this. It’s my dream.’ She told me, ‘Get in the pool. Show me what you’ve got.’ And then she said, ‘Yeah, sure, you’re in.’ She was so nice about it. Even though I said, ‘Are you sure? I’m really slow, do you know what you’re doing? She said, ‘Yes, you love it. That’s all I want.’”

In our myths, David slays the giant, the tortoise wins over the hare, the last shall be first. We fervently wish for reality to conform to the heroic archetypes of our imaginations. Amazingly, it sometimes does.

The brachial plexus is a network of nerve fibers that conducts signals from the spine to control muscles in the shoulder, arm and hand.

In a game against Colorado College in early November, Tyler’s older brother Matthew, a star player who is considerably bigger than Tyler, tackles a runner on a play up the middle. There is a brief roaring sound that seems to come from the field. When Matthew gets up he jerks his head to the left several times in a strange spasmodic way. He begins to move toward the sideline with an awkward, unsteady gait, not quite staggering or stumbling. Then unexpectedly he turns and seems to be wandering toward the defensive backfield, as if disoriented.

Many in the audience at Merritt Football Field have noticed that something seems wrong and quiet descends on the stands. But it’s all happening too fast. Before anything can be done, Colorado has already called its next play and the quarterback is dropping back to pass. Matthew is still walking in a slow, haphazard way. When a white-shirted Colorado player flashes past, the stimulus appears to trigger something, and Matthew, his left arm dangling, suddenly begins sprinting, a step behind the receiver. The quarterback sees the open player and drills a perfect pass. Just before it can nestle in the receiver’s arms, Matthew leaps, stretching out his right arm, and his gloved hand slaps loudly against the leather ball. As his body slams to the ground, the ball falls wobbling into the hands of a Pomona-Pitzer teammate for an interception. There is a visible surge of energy and emotion among the Sagehen players. Although there is time left to play, the game is assuredly won.

When Matthew comes slowly off the field and sits down on the bench to be examined, a number of the younger players cluster around in a semicircle, watching intently. Soon he is flexing the fingers of his left hand, then moving the arm slowly up and down, back and forth.

Brachial plexus injuries, called stingers, are extremely painful disruptions of the nerve communications, but they are not catastrophic, and the effects may resolve within seconds or minutes. Before long Matthew is cleared to play and is back on the field.

Tyler was one of those who’d gathered around the injured team captain. After the game, describing what happened, he says, “My brother just sucked it up and kept playing.”

At Grossmont High, Tyler was called “Baby Barbour.” He, too, aspires to be a leader. “It helps me to meet certain standards that I set for myself,” he says. “I know that if I want to be a leader, I always have to try to work harder.”

As the Colorado game winds down, the green turf aglow with broad golden shafts of light from the setting sun, Tyler and Matthew kneel together on the sideline, helmets off, a little distant from the other players, watching and talking, laughing occasionally. It’s the first time this season they have spent more than a few seconds together on the sideline like this, like brothers.

Anisha, a psychology major, says she has no heroes. She admires her teammates, she says, and especially her mother, a physician. “I admire that she’s a very strong person, a very caring person, and I admire a lot of the things she has done,” she says softly. “But no, no heroes.”

After she joined the swimming team as a first-year student, she says, “I was really excited to be doing it, really glad. But I found that during the winter training in January, I didn’t get to go back home. It didn’t make sense to go back just for the 10 days of break that we swimmers get; it seemed like an awful lot of money to spend for that little time. I really wanted to be at home, and I guess I just found it mentally and physically too challenging.

“There were points when I thought I was just going to break down, because I knew that I was doing it voluntarily, and it was very discouraging to see that I was putting everything I had into it, but to be so much slower and so much further behind everyone, it was a little demoralizing to me. And I almost felt in some ways, why am I doing this? Even though I love swimming, maybe I can just swim on my own, maybe that would be just as good, rather than feeling almost that I was going to break down, overdoing this. And maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe I can’t. That was how it felt toward the end of that season.”

She did not reveal her feelings to anyone on the team.

“One of my problems my freshman year, I think, was that I was too quiet, and I didn’t actually make an effort to try to talk. I was very reserved, and I would just swim and leave, and I realize that I lost out immensely. And that was probably one of the things that made me want to leave the team, because I didn’t realize just how great the group dynamics were and how that can really make the whole experience fun.”

Anisha stayed through the rest of that first season. But as a sophomore, she didn’t return to the team.

Bruce Lee, the actor and martial arts star, died in 1973, when China and things Chinese—including its ideas and symbols and values—were still a complete mystery to the majority of Americans. This was 14 years before Tyler was born, yet there is a large black-bordered poster of Lee on the wall of Tyler’s dorm room.|

“I’ve seen his films and thought about his philosophy,” Tyler explains.

“He was kind of a smaller person. But through hard work and intense training, and really developing his mind and body, he was able to achieve a lot of things that people didn’t think he would be able to achieve.

“He came to America with pretty much nothing, and you could say he revolutionized the world of martial arts with his philosophy: that there’s no such thing as one form of martial arts that’s better than another, that what’s important is just learning how to do all things, without having any restrictions, not having any limits. I’m impressed by how hard a worker he was. And when he hurt his back, and couldn’t walk for a while, he studied all these different philosophies. He felt that to truly understand yourself, you had to test yourself both athletically and intellectually. He was just always striving to be the best that he could be. So I admire that about him.”

Anisha has a favorite book: the subtle, psychologically complex novel Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. “I really like the way it’s written, and I can identify with the character,” she says. “I can’t really define what I like about it. I just think it’s brilliantly written and very enjoyable.”

In the novel, published in 1938 with Europe on the brink of tempest, du Maurier’s heroine struggles to overcome the dark, malignant influence of her husband’s power-obsessed late wife on a doomed aristocratic estate. It is by strength of will, love, and perseverance that they eventually prevail.

“I believe there is a theory that men and women emerge finer and stronger after suffering,” du Maurier’s heroine says near the opening, “and that to advance in this or any world we must endure ordeal by fire. … We all have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end.”

While spending the first semester of her junior year in Spain, Anisha began to realize that she wanted to become a Sagehen swimmer again.

The team has a winter training session in January; they return from the semester break before the rest of the students. She spoke to the coach, who agreed to take her on. She swam the second half of that season. “Once you’ve done it, you sort of know that you can cope without suffering terribly, you know that you can do it, and that makes a big difference,” she says.

Anisha, who hopes to become a clinical psychologist in India, has worked on improving her speed, with frustrating results.

“There are a lot of physical things to work on, like increasing your stroke frequency, and turns are very important, and push-offs off the wall, and making sure that you don’t breathe for a certain number of strokes after you push off, and, for a longer race, to work on a real power stroke with good endurance. I also have a problem with diving in on time,” she says.

“I feel that in the past when I have set goals for myself as far as swimming is concerned, sometimes I aim too high, and I don’t always get there. In spite of trying as hard as I can, sometimes I just don’t manage. I just seem to want it so much mentally, but I am not always able to accomplish it physically.

“This semester I want to maybe have more realistic goals for myself, or perhaps even just decide to give everything I have, give it my best, without worrying as much about what my times will be.”

The biggest game on the Pomona-Pitzer football schedule is the one against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

At a meeting with defensive backs during the week before the game, Head Coach Scott Rynne, a former history teacher, hands the players papers listing CMS formations and running and passing plays. The lingo at this meeting includes such terms as fades, tilt, hitches, slant, slant double, slant switch, screen boot, semi-roll, floods, high-low reads, inside-outside reads, lead zone, counter, draw, option, ISO, speed sweep, quarterback counter, doubles, gun star, crow, slot, star. The players know what the words mean. On the field, they will have to know more. They must be able to predict and react intuitively to what CMS is about to do.

After the meeting, Tyler says, “Everyone’s a little more focused, the coaches are a little on edge. I’m psyched—this is my first CMS game.” Tyler, who is considering majoring in international relations, heads down the hall with a packet of papers Rynne gave the players to study during the week.

From 1947 to 1958, Pomona and Claremont Men’s College, as Claremont McKenna was then called, played together as a team in football. Today, the rivalry is strong as the two square off for cross-campus bragging rights. Tyler says the Pomona-Pitzer players regard CMS, for this game at least, as an out group. Some differences in philosophy are represented symbolically: Displayed on the walls of the main hallway at Rains are decades-old photographs of Sagehen athletes; the foyer of Claremont McKenna’s Ducey Gymnasium is lined with glass cases bristling with trophies.

This meeting of the rivals goes well for Tyler and his teammates. Trailing midway through the second half, CMS tries a deep pass on Tyler’s side. The ball is overthrown, well out of reach of the tall, rangy CMS receiver. Tyler keeps racing back as the tightly spiraling ball arcs down. The sky is a cobalt dome, laced with filaments of silky white clouds. Looking up and back over his shoulder, Tyler leaps and grasps the ball with his fingertips, then tucks it to his abdomen before crashing to the turf.

After the game, a number of Pomona-Pitzer players are photographed triumphantly holding aloft the peace pipe, a talisman that the winner of the game keeps until the next meeting. Tyler stays back. “The pipe, it’s kind of the pinnacle of our season. It’s a very big thing,” he says. “It’s important to the whole team, but especially to the seniors. It’s for them, really, so I didn’t get my picture taken. In the future I will.”

Tyler expects the team to win the big game again during his time at Pomona. But winning is not the ultimate goal. The deeper motivation, he says, is to be part of the team, a member of the brotherhood. “You’re practicing with them, lifting weights with them, you’re bleeding with them. You get to know them in a way that you don’t know many other people. It’s worth it—all of the practices and lifting weights. You put so much into it, and then, when you do win, that’s just such a great feeling.”

Unlike football, swimming is largely an individual sport. A team framework is built around it, in the expectation that bonds will be forged from the crucible of shared emotional experience.

“I really feel a sense of identity and a sense of closeness with all of the team,” Anisha says. “It probably does make me feel more a part of Pomona, more like I fit in here. Sometimes I just have trouble believing in myself and whether I am a part of the team, whether I should be a part of it.

“And I think one of the things that I love about the swim team is that even though I’m much slower than anyone else, they’re all very supportive. They’re at your block, cheering for you. There are always people encouraging you when you come out of the pool, saying things like, ‘Well swum.’ Some of the other swimmers have told me that even if I don’t contribute points, I contribute in other ways. They say it in such a nice way. And I guess I start to believe that.”

The Pomona-Pitzer Invitational, the first swimming meet of the 2005–06 season, is awash in colors, motion and sound. Many teams are taking part, and Haldeman is packed with swimmers and spectators.

Anisha is a team captain this season, an honor often given to seniors who have shown a long-term commitment to the team.

She prefers the long, grinding, inner-directed practices to events such as this, with so many people watching, with swimmers’ times posted prominently on a big scoreboard, with long waits between physically draining races.

She will swim in six races today, but her strongest is the 50-yard freestyle, a quick sprint of less than half a minute across the pool and back. All 10 lanes are in use for this race. At the starting horn, she appears to be one of the last to hit the water.

She is already too far behind the leaders but is strong at the turn. Suddenly it’s clear that she’s holding her own among the second five. She hits the touch pad just a hair behind the eighth-place finisher, and ahead of the tenth-place swimmer. When she sees her time, she realizes it is probably her fastest ever.

If you didn’t know what to look for, you’d never know what she thought from watching her. It’s there for an instant and then gone.

A shy, winning smile. 

©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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