Scholar-Athletes/ In a contest, there can
be only one winner, but athletic competitions have never been mere
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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.