April 26, 2006

The Lasting Impact of Athletics

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I’m 24-years-old, which means that for the first time in my life, I’m old enough to have been someone else before.

I used to be an athlete. I used to be Varsity. I used to go fast. I used to be 215 pounds of twisted steel. I used to be a cocky, arrogant, supremely-confident tall walking bitch of a man, who loved nothing more than to spend his evenings rowing on Cayuga inlet with his best friends. I used to win.

I used to do and be all of those things. I used to.

But that’s all over now. These days, I’m just another kid graduating from college, without a job or a place of my own to live. Just like the rest of you, the faceless mass of seniors venturing forth from Ithaca, I’ll clutch tightly my little piece of paper with the Big Red “C” on it and show it to anyone and everyone to prove to them that I matter, that I am relevant and talented and that I am worth something. Because Ezra said so.

And after awhile, I will get a job in an office, where I will spend most of my time doing something I will tell myself that I enjoy. The cubicle walls will either be feces-brown or battleship-gray, and I will pin on them little pictures of my favorite Red Sox players and clever cartoons from The New Yorker. Maybe I’ll put up one of those motivational posters with the cat grasping the tree branch with both paws that says, “Hang In There.”

I’ll have drinks with my co-workers every other Thursday, and we’ll talk about our boss (who will be strict but fair) behind his back. Then we’ll move on to sports and the weather. We’ll act like we earnestly care about each other’s personal lives, take a few minutes figuring out the tip, and maybe split a couple of cabs back home to our apartments.

I’ll open up my refrigerator in my overpriced studio and realize for the third time that day that all I have are condiments. I’ll write a little note to buy some real groceries on the magnetic pad my mother gave me when I moved in, the one with the little golf pencil hanging from the string, but I’ll forget to read it later and eventually just throw it out.

As I lie in bed waiting for darkness to sweep over me, I’ll tell myself that I am happy, that I am living the dream, and that tomorrow will be exciting because it’s Casual Friday and I can wear sneakers.

I’ll be just like you.

Because this is the sort of life that Cornell trains us for. To be sure, a handful of us will become obscenely famous and undeniably influential. Conversely, there will be a few who make four or five bad decisions in a row and end up managing the second shift at a Jack-in-the-Box. Or maybe the recreational drug use from college will turn more serious, and they’ll spend the next 10-20 thinking about the halcyon days back at the frat while making friends with “Bunny” in the top bunk.

But the vast majority of us will live out our existence in the warm embrace of the Upper-Middle Class, comfortable but not carefree, important but not vital. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I am looking forward to it.

But I cannot help but shake the feeling that we are missing something, that I am missing something. This life that we live can be so easily laid out before us, filled with resumes, jobs, promotions, mortgages, and two-week vacations, but it can also seem so harrowingly incomplete. Not bad, and not depressing or sad, simply incomplete.

What I am missing right now is rowing. I miss being an athlete.


I think it would be helpful to explain why, at age 24, I’m still here. I’m certainly not a graduate student – although, with the receding hairline and my never-ending supply of black T-shirts, mistaken identity is inevitable.

I had the need to take two extra semesters at Cornell, and I did so after first spending a year working for a Fortune 100 company. Last fall marked my return to campus, nearly two years after my best friends received their diplomas (it’s officially a life goal of mine to outlive everyone who graduated in 2004 by at least two years). But I didn’t come back for friends, I came to do a job, to earn a framed piece of paper with a Big Red “C” that proves I am worth something. And in that I have thus far been successful – I’m three weeks away from turning in my last assignments as a college student. But this final lap around Cornell has been lacking, because I have not had an oar in my hands.

Perhaps because of my situation I am one of a the few people on this campus qualified to put into perspective the true value of athletics, since I have lived on both sides of the coin. And after four years as an athlete and this past one as a “mere” student, I can with all conviction say that I prefer the former arrangement.

There are those that say that sports are just games, that they are simply pastimes to be quickly forgotten and pushed aside as we grow older and move into our battleship-gray cubicles. The mind, after all, is the arbiter of a successful future in a capitalist nation, not the body.

I say that those people have missed the point. I say that those people are the kind that have wheels on their luggage and no dirt under their fingernails. I say that straight-A’s at the expense of your body is just as horrible a crime as four varsity letters at the expense of your mind.

The great philosopher Durden once said, “how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Well, how much can you know about life if you’ve never really lived? Sure, maybe rowing around in the lake at the base of the East Hill isn’t the pinnacle of human existence, but it’s a damn sight closer to that bright shining edge than anything found in the classrooms far above Cayuga’s waters.

When I was an athlete, I participated in something everyday that reminded me that I was alive. Everything and anything was possible through sheer force of will and strength of heart. And I will dearly miss that feeling. I will not say that sports are more important than academics. But I will say that the days since my final race are not as bright, the sounds of passing time not as echoing, the taste of air not as sweet.

My final plea in my final column of this, my victory lap, is for you to not allow yourself to go through life without having lived. Not all of the answers are in your books. A 4.0 GPA may ensure your financial success, but you will never be able to say that your life was richer than those of us who spent but a short time playing games.


I would be remiss if I did not thank Sun editors Chris Mascaro, Olivia Dwyer, Erica Temel and Erica Fink. Thank you for respecting your elder and for letting him get away with just about everything he wanted to.

Also, thanks to…

…the Sun Business department, for selling enough ad space to force me into adhering to some semblance of a word count…

…Sun Associate Editor and Bandito Carlos Maycotte, for being living proof that I’m not the only one who goes insane while watching baseball. The Braves bullpen will hold up through October, I promise. Gracias, muchacho…

… Tsao, Kuhls, Testa, Perlin, Nyman, Pepper, Kopelman and the immortal Kyle Sheahan. Someday, when you kids get to be my age, you’ll take back all those nasty things you said about me…

… Sun Photo Editor Rob Bonow, who spent innumerable hours with me looking at Facebook photos trying to figure out if our file photo was actually of the person I had interviewed for 10 Questions, and then for taking all the blame when the picture we ran turned out to be someone else…

…and finally, thanks to the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox. Why? Because this is my column, dammit. Thanks for listening.

Per Ostman was a Sun Senior Editor. He regrets nothing.

Archived article by Per Ostman