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Senior Essay: Michael Dunn

The best educators I encountered at Harvard were not any professors I had, nor grad students nor deans nor advisers. They were my coaches. Not because of how good an athlete they helped me become, but because of the person they helped me grow to be. Early in my freshman year, they told me that they would demand more of my time, energy, and heart and mind, than any class I would take in my time here, and they would do it for four years. It is no wonder that, given our extensive time together, they left the largest impact on my life.

My coaches understood long before I did that it does not matter how fast you swim, how many records you break, or how many races you win, but the way you prepare for those opportunities, and how you execute when given the chance. For months of training, early mornings and long hours, exhausting practices and lifts, our motivation to keep pushing ourselves through pain is precisely those things — winning races, beating teams, and setting records. But that is merely the context, the medium, through which we learn and grow. To sit around and philosophize or theorize about personal growth and finding oneself is good, but it does not accomplish much. What really reveals character is action, and action is what takes place on a team.

It’s the obvious stuff like swimming at practice and racing in meets; it’s the secondary things like team dinners and bus rides; and it’s even those seemingly distantly related things like getting enough rest to stay healthy and staying ahead on class work. Eventually, if you dedicate yourself, every decision you make is motivated by a drive for success in the pool. And it is right around that point when you see the extent of the effect your sport has had on your life: when it touches all aspects of what you do, when the other aspects of your life don’t get in the way of your goals in the pool, they contribute to them, when it is not just the smell of chlorine that precedes you which leads someone else to classify you as a swimmer, an athlete. For me that was the turning point, and it happened my senior year. With the end of my career in sight I no longer took anything for granted. Every day I got up was one more opportunity on a rapidly diminishing time line to make myself a better swimmer, and every night I went to bed was like closing the books — a chance I would never get back.

I learned that it is not one day that matters, it’s every day. This sense of totality is what swimming has brought to my life. Not every practice or race will be great, some will be not so good, and some will be awful. And that’s the nature of the sport — there are too many variables at play in our lives that are out of our control and unpredictable to have perfect consistency. But if you bring the right attitude, passion, and commitment with you to every opportunity you have, every chance you get, you set yourself up for many more successes. You cannot know ahead of time on what day things are going to go well or poorly, but if you give every day a chance to be excellent, you stand to be pleasantly surprised. Life is similarly unpredictable, full of its own ups and downs. I say stack the odds in your favor. Thanks, coaches.

They say that doing a sport like swimming — with such a huge time commitment and all the training that goes into it — can suck your life away. At times it certainly seems that way, but those hours when non-teammates find you missing are memories being made with the people who will ultimately come to mean more to you. Not merely for the time spent together, but because of the challenges shared. Everyone has bad days, their struggles, their challenges to overcome. Having a group of men going through the same experience as you is what makes such an undertaking possible. While this piece is about my coaches, it is dedicated to my teammates. I could never have done this without you.