Written Senior Perspectives: Duncan O'Brien

Written Senior Perspectives: Duncan O'Brien

The 2016 Senior Perspectives is the 11th in a series of annual collections. Senior captains and representatives of teams at Harvard have been invited to contribute viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard.

For a complete listing of 2016 Senior Perspectives, click here.


Duncan O'Brien, Men's Fencing, Team Co-Captain
Hometown: Wellesley, Mass.
Concentration: Applied Mathematics
House Affiliation: Mather

Having focused successfully on individual prowess prior to college, most Harvard varsity student-athletes arrive at their first captain’s practices with the aim of balancing self-improvement and team accomplishment. As I began participating in Harvard fencing team captain’s practices, however, I gradually realized the importance of building a close-knit, goal-oriented team far outweighed the importance of strengthening the abilities of each of us, even walk-ons such as myself. With a team comprised primarily of former opponents on the regional, national and international stage, the idea of forming the collective resolve to devote ourselves to team, rather than individual, accomplishment did not at first seem obvious. I learned, however, that one’s striving to support others to the best of one’s ability is far more essential to achieving team excellence and personal fulfillment than self-focus.

Why was this significant to us? Gained through Harvard Athletics, this lesson in the power of collective action transcended sports. For example, in Professor Greenblatt’s Humanities Essentials, rather than sharing my own ideas on Dante and Nietzsche, I found myself building on ideas other students had expressed, furthering discussions. In applied math classes, instead of studying intensely on my own and keeping to myself, I began offering to help students who had missed a lecture or section; I think we all learned more in the process. Rather than heading straight to the library after team dinners, I started taking time to attend music or dance performances and charitable fundraisers of students who were devoted artists or activists, supporting their passionate efforts and sharing their successes with others. As with HFT, helping others succeed enriched our overall experience within the classroom, theater or junior common room; it also made me a better contributor and, I think, a better person. I will take what I’ve learned from Harvard Athletics with me for the rest of my life.

In my two years as captain, I did my utmost to foster a culture of inclusivity and team goals, and Coach Brand supported this aim warm-heartedly. I did this for two reasons. First, Harvard students experience pressure to achieve greatness, whether through securing a competitive internship or job, founding a successful start-up, winning that prestigious fellowship or academic prize, or otherwise. I believe peer leaders, professors, coaches and administrators must strive to ensure younger students that honor comes not through focusing on deliberately collecting accolades, but rather through giving and receiving support and working together towards common goals and collective success.

Second, although our men’s team earned three Ivy League championship titles over the past four years, for the seventh, eighth and ninth time in the 125-year history of Harvard Fencing, our greatest laurel was the closeness we achieved. While all Harvard athletes aim for championships every year and sometimes win them, I believe that what they will remember most is not the moments of triumph, but those of pure friendship. The true beauty of this is that these moments can occur at any moment and, in my experience, occur quite frequently in Harvard Athletics. Personally, I already look back with fondness to countless memories of congenial, joyful, humorous moments interacting with teammates – whether during practices kicked off by startling yoga position challenges, team dinners highlighting custom concoctions, long bus rides punctuated by most-embarrassing-moment stories, spirited weekend get-togethers, or staying up until 4 am to watch a teammate competing overseas qualify for the 2020 Olympics – and resolving to travel to Rio to root him on.

Harvard Athletics draws together extraordinarily talented, dedicated student-athletes and coaches ultimately devoted to learning how to bring honor to one another and to Harvard over the course of their lives. The fundamental lesson learned is intimate and sublime, and, in my case, has helped make me a better person. Caring for others and resolving with them to accomplish what may seem ungraspable goals have become, for me, the seeds of enduring friendships, appreciation for shared excellence, and devotion to the University.