It was a dreary April day when Devon Cooper ’19 first stepped foot on Wesleyan’s campus. Coming from her home in California after a swim and dive meet, she hopped off her red-eye flight to the east coast. It was time for her to decide where to spend the next four years.
“There was snow melting on the ground, it was raining, and no one was on campus,” Cooper recalled, but her unappealing first impression did not sway her. “I got home and I couldn’t shake it…. No matter if I looked at other schools, [Wesleyan] was still up there.”
Now a year and a half later, swim and dive meets have yet to be taken off her agenda. Cooper is one of the many walk on athletes who participates in Wesleyan’s Division III athletic program, which has given students who chose not to pursue recruitment the chance to maintain highly competitive athletic roles.
Although walk-ons allow varsity teams to become more inclusive, they also find an added pressure of winning over a spot on the roster. Skill inferiority and the inherent awkwardness of exclusion from their year’s recruiting class are also some of the most common impediments.
Nick Miceli ’17 was recruited for baseball and also played hockey during his first three years at Wesleyan, but it wasn’t until his senior year when he made it back onto the soccer field as a walk-on. After sacrificing part of his third year of hockey to study abroad, and consequently having to stop playing altogether, Miceli decided it was time to return. Walking onto soccer was not guaranteed.
When talking to Head Coach Geoff Wheeler about the possibility, Miceli remembered that “it was a difficult to have a conversation about a potential senior walk-on.”
But Miceli’s morale earned him the spot.
“I came back here in the fall, and I was able to prove it just by playing,” Head Coach Wheeler said.
Premchai Bunsermvicha ’20 walked onto the varsity squash team this fall. For him, the difference in skill level motivates him to put in more hours on the court.
“I want to eventually play at the same level as the recruits, so I’d say I’m putting more pressure on myself,” Bunsermvicha explained. “I’m coming in early to do more work and staying after. When I can.”
“I just focus on how I do, myself,” added Bunsermvicha. “Comparing yourself is just going to tear you down. I don’t think it’s about that, playing sports or academics. There are always going to be people who are better than you.”
But for Cooper, skill inferiority was something she was unprepared to face. She was previously a gymnast and diver, but many mental obstacles relating to air-mechanic-intensive sports deterred her from continuing as a diver.
“A lot of the fear and the mental blocks transferred over, and it wasn’t fun anymore,” she said. “I was essentially dead set about never diving again. I was like, ‘I’m going to be doing swimming, and it’s going to be my thing.’”
However, Cooper soon encountered new obstacles with this decision.
“The practices were so much harder and so different than what I was used to,” she said. “So while my teammates were chilling during preseason practices, they were the hardest practices of my life.”
Only a few weeks into the season at the team’s annual “Red and Black” intrasquad meet, Coach Peter Solomon asked Cooper to go up on the board and dive for fun with a teammate. That one dive changed everything.
“One of the things [Solomon] told me after [was that] for the first time all through preseason, he had seen me actually smiling and laughing with teammates behind the diving board,” Cooper said.
Switching back to diving enabled Cooper to contribute more to the team’s success.
“It turns out I give more to the team as a diver,” Cooper reflected, expressing gratitude for her ability to make this change.
The flip-flopping of Cooper’s focus in the pool was not her only surprise as a first year. The social implications of joining an athletic team shaped her social life in unexpected ways.
It’s no secret that athletes compose a strong social community on campus. Lacking recruiting visits or communication with current players, walk-ons enter Wesleyan’s student athlete life not knowing what it will consist of. However, they often have no choice but to encounter it first hand, sitting with their team exclusively on the loud side of Usdan, or “party hopping,” as Cooper calls it, in and out of houses named for sport teams along Fountain Avenue, whose single gender living arrangements resemble Greek life.
“The sports teams generally kind of ban together,” noted Cooper. “It creates a different social network.”
For Cooper, the dive team’s frequent participation in parties like those on Fountain Avenue differ from her ideal weekend endeavors.
“I would much rather hang out with a smaller group of people and not move around in rooms with a bunch of strangers,” explained Cooper.
Indeed, finding a happy medium socially with this constraint was one Cooper’s biggest challenges at the beginning.
“I was like really trying to fit in with my teammates, but not really fitting in with them,” she said.
Social barriers did not manage to hinder Cooper for long.
“It’s a lot more different this year,” she noted. “I have a lot of friends outside of the team.”
This improvement can be attributed to Cooper’s decision to return to diving.
“My relationship with the people in my grade did get a lot better after I switched to diving,” Cooper noted. “I had a really hard time fitting in when I was swimming, and I think part of that stemmed from the fact that I felt I was so much less able as a swimmer than they were.”
Cooper stressed how important it was to be comfortable with her team.
“If someone really doesn’t fit in with the team dynamic, then it would be a lot harder to stay committed to a sport,” she noted.
For Miceli, his enthusiasm noticeably overpowered any sign of nervousness about his transition in the beginning of the season.
“I was really so happy to be there, honestly to be able to play soccer again, that all just melted away,” Miceli boasted, while lamenting lacking such a bond.
Cooper’s social integration as an athlete quickly progressed thanks to her improved morale and confidence through diving. While Bunsermvicha faces a similar gap in skill level on squash, he has managed to find unity with teammates and maintain outside friendships too.
“I spend a lot of time with my teammates and I think that’s definitely a positive. I’m not just spending time with the people that I got comfortable with the first two weeks of school. Now I have multiple outlets…It’s all about balancing,” Busnermvicha said.
For Miceli, the ability to walk onto multiple teams at Wesleyan provided him with enough physical outlets to reach his potential mentally and academically.
“I don’t really know academics without sports behind it,” Miceli explained. “I was able to be so regimented in how I do things so I really know how to make the most out of my time.”
Miceli felt grounded with the chance to continue all three outlets he had throughout childhood.
“The multisport aspect certainly helped skew a Division III athletic career,” Miceli recalled. “It was difficult to only see myself playing one sport. I could see myself going a little stir crazy.”
For Cooper, an athletic outlet wasn’t the only thing she needed to find release.
“In my freshman year I had a big interest in theatre and the arts. This year I was actually able to get it in there, and I feel so much more balanced,” Cooper said. “It was really hard to figure out how to squeeze that in among everything [before.] I felt off balance because I was constantly working in one area and I wasn’t getting a break.”
Bunsermvicha, Cooper, and Miceli all foster strong resolve in their athletic and academic attitudes. But Cooper made it clear that her powerful character not only draws from herself, but her teammates.
“There are weeks when we’re all struggling and most of us have the mindset that you just have to push through,” she said. “We all help each other.”