In an effort to honor some of our fantastic athletic alumni of color, The Argus, in partnership with the Student-Athlete of Color Leadership Council, reached out to Wesleyan alumni to hear stories about their experiences at Wes and beyond.
Although she’d been running since she was 13 years old, Cecilia Pohorille McCall ’91 found the running community at Wesleyan significantly more fun than her experience in high school, where she felt burnt out under the pressure of a nationally known coach. After spending her first year as the coxswain for the crew team, McCall returned to running as the star of the women’s cross country and the indoor and outdoor track team.
“At Wesleyan there was a long history of a long distance running community,” McCall said. “There were people there like Sally Knight [’81]—I forget her maiden name—who was here and she had run, but she came back and was working with a bunch of runners. She was also an amazing, amazing runner so there was a real history of long distance and marathon running. So we would secretly train for marathons on the side.”
Dr. Christopher J. Richardson ’93, a running back on the football team, enjoyed an extremely successful career in the Red and Black uniform.
“In some ways, Wesleyan was an extension of high school,” Richardson said. “I was always a starter when I was in high school, I was captain of my high school team my senior year, and I was able to start every game at Wesleyan except for my first, and I was captain my senior year so it was a really good experience.”
The adjustment was much different for K. Rainbow ’04, who graced the defensive side of the football field as an outside linebacker and nickel cornerback.
“In high school I was on a football team, we didn’t have a big district or my school wasn’t the biggest team in the district, so I played basically the whole game,” said Rainbow. “Offense, defense, special teams. When I went to Wesleyan obviously I didn’t even know this was a thing, that you had an offense as one team a defense and potentially some special teams that were not all the same. At that time I was also personally a little burnt out from football. I didn’t initially take it probably as serious.”
Sarah Sylla ’17 played on the women’s soccer team all four years, bouncing around the field but primarily slotting in on offense.
“It’s a bigger time commitment, traveling for away games and even in the off-season practicing twice a year,” Sylla said. “A higher level of playing, a lot of teamwork, and feeling really connected with your team. When you’re playing a college sport, you see those people a lot. I loved being on a team at Wesleyan—it gives you a good community to be a part of.”
Although their entrances into athletics at Wes followed different paths, each athlete had some tremendous memories from their time in Cardinal athletics.
“Qualifying for the—then it was called the Dad Vail’s, which was like the national championships…—in our B team novice boat was a huge accomplishment and a great bonding experience, starting a sport from nothing and our rowers having never rowed before we started,” McCall said. “Coming together and having that type of success was amazing.”
“My sophomore year was 1990. At that time, we used to play the Coast Guard Academy,” Richardson said. “1990 was the Coast Guard Academy’s bicentennial, and we played them at their bicentennial homecoming. It was a hard fought game. If I have it correctly, we beat them 12 to 14 and we sang the fight song twice on their 50-yard line after the game. It was an incredible feeling to play such a hard fought game at the Coast Guard Academy at their homecoming and beat them. In the stand, they mentioned that Admiral So-and-so was here and General So-and-so was there and astronaut So-and-so was here, and you know Wesleyan beat them—it was great. The way their stadium was configured, their bleachers were made out of stone and concrete, and behind us was a river, the Connecticut River, so it was just incredibly loud. We couldn’t hear, we couldn’t hear ourselves think on the field, but we were still able to get the plays called balls snapped and we got them. It was a great experience.”
Rainbow also had fond memories from his time on the football field.
“We had good teams but we never had those really good seasons,” Rainbow said. “So one of the times when we beat Amherst at home, I wanted to say it was for our homecoming. It was a really close game, like nine to seven, and that was the first time we had beaten Amherst in a decade or something crazy like that.”
“Before games we would always have rituals where we would be playing music in the locker room,” Sylla said. “I liked the before-game hype.”
Although all of the athletics interviews looked back at their time at Wes joyfully, they still faced challenges during their time at Wesleyan.
“Having more of a transitional kind of assistance for people that come from lower economics than most people in that school, because a lot people were more well to do than I was, it was probably a transition dealing with that,” Rainbow said.
When thinking about whether there was a stigma around athletics, Rainbow recalled, “There definitely was…particularly from the professors.”
Richardson felt a similar stigma from the students but had a different perspective on it.
“When I was playing football, to be an athlete was almost looked down upon,” Richardson said. “But again I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I think that’s a positive because there was so much diversity in people’s thoughts. [At] some schools, if you are not going to football games, there’s something wrong with you. Whereas at Wesleyan, it was almost like, ‘What are you doing that for? There are so many other things you could be doing besides playing that.’”
Sylla also shared her perspective on the topic of stigma surrounding athletics.
“[It was not] a stigma per se,” Sylla said. “Sometimes it felt pretty separate, some people did better at bridging those gaps, but as a freshman, if there were programs to connect athletes and non-athletes, that would be helpful.”
Richardson also praised Wesleyan for providing a diverse environment, especially on the athletic field.
“What separates Wesleyan from some of our competitors is diversity,” Richardson said. “When I played football there must have been 12 Black guys on the team at one point. If you counted all the other schools combined, they didn’t have that same number. That was the beauty of Wesleyan. It separates Wesleyan from some of our competitors.”
Moving beyond Wesleyan, McCall, Richardson, Rainbow, and Sylla continued to see success.
After moving to New York to attend law school at NYU, McCall continued running and joined a semi-professional running team that had been recommended by the Wesleyan running community. He also specialized in Latin American corporate finance.
“My Spanish speaking skills also gave me an entrance into a lot of these high-level meetings at a young age,” he added.
Now McCall works as the Assistant Director of Alumni Parent Relations at Wesleyan where she works to help form connections for students of color.
“Clearly my passion has been with Wesleyan and students and alumni of color [and] building up those networks and connections, because I know I didn’t have them as a student,” McCall said. “So I think trying to leverage the alumni of color network and have events during the school break so students can connect on a personal basis with alums really makes me happy.”
Richardson went to medical school and graduated in 1999. He then had a residency in general surgery at Saint Barnabas Hospital and Regional Trauma center in the Bronx, N. Y. Following his residency, Richardson went on to do a hand surgery fellowship at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health center, also in the Bronx. He practiced surgery in Rochester, N.Y. from April 2017 to May 2018, where he was trauma medical director at Rochester General Hospital.
“Currently I’ve decided to go back to school. I’m working on a master’s in Business Administration from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia,” Richardson said.
Rainbow’s career has also followed an interesting trajectory after graduating from law school that found him in Arizona. “Right now I run my own law practice. I’m a solo attorney out in Arizona. I practice primarily in criminal defense, but I dabble in various areas overall.”
Sylla has been working for JDS Therapeutics, which makes nutritional ingredients and dietary supplements for sports and women’s health. She is on the research team and helps to conduct clinical trials.
All of the alums also offered advice for current students at the school.
“I would say have fun. The most important thing is to have fun because once it’s over, it’s over,” Richardson said. “When I say have fun, it’s not just during the games but practice, preseason workouts, lifting weights. I would say enjoy every single moment of it because, number one, when it’s over, it’s over, and, number two, there are lessons that are learned from every experience and those lessons that you learn are going to help to shape you, mold you and be better as you go on to professional school or profession of choice, family life, and what have you.”
These sentiments were echoed by Rainbow.
“Take [school] seriously, because football doesn’t last forever and you’re going to miss it when it’s done,” Rainbow said. “Take advantage of the school outside of football, because that is what school is about. It’s got the most prestige because of academics, not sports, so make sure to take advantage of that.”
“Continue to work hard in your sport [and] try not to stress about it too much,” Sylla echoed. “Obviously your school work is important, as is finding out what you’re trying to study. Focusing on other things outside of athletics can make you well rounded, which will help with your athletics too.”
She continued by speaking to support networks between athletes of color.
“If you’re on a team and there’s only a few people of color, be supportive of each other and talk about if you’re having problems with anything,” Sylla said. “Especially if you’re a leader, be open to making sure that if people of color have any questions make sure you are supporting them.”
John Vernaglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.