Don’t underestimate the Force
A long time ago…last weekend, actually…in a galaxy far, far away…well, Florida…Coach Darcy Wilson’s intrepid group of Harvard throwers sent a tremor through the NCAA track and field world. By the time the 2023 Pepsi Florida Relays ended, it was clear that a New Order, one in which STEM majors throw far, had emerged.
Hammer specialist Stephanie Ratcliffe (neuroscience) started it all off on Friday morning with a round-three PB of 70.15m to take the win in her event. That toss–currently the leading mark in the NCAA– was her first beyond 70-meters and a massive improvement over her 2022 marks. Coach Wilson says they “knew she would be chasing those types of numbers this year based on her practice throws. And she hit 66-meters at home in Australia in January, so she’s been climbing.”
Ratcliffe’s teammates Cammy Garabian (math) and Cara Salsbury (undeclared) finished eighth and eleventh respectively.
Estel Valeanu (engineering) then took sixth in a discus comp won by Vandy’s Veronica Fraley. Wilson expects big things from Valeanu this season. Her 54.74m toss in Gainesville was not far off her PB of 56.07m, which is encouraging since she just finished her senior thesis–a strenuous undertaking that consumed much of her energy this spring. “Big things are on the horizon for her,” according to Wilson.
Not to be outdone by Ratcliffe, hammer thrower Kenneth Ikeji (undeclared) breached the 70-meter barrier for the first time as well (72.48m) while finishing second to Miami’s Decio Andrade. Wilson admits to casting aspersions after Kenneth’s fourth-round toss of 69.99m, telling him, “You can’t let Stephanie get to 70 and you not!” That well-intentioned taunting, along with the many hours Kenneth spent this past year learning to be “patient on his entry” produced a nice PB which has him sitting fifth on this year’s NCAA list.
Saturday was shot put day in Gainesville, and Sarah Omoregie (applied mathematics) proved that it does indeed only take one. Her series: foul, 15.49m, 17.21m, foul, 15.64m, 16.10m. According to Wilson, Omoregie–a glider and former heptathlete–is “extremely athletic and wired with fast twitch muscles,” but has to “be patient in the middle and delay the shot” in order to make her best throws. She did that once on Saturday, and the result was a PB, with, Wilson says, more to come for “one of the best athletes I’ve ever trained.” That 17.21m captured second place for Omoregie behind freshman sensation Alida Van Daalen of Florida who reached 17.94m.
Alexander Kolesnikoff (economics) closed out the weekend for the Harvard heavers by blasting a PB 20.05m on his sixth and final attempt to win the men’s shot, an achievement that “stunned him,” according to Wilson. “He has been dreaming about this twenty-meter day for years, and the way it played out is exactly what we’ve been working on–open well and then continue to build.” His series: 19.66m, 19.11m, 19.64m, 19.79m, foul, 20.05m.
Wilson loved the way her guy responded after South Carolina’s Dylan Taggart hit 19.80m in round six to knock Kolesnikoff temporarily out of the top spot. “He’s been working on how to compete,” she explained. “Alexander has been in some international comps, but not a lot of high-level NCAA meets, so this was a great experience for him. After Dylan hit that throw, I looked at Alexander and said, ‘Here is your opportunity. Use this!’”
Wilson predicts that Kolesnikoff will have plenty more clashes against world class competitors. “Alexander is only the third Ivy Leaguer in history to throw over twenty meters,” she noted. “The other two are Augie Wolf and Stephen Mozia, who both made the Olympics. I can for sure picture Alex following in those footsteps.”
What makes Kolesnikoff such a good putter? “He is,” according to Wilson, “a huge human being and an extremely hard worker.”
Smaller in number are we, but larger in mind
According to the College Board website, Harvard accepts only four percent of applicants. Those who gain admittance tend to have an ACT score in the 34-36 range, and a GPA of at least 3.75 on a 4-point scale.
That’s a small slice of the population from which to recruit folks with elite athletic potential. I asked Wilson how she does it.
“My pitch is that we are the best school in the country, so you can be number one academically and we can also take you as far as you want to go athletically. You don’t have to compromise in either area.”
One helpful factor is Harvard’s financial aid policy, which is the same for American and international students. Harvard evaluates a family’s financial situation and meets one hundred percent of their “demonstrated financial need.”
This makes Harvard more affordable and attracts younglings from across the globe who are blessed with brains that twitch as fast as their muscles. Kolesnikoff and Ratcliffe, for example, are Australian. Valeanu is from Israel.
Wilson says she “works a lot of American and international connections.” She had her eye on Ikeji, for example, and followed him via social media as he developed into Great Britain’s best young hammer thrower. “I loved his potential,” she recalls. “He was a city kid who had to get on a bus for an hour to go practice, so I knew he was committed to the sport. He also happens to be a brilliant human being.”
Once on campus, Harvard athletes face the daunting task of competing at a high level without cutting corners in the classroom. “The Ivy League has a stricter policy on travel and missed classes,” Wilson says. “So it takes a lot of planning and deciding which meets each athlete should attend. Luckily, the whole school is very supportive of these kids.”
Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose
Among the group Wilson took to the Florida Relays, several will be competing for other schools next season. Valeanu will be an LSU Tiger in 2024, Kolesnikoff a Georgia Bulldog. Ratcliffe, Garabian, and Omoregie are currently in the transfer portal looking for the right fit.
This exodus is the result of a strange combination of circumstances. The Ivy League does not allow grad students to compete in athletics, and the five athletes mentioned above will all be grad students next year. The reason they still have athletic eligibility is because the NCAA gave everyone an extra year after the 2020 season was shut down. In fact, Kolesnikoff, Omoregie, and Valeanu have two years of eligibility remaining because the Ivy League did not allow athletes to compete in 2021 either. Ratcliffe actually has three years because she took a leave from the Harvard team and competed in Australia during 2022.
Saying goodbye to this crew will not be easy for Wilson, but she has done her best to help Kolesnikoff and the others find their ideal landing spot. In the meantime, she looks forward to what promises to be an epic season for Harvard throws.