While MIT is renowned for academic excellence, many people are surprised to hear about the Institute’s excellent program in sports. MIT offers the broadest intercollegiate athletic program in the country, with 41 varsity teams–a number matched only by Harvard University.
Roughly 20 percent of undergraduates compete on one or more of the university’s varsity teams. Another 800 students are involved with at least one of 30 club programs, and 75 percent of undergraduate and graduate students take part in intramurals. About 95 percent of all MIT students participate in sports.
Even student athletes are surprised to find they have so much company. When senior Stephanie Brenman, who plays varsity soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse, arrived at MIT, she figured she’d be in the minority as an athlete. “MIT is thought of as the typical nerd school, so I didn’t really have high expectations for people to be involved in athletics,” she says. “It surpassed my expectations.”
With such a strong program, why isn’t the school better known for its athletics?
Many agree it’s because the typical MIT student would rather play than watch. And with so many students competing, sports teams at the Institute don’t attract large and vocal followings or inspire fervent loyalty among fans.
“We are a campus of doers at MIT,” says James Kramer, director of sports information and communications. “We’re not a spectator campus. That doesn’t just go for athletics; that goes for everything. MIT students love to be challenged, and I think athletics is a natural forum for that.”
The independent, self-sufficient nature of the MIT athlete also helps explain the popularity of sports that emphasize individual performance, such as cycling and fencing. In the past 10 years, MIT Engineers, as all the Institute’s intercollegiate varsity teams are called, have received 247 All-America honors and produced individual national champions in pistol, gymnastics, track and field, swimming and diving, skiing, men’s tennis, and women’s fencing. In the last three years, MIT has been nationally ranked in swimming and diving, volleyball, tennis, water polo, sailing, women’s cross-country, men’s soccer, and men’s track and field.
Jimmy Bartolotta, a senior shooting guard on the men’s basketball team, says he misses the fan following and school rivalries that he enjoyed as a high-school player, but he likes competing with other academically talented players. On average, MIT varsity student athletes carry a 4.3 GPA. “Every kid who participates here has gone through the same rigorous academic review that every other student has gone through,” says Bartolotta.
Sports also offer a release from the rigors of studying, says Bartolotta, who is double-majoring in finance and physics. Basketball has allowed him to develop his leadership skills. And the intense practice and game schedules have helped him organize his time.
Bartolotta, who plans to play professional basketball in Europe after graduation, was recruited to MIT as a basketball player. Yet many students are introduced to their sports as undergraduates. Bob Vernon ‘63, SM ‘65, never considered himself an athlete until he joined the crew team. And he did that only because an upperclassman at the fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha threw his arm around his shoulder and suggested he try out.
“Like most of us, I didn’t go to MIT with athletics in mind,” says Vernon, who is retired from Unisys and lives in Doylestown, PA, with his wife, Alice. “I think the upperclassmen realized that MIT can just grind you into the ground, but if you can couple a great education with good extracurriculars, then you’ll be okay.”
Vernon was coxswain of the varsity lightweight crew during his sophomore and junior years and team captain his senior year. In 1962, his boat won the national championship and traveled to England to compete in the Henley Royal Regatta. Last year, Vernon was among 10 former crew team members to join their former coach Gerrity W. Zwart, MArch ‘62, in England to celebrate the anniversary of their achievement. Vernon also spearheaded a recent drive to create an endowment fund in Zwart’s honor to support the position of varsity lightweight rowing coach. In three months, the effort raised more than $650,000.
“I look back on my days with the rowing team as being as important to me as the academics in becoming who I am,” Vernon says. “That’s why I’m so committed to ensuring the rowing program stays healthy. When I was a freshman, a senior in our house was captain of the crew team”–the upperclassman who urged him to try out. “Four years later, I was the crew captain, telling the same thing to a freshman.”