Senior Claire Pinson begins a 400-meter individual medley.

Claire Pinson to swim for Harvard: First Ivy League athlete in 31 years makes a big splash

For the second time, Harvard has landed a Country Day swimmer, senior Claire Pinson. The last time was over 30 years ago when Kelley Taber, ’84, chose Harvard – and the admissions process has changed a lot since then.

The long road for swimmers nowadays begins early. So early, in fact, that students initiate telephone contact with coaches as early as freshman year in high school. Coaches meanwhile must wait until July 1 between a student’s junior and senior year to reach out and can call students only once a week.

While less prestigious schools initiate contact with students, Ivy League schools require student-led action, according to Pinson.

Pinson visits the Harvard swimming and diving facility while on her junior year Spring Break trip.
Photo used with permission by Pinson
Pinson visits the Harvard swimming and diving facility while on her junior year Spring Break trip.

“It’s pretty bad (of us), but the emails that we send are basically the same ones,” Pinson said.

“It goes a bit like, ‘I want a perfect balance between academics and athletics, and I think (insert school name) is perfect for that.’”

Taber, now president of the Board of Trustees and an alumni interviewer for Harvard, said the admissions process used to have fewer restrictions.

Kelley Taber, ’84, was co-captain of the 1987-88 Harvard women’s swim team.
Photo used with permission by Taber
Kelley Taber, ’84, was co-captain of the 1987-88 Harvard women’s swim team.

“We obviously didn’t have email, but there was no set date or number of times you could call the coaches,” Taber said.

“Some of the less academically competitive schools at the time recruited and actively headhunted, but the Ivy League mainly attracted athletes from New England. Not surprisingly, their programs, specifically the women’s programs, were a bit provincial.”

By the end of Pinson’s junior year (after she received her sixth-semester and standardized testing scores), the conversation became personal.

“This is when the coaches tell you whether or not they need your stroke specialty (middle and long freestyle events are Pinson’s specialty) or if your swim times just aren’t fast enough to be on their team,” Pinson said.

Although times factor heavily into the admissions process for student-athletes, they are not the be-all and end-all.

Pinson said coaches have to show the undergraduate admissions office that the student can still succeed academically.

For Pinson, especially, academics played a large part.

“I’m by no means the fastest incoming freshman,” Pinson said. “But they saw some potential, and my academics and GPA were high enough to fit in their range.”

Taber had similar qualifications, she said. Like Pinson, she was not the fastest freshman. Although her times were strong, she became sick with mononucleosis the summer between her junior and senior years, leading to a break in training and ultimately slower times when she joined the Harvard team.

“I was a Prep School All American in the butterfly and individual medley my freshman and sophomore years in high school, so that probably carried a significant amount of weight,” Taber said.

Taber concluded, though, that it was more her complete profile (National Merit Semifinalist, GPA and other extracurriculars – Taber was editor- in-chief of the Octagon) that pushed her over the top.

Once the colleges were confident Pinson could do the work, they invited her on recruitment trips in early fall. Pinson was courted by Princeton University, Rice University, Brown University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Recruitment trips are all-expenses-paid visits so the athletes can get a better feeling for the schools.

Coaches can invite around 10 swimmers, and trips happen on only two or three weekends. Swimmers are allowed five official trips.

Taber was also invited on recruitment trips. However, Taber was interested in Princeton and Harvard, and at the time neither school offered official trips.

Although Pinson didn’t get a recruitment trip offer from Harvard, she visited the school on her own.

After Pinson’s Princeton trip, the coach said she was a top candidate. Pinson, however, wasn’t as sure about Princeton.

“I felt that I couldn’t make the decision until I had seen another school,” Pinson said.

At the same time, Princeton was pressing Pinson for an answer within the week.

Short on time, Pinson told Harvard’s coach that Harvard was her top choice, at which point the coach invited her for a traditional recruitment trip.

Pinson left Sacramento for Boston the next day. It was on this trip that Pinson had her “Harvard moment.”

“I was swimming in their pool when it just hit me that this was the place I needed to be at,” Pinson said. “I ended up walking into the coach’s office still dripping wet saying, ‘I had the moment.’”

Two days later, Pinson got the dream call.

“The coach started out saying, ‘We’ve been doing a lot of thinking,’ which made me incredibly worried,” Pinson said.

“But she continued, ‘We have faster swimmers who are undecided, and they are looking at other colleges, but we know that you want to be at Harvard. Welcome to the team. If you want it, you can have it.’”

While Pinson fell in love with Harvard almost immediately, it took longer for Taber to warm up to the college.

“My trip to Harvard actually decreased my interest!” Taber said. “The coach was uninspiring, and the swimmers I met seemed to have low energy and a lack of enthusiasm.”

On the other hand, Princeton impressed her with a beautiful campus and handsome swimmers.

It wasn’t until Taber had dinner with close friends who went to Harvard as swimming student-athletes that her interest was piqued again.

“The entire family worked hard to convince me that I should go to Harvard. They even sang the Harvard fight song for me over the dinner table,” Taber said.

After she made her choice, Pinson had one last duty – to tell other schools she had picked Harvard.

“I remember bawling on the phone when I was talking to the coach for Rice,” Pinson said. “It is one of the cruelest things in the world, but also incredibly exciting.”

Although Pinson had a verbal agreement with the Harvard coach, she still had to submit an early action application.

Taber also applied early action and received the news on her birthday.

Even though Pinson and Taber got into Harvard as student-athletes, both say the college benefits wouldn’t have been enough to keep them swimming.

Taber enjoyed the camaraderie of being on a college swimming team, as well as the chance to travel.

“The closeness of the team made it worth putting in all those long hours,” Taber said.

At Harvard Taber practiced about 22 hours weekly, in addition to teaching students to swim for two hours a week as a team fundraiser, she said. Away meets usually happened on weekends, but as they were at other Ivy League schools, the bus ride could take up to nine hours.

While swimming demands a lot of time, it also creates memorable moments for student-athletes. Taber particularly remembers swimming in the winter.

“When we would go to Cornell for the annual meet, we had to dry our hair especially well,” Taber said. “Otherwise it would freeze.”

While Harvard has many resources available to student-athletes (including physical therapists and tutors), it tries to maintain an even playing field. Pinson said student-athletes share residence halls and cafeteria space with other students.

And that egalitarian nature was a major draw for Pinson.

“Will I be a swimmer after my four years at Harvard?” Pinson said. “Probably not. It is the degree that you graduate with that matters.”

After graduating from Harvard, Taber traveled around the world for a year before landing a job as an environmental consultant. She then went to law school and now works as an environmental lawyer.

“Perhaps not coincidentally, given my background as a swimmer, my practice focuses largely on water law,” Taber said with a laugh.

Previously published in the print edition on April 28, 2015.

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