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Senior Perspective: Men's Water Polo's Egen Atkinson

Senior captains and representatives of varsity teams at Harvard contributed viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard. Each year the Senior Perspectives are compiled into a book and handed out at the Senior Letterwinner’s Dinner.

Senior Perspectives thus forms a valuable portion of each team’s legacy to sport at Harvard and to the permanent record built here by our varsity athletes. Throughout the summer, these senior essays will be posted to GoCrimson.com for all to see.

As I reflect on my four years of water polo at Harvard, I’m struck by the dichotomy of my experience. Although at times extremely frustrating, playing water polo at Harvard taught me numerous invaluable life lessons, formed the foundation of many amazing friendships, and shaped my identity on campus and beyond. I came into Harvard water polo with the mindset of a boy, and I left as a confident man and a leader. For this reason, I would gladly do it all over again. Some stinging losses, the simmering frustration, and two frightening eye surgeries were all worth it in the end. Harvard water polo transformed my mentality and for that I am continually grateful.

I find it ironic that I chose Harvard for its academics but ended up maturing and making many lifelong friends through water polo. On the Cambridge side of the river I was fortunate to study facts, theories, and academic techniques from many of the brightest minds in the world. On the athletics side, however, I learned about life, and what I learned I did not forget soon after a final exam. I learned how to function as part of a unified group rather than as an individual concerned with his own grades. I also learned to persevere. Sure, academics taught me a bit of perseverance during a few nights in Lamont library staring at a half-completed paper at 4 a.m. However, it was water polo that truly tested my resolve a few hours later with 5,000 yards of hard swimming on 45 minutes of sleep and a bagel. While it would be a lie to say that I enjoyed those types of days, I know that many of the challenges I have encountered since then appeared diminished through the lens of experience.

In addition to teamwork and perseverance, I learned a great deal about leadership. I quickly discovered that being a good leader was harder than I had imagined. It was easy to forget that as captain I was still a player, and that players inevitably make mistakes. I slowly learned that missing a shot or making a bad pass did not make me a bad captain any more than scoring lots of goals equated to successful leadership. Furthermore, I slowly accepted that even as a leader, many things were outside my control and the best role I could play was to inspire my teammates to believe in themselves and the team.

I do not mean to say that water polo consisted only of arduous lessons and lacked the euphoria that is unique to sports. On the contrary, I will remember many shining moments in vivid detail for as long as I live. I remember beating Brown in sudden-death double overtime during my freshman year. Co-captain Mike Garcia shot from at least 10 meters out and was under such heavy defensive pressure that I remember thinking that the ball wouldn’t even reach the goal. Yet I watched with elation as the ball skipped low under the Brown goalie’s right arm to snatch the win as our screaming bench emptied into the pool. I will never forget the look on the faces of No. 18 John Hopkins after we upset them in the 2007 Eastern quarterfinals despite having lost to them twice during the regular season. Then-freshman (now co-captain) Bret Voith took the team on his back with three goals in the fourth quarter. This September, goalie Nikhil Balaraman had several impossible saves from point blank range and threw three full-court assists to lead us to a 9-6 victory over MIT that smelled of sweet revenge. When I am old and grey, the losses and the mistakes will have receded into the abyss of memory while the wins and the camaraderie will feel as fresh as ever.

In the end, the best thing about being a Harvard athlete was not what I learned or any great win. Rather, it was the exceptional people I’ve met: teammates, fellow athletes, and the members of the administration who work tirelessly to ensure the success of Harvard Athletics. Among the men and women who will sit around me at the letter-winners’ dinner on May 26th, I am honored to count many amazing individuals who are simultaneously my closest friends and my role models, and who will undoubtedly go on to accomplish tremendous things. You made these four years amazing.