Written Senior Perspective - Nicky Maxwell, Men's Track and Field

Photo by Gil Talbot
Photo by Gil Talbot

The 2019 Senior Perspectives is the 14th in a series of annual collections. Senior captains and representatives of teams at Harvard have been invited to contribute viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard.

Nicky Maxwell
Hometown: London, UK
Concentration: Psychology
House Affiliation: Quincy

After accepting a place at Harvard, I filled out some eligibility paperwork. Coach Mangiacotti emailed me to confirm that I had submitted the forms, and casually said he’d check back in soon when it was all processed. A few weeks later came a short response: “All set! You’re eligible.” Assuming this was all normal, I thought nothing of it and got on with my summer. It wasn’t until I arrived on campus a few months later that I was contacted by someone from the Crimson, informing me I was the first amputee to be ruled eligible to compete in the history of NCAA Division 1 track and field. Unbeknownst to me, my Coach had spent the summer pitching my case to an NCAA committee, arguing for my eligibility, and even having a biomechanics expert present evidence on my behalf.

Many track coaches said no when I approached them in my college application process; I have never been in range of scoring points for a D1 program, and for some the cost of learning to coach a disabled athlete outweighed any potential benefits. Not for Coach Mang. In four years, he has never asked for thanks. I only know what he did because other people told me. The truth is, I might not be running at all if it weren’t for him. My Harvard experience has been defined by this sport and this team; none of that would exist without Coach Marc Mangiacotti.

True to a classic athlete stereotype, my desk is cluttered with motivational quotes:

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.”

“Character is who you are when no-one is watching.”

But cheesy though it is, one quote in particular seems to encapsulate how I feel looking back on Harvard:

“It is not the dream that counts; but who you become while chasing it.”

When I started running as a 14 year old, I wanted to win a Paralympic gold medal. I even remember writing it down once, when a coach made me fill out a goals sheet. This has turned out to be a bit more of a ‘reach goal’ than the coach might have intended – I am comfortable now acknowledging that I don’t have a future as a Paralympian – but the values and character I have gained while chasing that dream matter far more to me now than any specific end point.

As a freshman, I was just happy to be here. In awe of Harvard stadium, bizarrely excited by the scale of Palmer Dixon, and itching to take my next steps as a student-athlete, pressure and worries barely entered my mind. Despite injury issues early on, I ended the season with a new set of personal best times, culminating with a win at the first Intercollegiate Para-Track and Field Championships.

I returned to campus as a sophomore on a high, and keen to continue rising. That fall I trained harder than ever before, completing hours of extra drills before and after practices. I shaped my social life around my sport, allowing running to consume most of my life on campus. Having seemingly left no stone unturned, I felt success was inevitable; until I opened with my slowest race since I was 16 years old. I worked harder, only to run slower still at the next meet. For almost two years this vicious cycle persisted, as with each failure I resolved to ‘fix myself’ through brute force, instead of realizing the problem was not in my body, but in the way I was approaching the sport. Consumed by a need for some abstract ‘success’, I had lost the joy that once made coming to practice with my teammates the best part of my day.

My experience as a collegiate track athlete is probably quite unusual: I lose almost every race by absolutely miles. At nearly every meet, I am competing exclusively with myself. This never used to bother me – simply being out there running fast was all I needed to feel happy. But somewhere along the line, I began to believe I needed to prove I deserved to be on this team. Instead of haring down the straight, totally focused on the finish line, I would feel a tinge of embarrassment. As an increasingly dejected junior, realizing how distorted my psychology had become was the key to turning the tide. Rather than feeling a need to prove I deserved to be on the team in spite of my leg – a truly Sisyphean task since I wasn’t about to start beating my bipedal competitors – I realised I could be on the team because of that same disability, without it undermining my sense of self-worth. I began to understand that even in this most individualist of sports, the value I brought to my teammates might make my own contributions worthwhile. Along the way, I remembered that the biggest reason I voluntarily spend three hours a day running in a circle is that I get to do it with some of my best friends in the world.

I feel beyond lucky to be finishing my senior season loving this sport as much as I ever have. Not coincidentally, I am also running faster than I ever have. The ups and downs of the past four years have not always been pleasant, but this team has been the single most defining aspect of my time at Harvard. It has shaped me into the man I am today, and revealed to me the type of person I can be. Because of this team, I have developed a strength of will and a sense of self-confidence that allows me to persist, even when the challenge seems overwhelming.

I owe my coach a debt I can never repay; my teammates have given me memories I will cherish forever; and this sport has taught me more about myself than I could’ve learned in any class. For Harvard track and field, I am forever grateful.