Sam Dunkle CC’15, originally from Brookings, S.D., has been a member of the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team since the start of his first year at Columbia College. From the Core to the pool, Sam’s experience at Columbia has been shaped by his teammates and their experiences together, in and out of the water. Here, Sam reflects on his four years as a College student and athlete.
Recently I came across my Columbia College admissions essay, which I wrote more than four years ago. Titled “Where Buffalo Roam,” my submission reads today like a desperate appeal to the humanity of a faceless admissions officer, pleading for release from frigid South Dakota winters and bland Midwestern life. I failed then to appreciate the value of my sheltered upbringing, but within that essay there existed a palpable desire to venture into New York City and experience its myriad opportunities. I sought exposure to museums and concerts, new foods and cultures.
That thirst for something new was satisfied the moment I arrived at Columbia. As I learned to navigate my new surroundings, the pace at which I encountered all of the excitement and opportunity on campus and in New York accelerated. My experience with the Core Curriculum was everything I hoped it would be, filled with inspiring professors, engaging classmates and excursions into the city. I will never forget attending Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater with my Contemporary Civilizations class, or hearing Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony at Lincoln Center for a Music Humanities concert paper.
Yet little did I know that it would be right here in Morningside Heights, holed up four floors underground in Dodge Fitness Center, that I would be challenged physically and mentally more than I ever thought possible and that I would find friends who would enrich my life immeasurably, all through the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team.
Being a student-athlete is humbling, gratifying and thoroughly exhausting. As swimmers, we rise before dawn six mornings every week from October until the middle of March, only to submit ourselves to the intense scrutiny of our coaches, Jim Bolster and Gustavo Leal. With classes, a second evening practice and homework to follow, the daily grind feels insurmountable at times. Still, as I near the end of my College and athletic career and reflect upon my experience, I have come to savor the challenge.
The Men's Swimming and Diving Team on a day off while training in Hawaii in January 2015. Photo: Courtesy Sam Dunkle CC’15
I am often asked by friends and family — many of whom never competed athletically at an institution as academically rigorous and athletically competitive as Columbia — why I continue with the sport considering the sacrifice, whether it is forgoing an internship during the academic year, a sixth class or sometimes simply a nap. Each time I answer, I find myself unable to capture the essence of committing to a team at this level of competition. How to explain exactly why I live, eat, train, travel and study with 35 ambitious and diverse men whom I now consider brothers?
But I see the answer regularly. I saw it in the faces of my teammates last fall during our meet against Yale. Heading into the last laps of the last event of the afternoon, the 400-yard freestyle relay, both our relay team and Yale’s were locked in a dead heat, and the winner of the race would claim victory for the entire meet. As one of my closest friends, David Jakl CC’15, barreled into the final flip-turn, neck-and-neck with Yale’s fastest swimmer, the tension in Uris Pool rose to an overwhelming crescendo.
David’s fingers hit the wall just hundredths of a second before his competitor’s. I turned to my teammates and watched each of them captivated by the euphoric moment. Nothing mattered at that moment other than what we had accomplished together. Swimming is a unique sport, requiring an intense focus on the individual effort as well as the team. And so, when David and our relay team won, it was the culmination of each individual swim that became the accomplishment of the entire group.
Countless other memories formed at the pool underscore the indelible impact of being on the swim team – midnight practice at the start of each season; beating Princeton at home two years ago for the first time in our program’s history; watching David and Kevin Quinn, both CC’15, compete against the nation’s best at the NCAA championships; and surviving four training trips with my fellow senior classmates. Training trips, a yearly tradition over winter break for most collegiate swim programs, entail 10 days of the season’s most grueling practices. We travel to a warm location to swim outside and enjoy the sun between highly-demanding training sessions. To those unfamiliar with the sport, the idea of a training trip might seem relaxing, but any of us, if asked, would quickly assert that the trip is anything but that. Yet, surrounded by the support of teammates who double as friends, the exhaustion and punishing schedule become less difficult.
But the true wealth to be gained comes not from wins in the pool, personal best times or even varsity records. Instead, my teammates and I will leave Columbia forever changed by our time together. The friendship we share is grounded not only in the pool, but also in the classroom and throughout New York City. Ties that bind Columbia students together — exposure to and discussion about common Literature Humanities texts, for example — are, for us, formed both in class as well as in the locker room and on buses as we travel to compete around the Ivy League. Some of my favorite spots in New York I discovered while exploring with my teammates.
As Columbia students, we share a tremendous sense of pride in the continual push to find the outer limits of our mental strength. As swimmers, this effort extends beyond the classroom and into the pool, where we challenge each other to push beyond those bounds. We have forged an unshakeable bond by doing this side by side, lap by lap, day after day. Swimming is a physically draining and mentally uncomfortable process. We constantly must question if more is possible, whether we can dig deeper when the real fear exists that there might not be anything left. Yet, to have the support and camaraderie of best friends makes the quest possible and the journey all the more rewarding, from the pain of a grueling three-hour practice to the post-practice ritual of team breakfasts in Ferris to the late nights studying in the International Affairs Building, our study spot of choice. On paper and according to NCAA rules, our season runs each year from October 1 through mid-March. In reality, though, Columbia Men’s Swimming and Diving begins the moment we walk on campus as first years and I suspect it will never truly end.
Sam Dunkle CC’15 is an economics-political science major. Originally from South Dakota, he loves living in New York City, exploring different neighborhoods and trying new restaurants. A member and captain of the Varsity Men's Swimming and Diving team, Sam swims long distance freestyle events. Out of the pool, he is a research assistant at the Comparative Defense Studies Program within the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs.