Justin Maffett ’16 had not ridden a horse since he was nine years old when he tried out for the equestrian team his freshman spring.
“I tried fencing, I tried club swim,” Maffett said. “Nothing felt right.”
Then one of his friends suggested he take a trip to the barn. After Maffett joined the equestrian team that season, he entered, then won, his first walk-trot competition.
While many of Dartmouth’s almost 1,000 varsity student athletes were recruited to join their teams, a small percentage of those who represent the Big Green on the field, court, rink and water chose to join their respective teams after they arrive on campus. Walking onto a Division I varsity team is no easy task, and each team treats potential members a little differently.
Though the exact number of walk-ons is not recorded, since no Ivy League athletes receive sports-related scholarships, every year students looking for an outlet on campus try their luck on varsity teams.
The crew and equestrian teams, two teams that contain large percentages of non-recruited athletes, are interesting windows into the process.
On the Zone 1 champion equestrian team, every spot is filled by walk-on athletes.
Equestrian coach Sally Batton said that while she does not recruit, she follows prospective students and athletes throughout the year. Once Batton finds out if a potential rider plans to attend the College, she said she examines tapes of their riding in order to figure out where the student could fit on the team.
Some riders meet with Batton when they visit campus and remain in contact over the summer before arriving at Dartmouth, Meaghan Haugh ’17 said. Others, like Maffett, do not interact with Batton before arriving on campus, instead showing up to tryouts to test their luck in the arena.
Official tryouts take place at the start of each academic year. Every rider, even returning members, auditions for a place on the team. Over 25 student-athletes have tried out for the team’s 20 spots each of the past two years, Batton said.
The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association includes competition of all levels, making recruiting unnecessary, she said. Teams need beginner and intermediate riders to compete in certain disciplines.
“Most of the ones that would be recruited are the ones that are the best riders,” she said, “but I don’t need 20 top-flight riders, I need them of all different skills and abilities.”
For example, walk-trot riders cannot have more than 24 weeks of instruction under their belts and walk-trot-canter riders cannot have participated in any previous competitions.
This year, the team won its regional competition, then its zone competition by beating rival Mount Holyoke College for the first time in school history. The Big Green will compete in the national championships in May.
While the men’s crew team recruits some rowers, it allows any student who wants to join to practice with the team.
Spencer Furey ’17 walked onto the heavyweight crew team this fall after noticing flyers around campus.
“I figured I’m in decent shape, so why not give it a chance?” Furey said.
The requirement for walking onto the crew team is simple: you have to be able to keep up. There is no minimum two-kilometer time or maximum mile time for athletes to beat in order to earn a roster spot, but the team workouts are tough enough to scare many would-be rowers away, Furey said.
A combined total of over 20 students walked onto the heavyweight and lightweight teams last fall, and about 10 remain on each team.
Lightweight head coach Sean Healey suggested that the team has a large number of walk-ons because success in crew comes more from physical traits as athletes pick up the technical side of rowing fairly quickly.
Walk-on rowers trained together in novice boats under the watch of the assistant lightweight team coach Taylor Black. The freshmen spend the fall separated from the varsity athletes to master technique before jumping fully into the varsity team experience in the winter, Furey said.
“Once winter training comes, they kind of throw us to the wolves and throw us in with the varsity,” he said.
The novices experienced their first real crew race at the Green Monster freshman invitational. The Hanover race gave the new rowers a taste of the sport and helped familiarize them with the speed and technique required to excel in crew.
Furey said he feels that the coaches and the rest of the rowers made sure that the novices were part of the team.
Though he felt a divide in the beginning, by the winter the team was unified, he said.
“It doesn’t matter what boat you’re in,” Furey said. “Whether you’re a walk-on or a recruit, you’re all striving to win races.”
Healey agreed, observing that the experienced rowers are often focused on helping their walk-on teammates adjust to the sport rather than seeing threats to their positions.
“My experience has been, particularly here at Dartmouth, that the experienced athletes are actually really good at helping the walk-ons make the adjustment to the team and pick up the sport.”
Joanna Millstein ’17 said she feels the same sense of unity on the women’s crew team.
“Once they integrated the walk-ons into the rest of the team after the trial period, I felt like it was a real community that I really appreciated being a part of,” Millstein said.
Despite never having rowed before, Millstein decided to try out for the crew team at the start of fall term, at the suggestion of former high school cyling teammates.
With the help of her roommate, a recruited rower, Millstein was directed to the coaches and initial team meetings. The team had three weeks of tryouts in September and was left with 10 walk-ons after cuts were made, she said.
Of the roughly 20 girls who tried to join the team in the fall, only four of them raced this past weekend in the Yale Class of 1985 Cup. The difficulty of keeping up in such a physically intensive sport combined with the high level at which Dartmouth competes makes sticking with the team a challenge.
Joining a Division I sport without preparation is difficult, Millstein said, noting that other walk-ons provide an important community of support.
“They all know what you’re going through and how difficult it is to figure out and navigate the crew world,” she said.
Blair Duncan ’17 joined the crew team as a walk-on last fall after attending two crew camps over the summer. At Dartmouth, Duncan met with Healey and started attending practices. The appeal of Division I athletics and the opportunity to meet a close group of people his freshman fall appealed to him when he joined the team, but Duncan chose to leave the team because of the significant time commitment it involved.
The process of walking onto a varsity team varies depending on the sport. The nature of equestrian competitions and the physical demands of crew make them two prime candidates for walk-ons, and the successes of both teams are linked to students who take nontraditional paths to becoming varsity athletes.