I set foot on campus for the first time in 2007; a gawky kid who wore Target-brand tube socks with sneakers and was blissfully unaware that, unlike his native Australia, America had not embraced jean shorts as a sensible, everyday fashion choice. The track team took me in, gave me a free T-shirt and called me “Aussie.”
Five years later, on the other side of the world, I received quite the shock when a former teammate informed me that the very team that defined my year abroad would, along with men’s soccer, cease to exist. The men’s track and field team had been unceremoniously taken out back into a dark room shielded from public scrutiny and shot like a lame racehorse.
The University of Richmond has always sold itself as a leader in international education. During my time on campus, the office of international education constantly (and rightfully) peddled its impressive rankings in the field — Newsweek said Richmond was, and I quote, “hot.”
The university even went so far as to build a beautiful new international center, with the generous help of the Weinstein family. Why, then, with such an admirable focus on the world outside America, would Richmond move to cut its two most global sports?
I’m sure not everyone is upset. I imagine citizens of some nations, those fighting to usurp the United States’ place as a perennial track and field power — Jamaica, for example — are ecstatic to see yet another American college turn its back on men’s track and field. International success in sports that aren’t basketball is the product of the collective effort of universities and clubs throughout a nation. Richmond was a part of that effort. Even without the draw of scholarship money, coach Steve Taylor’s protégées have fought to qualify for Olympic trials and represented Team USA on the world stage.
I’m not usually one to complain about the United States sliding into Olympic mediocrity — I’d just like that they do it in the pool. That way Australia stands to benefit. Is cutting the women’s swim team an option? The Aussies had a bit of a rough time in London; we could really use some help. Things just haven’t been the same since that magnificent demi-god Ian Thorpe retired. Ayers, this is swimming Australia calling; we need your help!
And then there is soccer — the other victim. I could write a long, detailed paragraph about the global significance of the world game. But I won’t. I have to believe that Ayers and the Board of Trustees are not so oblivious that they would have failed to realize how truly culturally transcendent soccer has become. Granted, certain decisions of the past months have shaken my confidence in their appreciation for the logical but, hell, I’m an optimist.
On a more personal note, it’s hard to imagine Richmond without a men’s track team. Since my year abroad, I’ve been fortunate enough to return to Richmond on three occasions. In 2010, during spring break from the University of Oxford — oh yeah, I almost forgot, our track team has a proud history of breeding student-athletes who amass embarrassing stockpiles of Dean’s Lists and Academic All-American honors.
Then we go on to prestigious graduate schools, leave with honors and end up shaping young minds at internationally ranked business schools. How pathetic. It must be that the track and field team, time and time again, has failed to achieve “ambitions academic, athletic and personal aspirations.”
Back to 2010: I met my Mum, stepdad and brother in Washington. We drove down to campus, and I showed off the track that defined my life in America. Just this past summer, two of my mates from high school had a chance to meet Coach Taylor and tour the facilities. And I had always imagined, years from now, being able to share those same things with my children. What if there is no track team to share?
My Richmond teammates — now friends for life — were instrumental in making my year abroad a memorable and treasured one. Sport facilitates bonds that can rarely be found in other facets of life. By culling teams with international appeal, the university isolates the athletic department from the rest of the world, and robs would-be Spiders of their own defining lives abroad.
I saw snow for the first time beside two teammates. We caught an early start one Saturday morning and drove out to the Shenandoah Mountains. Being November, snow seemed unlikely, but as we climbed higher and higher, the ground turned a familiar kind of white I had only seen in photographs. I started buzzing around the backseat like a toddler on a sugar high.
That same year, I spent Christmas on Long Island, half a world away from home. The West Australian heat and cool refreshing waters of the Indian Ocean might have weighed heavily on my mind had a teammate’s family not welcomed me into its home. And they certainly weren’t the last to take pity on this poor, homeless foreigner. By the end of my stay in the United States, I had stayed with the families of no fewer than six teammates. From Philadelphia to suburban Connecticut to small town Pennsylvania, the track team is my family.
And so I implore President Ayers and the board of trustees to reconsider. Please save this Australian’s connection to the University Richmond. I’m not done sharing it yet.