A story I did on the Paralympic sport sled hockey and the team at UNH’s Northeast Passage got on New Hampshire Public Radio!
As an alternative to text, check out this audio slideshow I did on Central Park Lanes in East Boston – a candlepin bowling alley that’s been around since 1950!
And if you liked that one, here’s one I did on the Red Sox way back in the spring using the same software. Fair warning: not many of these fans’ predictions worked out.
Warning: this essay is very long. Make sure you have a few minutes free before you start it.
At the Boston FIRST Regional Robotics Competition, taking place April 7-9 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, you can find Rambots, Terrorbots and Devil Botz. RoboRebels, Tigertrons and IgKnighters. Kwarqs, Disco Techs and … Cyber Gnomes.
By comparison, Boston University Academy’s team name – Overclocked, an engineering term for running a computer’s central processing unit faster than specified by the manufacturer to increase its performance – seems tame.
FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter. Kamen also invented the first insulin pump and the iBOT, an all-terrain electric wheelchair, among many inventions and patents.
FIRST’s website says its mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.” Its first competition was in 1992, with 28 teams competing in New Hampshire. The specific game changes each year, and FIRST’s website says more than 2000 teams are now compete in the 48 regional events across the world and the championship in St. Louis.
For Boston FIRST, Agganis Arena is divided into two halves. In the arena, teams are randomly assigned to two teams of three, then remote-control their robots to grab inflatable inner tubes shaped like the FIRST logo – red triangle, white circle, blue square – and hang them on pegs to score points. In the pit, just like in auto racing, teams will try to repair their damaged robots before the next match.
Teams can score up to 30 points in the final 15 seconds of the match by having their “minibot” – a small, pre-programmed robot usually about the size of a forearm – shoot straight up a pole without remote control. Overclocked’s minibot falls off the main robot every time before deployment, so the team spends most of its repair time trying to fix this.
Overclocked relies on cardboard and gray duct tape for quick repairs. The team is constantly trying to secure its minibot, an aluminum, diamond-shaped machine with a set of double-stacked wheels that act as clamps, to the main robot, named “RoboRhett” (after BU’s mascot, Rhett the Terrier). RoboRhett is a five-foot, 120-pound, three-dimensional right triangle, with an arm to grab and hang pegs and a tray to deploy the minibot. Matthew Rajcok, a BU Academy junior from Cambridge, says that the triangle is the sturdiest basic geometric shape: very difficult to bend.
The arm is connected to a vertical plastic frame, which moves up and down using a winch and a black nylon tether. Switches at each end of the frame tell the winch when to stop winding. Overclocked members tell the robot what height to lower or raise the arm to using joysticks and preprogrammed sensors on the arm.
The arm rotates using a pulley, with a pneumatic claw at the end that can only spring open and clamp shut. The team uses different combinations of arm-height and rotation to hang the shapes on the different rows of pegs.
The minibot’s tray is connected to another black nylon tether, which moves the tray forward and backward using a four-axle winch. A small pneumatic clamp on the tray holds the minibot in place until it is deployed for the race. A gray 12-volt battery powers RoboRhett from its chamber on the robot’s base, while a separate, tiny battery powers the motor on the minibot.
Nima Badizadegan, a junior from Newton, is the team’s programmer, and he is especially proud of the driving system. RoboRhett, built from January 8 to February 12, has four wheels, with 45-degree treads circling them. Badizadegan explains that because each wheel can be individually controlled based on the positions of two of Overclocked’s three joysticks (the third controls the arm and the minibot tray), RoboRhett in any way Overclocked wants.
Badizadegan says it took him 10-15 hours of calibration to get the driving system right, but it pays off in the first match. Another robot drives into RoboRhett to block it, but Overclocked’s driver – junior Will Persampieri, also team-captain – repositions the joysticks. RoboRhett backs up easily, then drives forward with enough force to knock the other robot backwards a foot. Persampieri, arm-controller Andrew Connors (a sophomore from North Reading) and advisor Jeff Stout (a 27-year-old from Denver who will teach physics at BU Academy next year) shout with excitement.
The word “robot” was first used by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word comes from the Czech noun “robota,” which means labor, and in an article that appears on his website, Čapek credits the word’s invention to his brother Josef. Science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “robotics” in his 1941 short story “Liar!”
During its 10 matches, Overclocked never gets its minibot to deploy properly, no matter how much cardboard they strap on to hold it in place or how often they test it on a practice pole. When RoboRhett stops, forward momentum often pulls the minibot off the tray and it tumbles to the arena floor. Even when the minibot stays on until fully deployed, it’s weighted heavily towards its diamond-shaped back, and the wheels never clamp on hard enough to trigger the Tetrix-brand motor that makes it move.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” showed the first ever robot in a movie: the golden, female-looking Maschinenmensch (German for “machine-human”). The Maschinenmensch has had widespread influence on popular culture, from the design for the C-3PO robot in the “Star Wars” films to costumes by pop singers such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
But the robots at Agganis bare little resemblance to Fritz Lang’s flash and elegance. These skeletal robots are built for function, most of them relying on that basic triangular shape. They’re built from aluminum, not gold, with some plastic for the non-structural parts. A long chain runs behind RoboRhett’s arm-frame to keep the wires from getting caught.
As teams hover and make repairs, the robots look like racecars, complete with sponsor stickers covering them. Some sponsors, such as Dunkin Donuts and Panera Bread, have donated food. Others, such as Shaw’s and JC Penney, have donated money. Still others, such as technology companies Lockheed Martin and Pinpoint Laser Systems, have sent engineers to consult with teams and help them troubleshoot their robots.
It’s not just the minibot that needs constant repair. RoboRhett takes a beating on the floor, repeatedly slamming and being slammed into by other robots. A lack of bolting along the claw results in a piece getting sheared off during the first match. The arm looks more twisted and bent out of shape after each subsequent match. Overclocked members use an automatic drill to attach L-shaped aluminum pieces to the frame after the fourth match, and Rajcok uses a red hand saw to cut extra lengths, “just in case.” He says the L-shape is the ideal reinforcing shape – it distributes weight across both the horizontal and vertical axes, and weighs less than a U- or square-shaped rod.
Sometimes Overclock engineers use fine tools, such as allen wrenches with tiny hex keys (L-shaped hexagonal screwdrivers) to tighten lose bolts. Sometimes they use blunt force, hammering the frame to fix an out-of-joint piece of aluminum or plastic.
When someone uses a Dremel rotary drill to sheer off small bits of loose metal, everyone holds his or her nose or backs away, the smell of burning metal suddenly filling the air.
Nearby, another team’s robot burns out a motor, gray smoke trickling upwards.
“Motors get hot,” says Alex Barden, a BU Academy junior from Milton, as people clear the area.
The pit at Agganis is not just a series of repair booths, though each booth has carefully arranged shelves lined with power tools and spare batteries, and plastic bins filled with sheet metal. Above one booth, a tiny rocket ship orbits a fluorescent green paper lantern. Next to another booth, a giant silver stack ends in a head resembling the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” A humidifier inside blows steam out its conic hat.
Every uniform is also a costume. Students (the FIRST Robotics Challenge is for high school students; FIRST has other competitions for other age groups) and their advisors wear leprechaun hats, gnome hats, construction hats (with and without lights), train-conductor hats and hats shaped like cow heads. They wear red capes, blue capes and green sequined capes.
Everyone, without fail, wears safety goggles. Constant shouts of “robot!” warn teams of other robots moving through the aisles to the pre-match queues.
Devils and wizards walk side by side, as do a witch and a princess (those two also dance together in the spectator seats). An orange rebel shares the floor with a blue patriot. There are two lions and a tiger, but no bears. Oh my.
In the stands, a crowd fills up the seats normally reserved for BU students at hockey games. The JumboTron replays the matches. The public address system blasts music, from oldies to contemporary. The crowd tries to recall the dance moves to Los del Río’s “Macarena,” with limited success. The Village People’s “YMCA” is executed in far better unison.
Robots and robotics might be 20th century words, but the concept of automated machines, even humanoid machines, dates back to at least the third century BC and the Chinese text Lie Zi‘s tale of an artificer and his artificial man.
In the first century, Heron of Alexandria described over 100 automated devices in his Pneumata and Automata.
In religion, a clay humanoid called the Golem has roots in Jewish folklore that date back to at least 200, with stories appearing in the Talmud, a central text of Jewish ethics, law and philosophy. In Norse mythology, the Younger Edda, written around 1220, tells of a clay giant called the Mistcalf built to aid a troll in his battle with the god Thor.
Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight in 1495.
American engineer Norbert Wiener introduced cybernetics, the study of decision-making processes and regulatory systems that made practical robotics possible, in 1948.
The first industrial robot, Unimate, was installed at a General Motors assembly plant in New Jersey in 1961. It was programmed to automatically move die-castings – molten metals hardened into specific shapes using fabrication molds – from the assembly line and weld them onto car bodies. The robots at Agganis Arena must be programmed to automatically hang a yellow circular “Ubertube” (another inflatable shape) on a peg in the opening 15 seconds, called the autonomous period. Doing so will earn a team six points on the top row (approximately 11 feet off the ground), four on the middle row, and two on the bottom row.
RoboRhett doesn’t have a sensor to realign itself during the autonomous period; it can only raise its arm to a preset height, drive in a straight line for a preset length of time, release its claw, then back up. If it’s not lined up exactly right, RoboRhett will not release the Ubertube at the right moment.
Persampieri (or backup driver Harrison Krowas for the matches when Persampieri is in class) gets down on the ground next to RoboRhett before each race. He relies entirely on line-of-sight judgment, constantly rotating RoboRhett a degree clockwise or counterclockwise, pushing it mere inches to the left or the right.
Persampieri doesn’t get the positioning right until the team’s 10th and final match.
Physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla introduced the first radio-controlled vessel in 1898. After the autonomous period ends, the two-minute, 15-second remote-control period begins, when teams will try to hang as many inflatable shapes as possible on the pegs.
Shapes on the top row are worth three points each, the middle pegs two, the bottom pegs one. Hanging a shape on the same peg as an Ubertube doubles that shape’s score.
Forming the FIRST logo all on the same row doubles a team’s score for that row. Forming the logo on the highest row will score, 18 points, 24 if the Ubertube is also there.
Persampieri uses two black joysticks to drive RoboRhett from the pegs to the feeding lanes on the opposite ends of the floor. As he drives RoboRhett over, he presses one of three buttons covered with red, white or blue vinyl tape. Each button lights up a tiny light emitting diode on RoboRhett to signal his teammate which shape he wants. When RoboRhett enters the lane, a teammate feeds the requested shape through an elliptical hole cut in the thick plastic that lines the arena, then holds up a hand, signaling Connors to close the claw and Persampieri to drive away.
RoboRhett performs very well during the remote-control period in every match. Persampieri and Connors usually hang at least three tubes, usually on the highest row of pegs.
The only bad round is the fifth, when the laptop that wirelessly controls RoboRhett’s computer loses its connection, and RoboRhett stops dead after just a few seconds. After the match, Badizadegan decides the problem is mechanical, that the port connecting the laptop to the bridge that transmits to RoboRhett is damaged. For the rest of the competition, whichever advisor is on the arena floor with Persampieri and Connors has to hold the laptop-bridge cable in place.
Overclocked has 35 members, so not all of them work on design and repair, instead focusing on fundraising, outreach to middle school students, and safety maintenance. Faculty advisor Gary Garber and Stout stress that this team is run almost entirely by the BU Academy students, with the advisors there mostly to answer questions and write grant proposals. When Rajcok sends younger teammates to other teams to form alliances on the second day of competition, he tells them to stress RoboRhett’s mobility and claw system.
Persampieri grows increasingly agitated across Thursday’s practice day and Friday’s first day of competition. The team goes out for lunch together on Thursday, but Persampieri stays behind to work alone. When an alternate minibot flies up Overclocked’s practice pole, Persampieri’s eyes go wide. When he explains how RoboRhett works to visitors on Friday, he kicks his legs back and forth. When Friday’s competition ends, he sits by himself in the top row of seats for a presentation until girlfriend Sarah Magid joins him.
Persampieri’s nervous energy boils over before the first match begins on Saturday, the final day of competition. He screams at his team about properly positioning the zip-ties that hold the minibot’s battery in place.
When asked about Persampieri’s reaction, Rajcok supports his captain, agreeing that Persampieri’s issue was a valid one that the team should have already addressed. But the day before, Persampieri had a far more accepting opinion of errors.
“It’s part of the process to try things that don’t work,” Rajcok says on Friday. “There’s no point in getting pissed.”
Rajcok, Connors and Stout all say that Persampieri’s general engineering knowledge and deep understanding of RoboRhett’s design and capabilities make him a good captain.
By Saturday afternoon, Persampieri’s mood has lightened. When safety instructor Sarah Hyman, a BU Academy junior from Swampscott, reads proper lifting instructions to the team, Persampieri jokes with Connors as they lift RoboRhett onto its cart.
“Shortening the communication process is essential to safety,” he yells sarcastically as he barks one-word commands at Connors. Everyone laughs. Later, he adds, “No, you’re using your back!”
After the round robin competition ends, the eight teams that have scored the highest individually are allowed to choose two teams from the rest of the playing field (including the other top seven scorers) to compete in the three-round, single-elimination playoffs. Overclocked, which goes 3-7 in its 10 matches and finishes ranked 37 out of 53 teams, is not selected.
TJ2 from Bridgewater-Raynam (Mass.) Regional High School wins the competition for the second straight year. Overclocked wins the Regional Chairman’s Award, which FIRST promotional literature calls “FIRST’s most prestigious award.” The booklet says the award “honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purposes and goals of FIRST.”
Stout and Barden agree that while RoboRhett worked great, the minibot needed a better design and better communication between the design and deployment teams.
Stout also says that Overclocked lived up to the FIRST core value of “gracious professionalism,” the willingness to aid and assist other teams even if they might use that aid to later beat you, despite the problems they faced during the competition.
“There was a lot of stress,” says Stout. “I felt the stress, I got frustrated at times, and it’s hard to swallow that. I didn’t see a single incident of somebody losing their temper or losing their patience.”
Says Barden after the selection process, “We’re a bit disappointed, but we learned that we’re going in the right direction in terms of organization, outreach, construction techniques, everything. Going up, we’re not quite there yet.”
Imagine you’re tackled while playing football. You hit the ground hard and expect play to stop. Instead, bodies suddenly start flying every which way. Teammates and opponents slam into each other all around you. Your opponents want to strip the ball; your teammates want to clear a path for you to hand the ball off (while you’re still on the ground, remember). And if you do hand the ball off safely, you have to get up immediately and take the new ball-carrier’s place as a potential tackler.
What would you call this mass chaos? You’d call it rugby. And the women’s rules are the exact same as the men’s.
On Sunday, April 3, the Boston University women’s rugby team is taking on Radcliffe College at Harvard University’s Cumnock Field. White lines on the synthetic grass mark a 70-meter by 100-meter field with two “try lines” to mark the front of rugby’s scoring area, and two dead-ball lines to mark its end. H-shaped goalposts stand centered on the try lines.
Players score in rugby – whose name comes from the Rugby School in central England, where the sport originated – by touching the football to the ground inside the goal area, resulting in a five-point “try.” A two-point “conversion” attempt follows, in which the ball must be kicked through the uprights and above the crossbar. The ball can also be drop-kicked through the uprights for a three-point “drop goal.”
For the conversion the ball must be positioned in line with where it was touched down for the try, so runners will often enter the goal area, then head towards the center before touching the ball down.
BU gets on the board first when senior fullback Sarah Appleton breaks two tackles and runs over a third before downing the ball to the far left of the goalpost. Appleton’s conversion attempt – kicked directly into a gusting, 18 mph wind – sails wide right. 5-0, Terriers. But Radcliffe responds with a try of its own to tie the game.
If the ball goes out of bounds, a lineout is awarded against the last team to touch it. The opposing team throws in the ball, and each side has two players grab a third by the shorts and lift her into the air. The two elevated players vie for control of the ball.
BU is awarded a lineout near its own try line, but Radcliffe gets control of the ball and punches it in for a 10-5 lead. Poor lineout play will plague the Terriers all game.
The Radcliffe women score five more unanswered tries, converting three times, to go up 41-5 early in the second half.
The football cannot be thrown forward, so players run with the ball as far as they can, then pass it laterally or backwards to a teammate, or they are tackled. When a player is tackled, teammates form a protective “ruck” around the downed player, attempting to push opponents out of the way long enough for the ball to be handed off to a teammate.
BU’s only real scoring chance during Radcliffe’s streak comes late in the first half, as forward (forwards tend to be the stronger, heavier players) Aubrey Macgill barrels through Radcliffe tacklers as she approaches the try line. But she reacts too quickly as she is tackled, not waiting for the ruck to cover her, and she throws the ball away. Macgill turns the ball over several times during BU’s game.
If a player runs ahead of the ball (“off-sides”), or pushes it forward with his or her hands (a “knock-on”), the opposing team is awarded a “scrum.” Eight players interlock and form a three-tiered battering ram that slams shoulders-first into the opposing eight, trying to push the other side backwards while using their feet to feed the ball back to teammates, who restart the running.
Radcliffe’s women are on average a bit taller than BU’s, which gives them added leverage in the scrum. They are able to push back and nearly over-run the Terrier defenders. By the time BU recovers, Radcliffe is running at full speed, easily cutting through BU’s first line of defense, then dragging the remaining Terrier tacklers for extra yards before the next ruck.
Late in the second half, BU is awarded the ball after Radcliffe’s scrum-half illegally rolls the ball towards her teammates instead of down the middle of the scrum. BU downs the ball for a try, and Appleton converts.
BU captain Julie Athanasiadis fights her way for another try late in the game, but several rucks just outside the try-line beforehand take too much time off the clock for BU to mount a comeback.
Radcliffe 48, BU 19.
In a sport that requires so much contact, so much physicality, so much hitting, you might think that only the most naturally aggressive women play. You would be wrong.
“We don’t just run around the pitch hitting people as hard as possible,” says captain Teagan Lukacs in an e-mail. “There is a lot of technique involved in tackling to be effective and avoid injury. The focus is to get possession of the ball, not just inflict pain.”
During one of BU’s 5:30 a.m. practices on Nickerson Field, freshman Mandy Garelick describes the game in militaristic terms, using words such as “war,” “survival,” and “soldier.” In the background, BU’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps does drills.
Junior Irene O’Brien says that camaraderie and trust are crucial in a sport where players stand guard over fallen teammates.
“For me, it’s like a protective thing,” O’Brien says of rucking over tackled teammates. “I want to make sure that I get there so I can make it easier.”
Team president Abigail Smigelski says that most players accept the hitting as crucial to winning the game, so their competitive drive fuels their physicality.
Many women first get into rugby through some kind of competition. Mandy Garelick and sophomore Alex Krawczuk both say they started playing through dares or bets. Beth Riley, 23, who played for Trinity College in Conn., said she joined “out of spite” after recovering from an injury that doctors said would keep her from playing varsity athletics.
Rugby players are often stereotyped as stocky lesbians. The BU team has women of all shapes and sizes. One player wears a gray t-shirt that reads, “So gay so what!”
Smigelski says that while the stereotype is unfair, rugby is definitely a sport that welcomes women of all orientations.
Every Friday, in preparation for the next day’s long run, Jess Galer, 29, eats cheese pizza from Emilio’s Pizza & Sub Shop in Boston’s South End, down the street from her apartment. She’s training for the Boston Marathon, to be run on April 18, Patriots Day. Pizza might seem like an odd training food, but if Dean Karnazes – the man who once ran 50 marathons in 50 different states in 50 consecutive days – eats it, there must be something to it.
The morning of the run, the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Children’s Hospital pharmacist from Fennimore, Wisconsin, eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
She dons her training gear. First come the black crop pants from Lululemon Athletica, whose “Luxtreme” fabric quickly wicks away sweat (transfers the sweat from the surface of the skin to the surface of the fabric, where it evaporates without lowering one’s body temperature). Then she puts on two or three layers of shirt – usually pink or teal – of varying length (she likes sleeves that end in thumbholes) so she can stay warm or cool as necessary. On Patriots Day she will wear the pink-and-blue-checkered jersey of Children’s Hospital, whom she is running and raising money for. Last come Brooks “Adrenaline”-model sneakers, white, blue and gray, size 9.5 wide.
Galer stretches, then goes. On Saturdays she usually trains along the Boston Marathon’s course. These Saturday runs have been building incrementally since she began her training 18 weeks ago. Her first Saturday, she only went five miles. For her last long run in March, she ran 21 miles, starting at the race’s start in Hopkinton, Mass., and finishing after the hills in Newton.
Galer runs with Miles for Miracles, the 300-runner fundraising group for Children’s Hospital. She maintains what she calls a “conversational pace” during the Saturday runs, talking mostly about work.
Galer always starts her long runs amped up, so she has to make sure she doesn’t come out of the gate too fast and burn up too much energy. It takes her five miles to get into rhythm, which is why she says she likes the middle miles so much.
“It’s like you finally don’t have to try to run anymore, your body is just doing it,” she says in an e-mail. “You’re feeling great and everything is in synch.”
The easiness passes around mile 18 and gives way to exhaustion. The sweat starts to pour. The sneakers feel heavy as they pound the pavement. The face goes slack, as keeping those muscles taught saps much-needed energy.
The breathing gets heavier. Galer tells herself, “with every breath I get stronger,” and she says the phrase helps her maintain her focus. She uses a similar reframing with hills, telling herself she loves them instead of dreading them.
Galer pushes through the final miles of a long run by remembering that stopping would hurt more than continuing. The most painful part of an 18-mile run, which took her through Boston to simulate the end of the marathon, was when she had to stop and wait for streetlights to change.
Every three miles Galer drinks a mixture of Gatorade and water, to rehydrate without hurting her stomach. Every six miles, she eats a GU Energy Gel, which combines caffeine with the sugars and carbohydrates needed to maintain energy levels, and electrolytes to help stay hydrated. Galer’s favorite flavors are “Chocolate Outrage” and “Espresso Love.”
After running, Galer drinks chocolate milk to recover.
During her three weekday runs (and occasional solo long run), none longer than six miles, Galer listens to music on her red iPod Nano. Her musical preferences range from country to hip-hop to Lady Gaga. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, she also listens to Zooniversity Music’s “Teach me How to Buck” (UW’s mascot is Bucky Badger).
“I really try to listen to songs that make me happy, because it makes the running more enjoyable,” Galer says at an Apr. 2 fundraiser at the Baseball Tavern in Boston’s Kenmore Square.
She will also sometimes zone out when running by herself, trying to clear her mind and relax. She calls running her “free therapy.”
Though this is her second marathon – her first was the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in June 2008 – Galer says her 18-week raining schedule would suit an even less experienced distance runner.
“You’re supposed to be able to pick this up even if you haven’t been working out before,” she says.
When she isn’t running, Galer takes an hour-long spin class or lifts weights for an hour at the all-women’s Healthworks in Copley Square. The weight training involves lighter weights and many repetitions, which tones existing muscle instead of building fresh bulk.
Galer’s training hasn’t caused a drop in weight, mostly because she eats “way more” than she used to.
“It’s absurd,” she says. But the training turns fat into leaner muscle, so Galer lately finds she fits into smaller-sized clothing.
As much as the training physically tires her out, it also has made her more focused, more organized, more put together.
The training regimen’s structure has made her feel far more positive, confident and fit heading into Patriots Day, a change from her first marathon, which she says she didn’t run so much as “willed myself through it.”
Galer has so enjoyed the changed lifestyle that she has already signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30 in Washington, D.C.
Though Galer’s training hasn’t limited her diet, it has definitely limited her socializing habits. She drinks far less alcohol than she used to, and finds herself going to bed most nights before 10 p.m., needing longer, deeper sleep to combat the physical exhaustion she feels by the end of the day. When awake, she usually talks about her training with her coworkers. Responses have been mixed.
“Some of my friends who I used to go out with more told me I’m maybe not as much fun,” Galer says, laughing.
On Friday nights, Galer always stays in.
And eats cheese pizza.
Update: Galer finished the Boston Marathon in 4 hours, 56 minutes and 59 seconds. She ran 41:07 faster than she did at the 2008 San Diego Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon.
How fitting. My 300th post gets published by the Boston Globe.
The Worcester Wildcats, a Junior league (developmental league for high school and college-age players) team, arrived at the Simoni Ice Rink in Cambridge, Mass., on February 12 for a hockey game. Their opponents: the Ice Cats, a club team from… Berklee? Berklee College of Music has a hockey team?
It does, and they’re currently 10-4. Not bad for musicians.
The Ice Cats come out aggressively against the Junior Wildcats, and captain Taylor Martin scores 20 seconds into the first period on a wrist-shot just inside the left goal post.
Berklee’s chippy, physical game disrupts the Wildcats’ skating and passing finesse, and they score twice more in rapid succession – from the right side of the ice by left wing Jon Priest, then on a tip-in by center Neal Warner 20 seconds later.
But with six minutes left in the first period, Berklee right wing Carter Lee is ejected for an illegal leg check. The Ice Cats bench laughs as Lee skates off the ice; this is not Lee’s first penalty for aggressive hits, Berklee coach Jimmy Gately says after the game.
The Wildcats score twice while Lee is serving his five-minute major interference penalty, cutting the Berklee lead to 3-2. That seems to light a fire in Priest, who scores three times in the second and third period: on a backwards pass from Richard in the second, after faking out two Wildcats and going airborne early in the third, and on a short-handed goal (4-on-5) in the closing minutes of the game. He also gets an assist in the first period.
“It was a tough blow in losing our leading goal scorer in Carter Lee,” Priest says of his strong offensive night. “Somebody had to do it, and I was looking up and down the bench, and nobody else was gonna do it, so I figured it might as well be me.”
Final score: Berklee 8, Worcester 3.
The Ice Cats play exciting hockey, but nobody comes to watch. Four fans watch the initial face-off, and seven more trickle in before the first period ends. Even in the closing minutes of the game, fewer than 20 Berklee students are watching their school’s only true athletic team.
Worse, they aren’t behaving like sports fans. They cheer politely for goals, or for big saves by goalie Jeremy Blas, but otherwise they sit quietly and respectfully, as if at a music recital.
A small but rowdy gang shows up for the second period, livening things up by banging on the glass behind the Berklee bench, cheering, stomping, mocking the Wildcats, encouraging fights. Jessi Damron, a visitor from Detroit, says they’re trying to make the occasion “feel more like a hockey game.”
“A lot of students don’t know that we have official school colors,” says assistant coach Doug Orey. “They don’t realize that we have a mascot.”
Orey says the Ice Cats have tried to get more fans by adding music, with mixed results. The Ice Cats brought in a Berklee band for a March 2007 game, but they played jazz standards, not fight songs. Plus, Simoni has no sound system, it’s a half-mile from the nearest subway station, the seating is uncomfortable, the rink is toe-numbingly cold, and the place is just plain ugly.
Since 2006, Berklee students wishing to play NCAA sports have been able to try out for one of cross-town Emerson University’s 14 NCAA Division-3 sports, said Jane Stachowiak, Berklee’s Director of Student Wellness and Health Promotion, in an email. But students who want to wear Berklee’s red and gray can skate for the Ice Cats (named after Berklee mascot Mingus the Jazz Cat) in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Division 2. Their opponents include Junior teams and club teams from local schools such as Bentley University in Waltham and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They also play against Emerson’s hockey team in the annual “Boylston Cup” at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena.
Goaltender Blas says that the hockey team has been a unifying force among its players at a school where musical tastes can create “a conscious divide” within the student body.
“We come from different backgrounds, but it’s funny that hockey is the one thing that ties us all together,” Blas says. “When we get together and watch puck, everyone is just a big family and everything else is put aside.”
Berklee’s administration, led by Associate Director for New Student Programs Tamia Jordan, sees potential in the Ice Cats.
“I went to these schools where athletics created this huge sense of community, and the number one goal of a student activities center is to build community on a college campus,” Jordan says. “When I look at the Ice Cats, I see them as a tremendous opportunity to create a sense of community and a sense of ‘We’re home of the Ice Cats’ here at Berklee.”
Although Jordan says Berklee currently funds about two-thirds of the Ice Cats’ expenses, through uniforms, rink fees and extra health insurance, plans to popularize and re-brand the team are still in the initial stages.
Kevin Gin, Coordinator for Clubs and Events, says that he’d like to see a student internship created to market and manage the team, which he thinks would be a valuable experience for students studying music business or band management.
Gin says that with the right marketing, Ice Cats games could become a central part of the Berklee experience, welcomed by a student body partially made up of graduates from more athletically oriented universities.
While Jordan and Gin say the key to increasing the Ice Cats’ campus presence lies in treating them not as a student-run club but as an actual athletic team, the Ice Cats will likely never join the NCAA.
“I think it unlikely that Berklee would attempt to gain NCAA status as the process for doing so is very cumbersome and we do not possess the facilities needed,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Bethune in an e-mail.
Tamia Jordan agrees, but adds, “Crazier things have happened.”
The Ice Cats’ final tournament starts Saturday, March 26, at the Simoni Ice Rink. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Oct. 18 that the NFL, in an effort to curb the large number of in-game concussions players were suffering, would take a stronger stance against helmet-to-helmet hits. The next day, three players were fined $175,000 for hits in their most recent games.
Some NFL players criticized Goodell’s decision, but brain-trauma researchers praised the move as the NFL’s first acknowledgment of the serious dangers posed by concussions.
Prior to this acknowledgment, the NFL had repeatedly denied any association between concussions suffered in play and the emotional and behavioral problems that many ex-football players reportedly suffered from. But at the high school level, schools such as Brookline High School in Massachusetts have long since accepted the dangers of concussions, and they’ve instituted comprehensive programs to properly diagnose them and manage recovery.
“We can’t stop them,” says Brookline High’s athletic director, Pete Rittenburg. “The critical thing is making sure that they’re recognized, and not letting someone return to play too soon.”
To improve concussion recognition and management, Brookline High works with Dr. Neal McGrath, a neuropsychologist whose organization, Sports Concussion New England, is based in Brookline.
McGrath says the partnership with Brookline High began during the 2004-2005 school year, a year after McGrath’s son suffered a concussion while playing football for the Brookline Warriors.
“To my knowledge, there was no school that had a comprehensive concussion management program going,” McGrath says, and he sought to create one at Brookline High. After the program’s pilot year, Rittenburg took over as athletic director.
“We sat down with him and met with him to explain what had been developed and what was available, and Pete, coming fresh into the job, was right on it,” McGrath says. “He sought the funding for it, and he’s made sure that it’s remained a priority in the Brookline athletic department.”
McGrath defines a concussion as a “mild traumatic brain injury,” and “a disturbance in brain function that is caused by a traumatic blow to the head.” McGrath says that a body blow that results in whiplash can also cause a concussion.
McGrath says that concussions usually result in a combination of symptoms that fall into one of four categories:
• Physical, including headaches, dizziness and blurred vision;
• Mental or cognitive, including memory loss and attention lapses;
• Sleep-related, including trouble falling or staying asleep and fatigue; and
• Emotional, including feelings of anxiety, depression or irritability
While physical, emotional and sleep-related symptoms are tracked using clinical evaluations and interviews, McGrath says that cognitive impairment is far more difficult to track. In order to help its trainers and team physician determine when a student-athlete’s cognitive abilities have returned to normal, Brookline High uses the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT, program.
ImPACT tests memory and reaction time through a series of computer-based tests in which the athlete is shown a series of words or designs. The athlete must then decide if a certain word or design was in the previously shown sequence or not.
Rittenburg says that all athletes playing “collision” sports – which include football, soccer, field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, gymnastics, diving, rugby, baseball, and softball – are tested before the season begins to determine baseline cognitive levels.
Alex Jzyk, Brookline High Schools’ athletic trainer, says that approximately 1,000 student-athletes play for Brookline High each year, many playing multiple sports. When a player suffers a concussion, Jzyk says, that player will usually take the ImPACT test at least three times before being cleared to play: between 24 and 72 hours after the injury, once the athlete is symptom-free, and once after exercise.
“We manage this very well,” Jzyk says. “We do it for the right reasons.”
McGrath says he focuses his work on high school athletes because there are more high school athletes than college or professional athletes, but they’re already playing with bodies strong and fast enough to cause concussions after a collision.
McGrath also stresses concussion management at the high school level because of second-impact syndrome, a condition where the brain suffers a second injury before fully recovering from the first. This causes massive swelling in the brain that can lead to permanent impairment and often – McGrath says it’s as high as 50 percent – death.
In the Fall 2007 issue of SportingKid Magazine, the National Alliance for Youth Sports said that second-impact syndrome is found almost exclusively in athletes under 18 years old.
Rittenburg and Jzyk have made sure that athletes who suffer concussions are given as much time as they need to heal. Rittenburg says that not only are athletes kept off the field until they’re symptom free, but Brookline High also excuses athletes from full academic workloads until they’re fully recovered. McGrath says pushing oneself mentally while in recovery is like running while still healing from a sprained ankle.
Brookline High pursues many avenues of educating parents on concussion care and management. McGrath has taught seminars for parents of athletes at the school. The athletic department’s website links to McGrath’s website and features a “Concussion Home Care Sheet,” designed by McGrath and Rittenburg. And, starting with the spring 2011 season, athletes will be given a packet of information to take home.
Brookline High may have been the pilot school for this organized concussion management program, but it is no longer the only one. Sports Concussion New England lists 34 youth sport programs, high schools and colleges as partners on their website. These partners include Franklin High School, the 2010 Massachusetts boys’ soccer champion, and Brookline-Jamaica Plain Pop Warner football, whose D Red Team was the 2010 state champion.
Jzyk says that Brookline High’s athletic program may not produce as many championships as other schools and programs, but their commitment to player safety is strong.
Says Jzyk, “Their safety is more important than a winning season.”
Stall! Crash! Up! Broken! Turn! Ultimate’s language is a staccato code, designed to convey information in a single breath. In a sport where players don’t stop running until a change of possession or a score, extra breaths are hard to come by.
The Ozone Pilots, Boston University’s Ultimate team, practice on BU’s Nickerson Field. Head-high snowdrifts ring the field, but the artificial turf is green and clean. The air is icy; the wind gusts at 15 miles per hour.
The white plastic discs, Ultimate’s “ball,” absorb the cold and transmit it with every throw and catch. The players wear hoodies, track pants, thermal long-sleeves, stocking caps, and sometimes gloves.
The team warms up with synchronized stretches, then moves to drills. First, each player practices “break throws,” passes that fly to the side of the field blocked off by the closely guarding defender.
Then, they practice “zone” defense, in which three to four defenders surround the player with the disc, while the remaining players cut off up-field or overhead throws.
After two hours of drills, it’s time to play. Dark shirts vs. light shirts.
Ultimate uses approximately 70 percent of a football field. It’s a seven-on-seven sport, where teams score by passing a 175-gram disc to players in an end zone without it touching the ground or getting intercepted. When a player catches the disk, he or she must stop running after a few steps. Players can still pivot, as in basketball, but that’s all. The games are self-officiated – no refs. At the regional and national levels, “designated observers” settle disputes.
Game play is fast, fusing football’s straight sprints with basketball’s circulations. When an offense is really in synch, the passing is almost non-stop. As one player is about to catch the disc and turn, a teammate is already in mid-sprint to catch the throw.
When the teams play “zone,” more useful in windy conditions because players can’t throw the disc deep, the action is slower, more controlled, more lateral. The disc sails back and forth between three primary players, called handlers, as they wait for their teammates – the “wings” along the sidelines and the “poppers” in the middle – to find openings.
The early drills pay dividends. One drill practiced the inside-out forehand throw, risky because its close-to-the-body release point makes it easy for a defender to block. During the scrimmage, the dark-shirted team scores on that very inside-out forehand. “That was beautiful!” shouts junior Jonathan “Gump” Toll.
The team practices for three hours, its initial 27 players swelling to 34 by the end. Junior captain Daniel Bernays says practicing hard now will help them identify and rectify weaknesses before the spring season starts. The Ozone Pilots play in USA Ultimate’s Metro Boston region, against teams such as Boston College, Tufts University and Northeastern University.
Ultimate is colloquially known as “Ultimate Frisbee,” but that name is a misnomer. Most Ultimate players consider the Frisbee, made by the California-based Wham-O company, structurally inferior to the Ultra-Star, made by the Michigan-based Discraft company.
“Don’t bring a Wham-O to practice or we’ll laugh at you,” says Max Langevin, junior captain for the Ozone Pilots.
USA Ultimate is Ultimate’s governing body. Although it has divisions for high school and adult club teams, it is most popular at the college level. The USA Ultimate website claims there are currently 12,000 college students playing Ultimate on over 700 teams nation-wide.
Despite its popularity, Ultimate players often find themselves up against a stereotype left over from the sport’s 1970s origin.
“The stereotype is ‘hippie,’” says Langevin. “When you say you’re an Ultimate player, it’s implied that you also carry a Hacky Sack around and wear Birkenstocks.”
There were no Birkenstocks worn today, only black cleats.
The four Ozone Pilots captains agree that Ultimate is also often associated with drug use, especially marijuana. Their team name, says junior captain Peter “Snappy” Wilson, is a veiled reference to being stoned. But this may be a nod to history more than a reflection on the team culture.
“Every team name in college Ultimate has a drug reference in it,” says assistant coach Casey Peters, although that isn’t true. Harvard University’s team is called Redline, after the MBTA line that runs through Harvard Square. Brandeis University’s team is named Tron, after the 1982 movie of the same name.
Ultimate appeals to college students as an alternative to NCAA-sanctioned sports. For a myriad of reasons, including talent level, competition, time commitment, and coach-defined atmosphere, many student-athletes come to college and choose not to pursue varsity athletics. Wilson says he didn’t think he was good enough to run Division-I track, whereas freshman Andrew “Panda” Hartman says he played soccer in high school, but found the skill level of BU soccer “daunting.” In both cases, and many others, Ultimate provides a way to stay in shape in what Bernays calls a “player-defined” team atmosphere.
All that, and it’s fun, too.
“The act of throwing a disc is one of those innately pleasurable things to me,” Wilson says. “It feels really good to do. That’s what made me come out. What initially made me stay was the community. As freshmen, you don’t know anybody, and it was like an instant community right there, with great guys that were really receptive to having you and welcoming you.”
After Sunday’s practice, the Ozone Pilots commandeer a group of tables at BU’s West Campus Dining Room and eat dinner together. An impromptu eating contest breaks out when Tracy Snyder, a member of the Lady Pilots, BU’s women’s Ultimate team, drops an apple pie in front of men’s senior captain Matthew Huynh and divides it in half.
Teammates surround the two Ultimate players, egging them on with cheers and catcalls. A man from Dining Services asks the group to quiet down, but he’s ignored. Huynh finishes his half-pie first and sticks his tongue out in victory. As the crowd leaves, a pained grimace appears on Huynh’s face.
“I might throw up,” he says.
John Holland (COM ’11) is a rare scorer in Boston University basketball history. He sits just 104 points shy of 2,000 for his career, a feat only one other Terrier- Tunji Awojobi from 1993-1997- has ever accomplished. He leads the America East conference with 18.8 points per game, as well as 48 made three-pointers, the offensive key to a Terriers team that has won three of their last four games, including two straight at home. But more impressive than the numbers themselves is how Holland has earned them despite every team BU faces trying to stop him.
“I think everybody’s focusing on him,” says men’s basketball head coach Patrick Chambers. “Until people start to really know who Darryl Partin is, and who D.J. Irving is, and Matt Griffin… people can key on him.”
But no matter what opponents do, nothing seems to faze Holland. Great scorers have the uncanny ability to forget a missed shot, or even several in a row, and keep taking shots until they find their rhythm again. Holland says this is essential.
“You have to have a short memory in the game [of basketball], and the confidence to keep shooting,” Holland says. “You always gotta think the next one’s gonna go in.”
Coach Chambers agrees that Holland’s ability to shrug off missed shots this season “shows his growth.” Chambers also points to Holland’s versatility as a scorer: Against Albany on Saturday, January 15, Holland scored 27 points by hitting 50 percent of his shots, including six three-pointers. He earned his sixth America East men’s basketball Player of the Week award with that performance.
But six days prior, against Vermont, Holland earned 15 of his 24 points from the free-throw line, driving through the lanes over and over again, drawing contact and putting the Catamounts in foul trouble.
The 6-foot-5-inch Holland plays both forward and guard, showing both the shooting guard’s ability to move without the ball and camp in the corners and the small forward’s ability to dribble into the lane, draw fouls and hit jump-shots.
* * *
The 22-year-old Holland was born in the Bronx, NY, growing up on the 27th floor of an apartment building in the Co-op City neighborhood. His father, John Holland, played basketball at Iona College, and Holland has been playing with him since he was six.
Holland has played basketball competitively since the sixth grade, going on to Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, and then doing a post-graduate year at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ. Holland picked Saint Benedict’s because of the school’s strong basketball program and competition, which would improve his game and national profile, increasing his chances for a scholarship.
Holland chose BU for its academic strengths and for the city of Boston, which he says “is a good fit” for him – – smaller than New York City but nowhere near rural, far enough away from New York City to have its own identity without being too far from home.
Both Holland’s father and his mother, Diana Mills-Holland, are retired schoolteachers. Holland says they instilled in him a strong commitment to academics. Holland says at some point he may consider getting a master’s degree or going into teaching. He works hard at his classes, but says it can be tiring trying to balance his schoolwork with the rigors of being a varsity basketball player.
“It’s basketball 24/7 most of the time,” Holland says.
When he’s not playing, practicing, or studying, Holland still finds himself in the world of sports. His favorite video games are the “Need for Speed” racing games. For television, he likes “The Game,” a BET sitcom about professional football players. His favorite movie is “He Got Game,” starring Denzel Washington and the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen.
Holland is majoring in public relations, a subject that, along with psychology, he’s always found fascinating.
“Learning about how to interact with people, companies, to try and get your message across in different ways, that always interested me,” he says. Holland also enjoys his major because of its positive effect on his own communication skills.
* * *
Holland wears number 23, the hallowed number of Michael Jordan, but he didn’t choose that number; it was assigned to him. Holland says he originally wanted number 10, but it wasn’t available. But several other numbers, including 23, still were.
“Twenty-three is a great a number, so why not?” Holland says. His favorite NBA player, though, is the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, who he admires for “how aggressive he is, how he attacks the basket.” Holland has tried to emulate Wade’s aggressiveness, both offensively and defensively. He leads the team in steals with 26, and is just the 10th player in America East history to score 1,800 points and grab 600 rebounds.
* * *
As with most competitive athletes, Holland doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the future, whether it is his job after graduating, playing in the NBA, or having his name hanging in the rafters of the Case Gymnasium.
“The main goal is winning,” Holland says. Regarding where he’d play professionally, even in the NBA Developmental League, he says, “I’d be happy if I could play anywhere.”
But his coach says Holland might have a future in the NBA itself, probably as a shooting guard.
“He has the tools, and the athletic ability, and the work ethic to at least get a chance [in the NBA],” Chambers says. “There’s no question in my mind he can play overseas and make some good money.”
In the coach’s two years with the Terriers, Chambers has seen Holland grow from a “gym rat” to someone who plays with “a sense of urgency, a sense of pride in the uniform across his chest.” But for Holland, a man grateful for the opportunities and education BU has given him, the future is wide open.