Familiar Lessons from an Unfamiliar Sport
- by Sam Svoboda, '11 Urban Studies Stanford Hurling Team
Looking back on my three-plus years at Stanford so far, it’s almost ridiculous to see how much of my experience here has been defined by athletics. For example, many of my favorite memories- like charging the field after our Big Game victory in 2007- revolve around being a fan. Also, until becoming the RA of BOB house this year, all of my work experience at school had come from sports writing and editing at the Stanford Daily- both of which I have enjoyed thoroughly. But by far my most meaningful and challenging experience I have had at Stanford- and one of the most important of my life- has been founding and being a part of the Stanford hurling team.
No, that’s not curling, as most people seem to think when I tell them what team I’m on. To describe it very briefly, hurling is an ancient Irish field sport that is played sort of like an aerial version of field hockey (definitely check out some videos online if you are interested). While it is still hugely popular in Ireland, it has never really spread beyond Irish immigrants in the US. That has been changing in recent years, as the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has been trying to spread the game to American-born players, mostly through colleges.
I had first seen hurling in 2003 on a family trip to Ireland, and instantly was intrigued; however, none of the teams I contacted in Chicago (my hometown) replied to me. I gave up trying to play until the summer before I came to Stanford, when I saw a Daily article about a student named John Mulrow who was trying to start a team on the Farm, with the support of the local GAA. The effort died when John took a year off to work in Zambia, but he was returning in the fall of 2007 and said he would help me try to start it up again.
It’s not easy getting people to try a confusing sport they have never heard of, and we never grew past me, John and a few of my freshman dorm mates in 2007-2008. But the GAA helped us out tremendously, the university granted us club status, and by the next year we had over 15 players. Even better, Cal had formed a team that year, and we ended up beating them to win the first ever collegiate hurling cup competition in North American history. The final match, and the resulting celebration, is still probably my favorite day at Stanford. It had always been a dream of mine to represent my college athletically, and to win something for Stanford was incredible. But even more, seeing both the team and individual players grow so much in hardly over a year was extremely rewarding.
As for values I have gained from hurling, there are many. Being team president and captain for three years has forced me to find my own leadership style, and while I have certainly made mistakes, the experience of leading and organizing the club has been incredibly valuable. Because of the rather independent nature of a club sports team, hurling has been a platform for me and many others on the team to step up, become leaders, and gain experience in helping to run an organization.
Personally, I am generally a pretty quiet guy, and I try to please everyone. But hurling has taught me how to assertively stand up for myself and my team. Up until last year, I tended to be too agreeable in dealing with our league- I didn’t want to stir up any trouble, even when my team was being treated unfairly or the integrity of the sport was being compromised. Eventually, though, I realized that sometimes I needed to say things that not everyone might like to fight for my team and for the sport. I regret how long it took for me to realize that, but it has been a valuable lesson. You can’t let others take advantage of you, especially when you are in a situation where you’re representing all of your teammates as well. If you honestly believe in something, you can’t be silent- it’s a lesson for life, but I learned it through hurling.
It would be cliché to say that hurling has taught me about dedication and teamwork as well- sports have been teaching me that my entire life- but being on the team has certainly reinforced those values. Not only have had I had my own dedication tested by the innumerable challenges of starting a hurling team- and helping to start a hurling league- in the US, but I’ve seen incredible dedication from my teammates (and, of course, the coaches and administrators who have volunteered to help us). As one might expect, we’ve had players who seemed hopeless after a few practices. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had decided that hurling just wasn’t for them, especially given that some of them were seniors when they first tried the game. But many of them stuck with it, put in the hard work and became vital members of our starting lineup. Two of these players were my roommates in past years (as much as I love them, it is fantastic having a single now), which brings up another point- the hurling team has included many of my best friends at Stanford, and in life. Team sports have an uncanny ability to forge deep bonds between teammates, and hurling has been no different.
Finally, and perhaps most specifically, my experience with hurling has taught me about honor and integrity. To put it simply and briefly, we have faced a few players- important to note certainly not the majority- who have been reckless at best, dirty at worst. Inevitably, the thought crosses your mind that the only way to combat that type of play is to give it right back. But if there is one thing I have come to be most proud of, it has been my insistence on clean hurling as the only way forward, and the team’s agreement with that. We’re representing Stanford on the field, and as such, we need to honor that and play the right way. It sounds corny, but it is something I have continually stressed.
On that note, I’ll end with a story. Heading into the rubber match of our best-of-three series with Cal last year, things weren’t looking good. We had lost a player due to injury in the previous match, and our goalkeeper had gone abroad for the quarter. Additionally, the date of the final match was changed, just a few days before it was supposed to take place, via an executive decision- a decision that ruled out two more of our players. And to top it off, our best player was injured just a few minutes into the match. (He tried to come back for the second half, but once again was injured after a few minutes). Still, despite being undermanned and everything going against us, I didn’t see any of my teammates give up, nor did I see any of them take a cheap shot out of frustration or retaliation. At a time when it would have been all too easy to give up on the values I mentioned above, the team only reaffirmed my beliefs, leaving every bit of effort on the pitch and playing the right way. We were in the game until the final seconds, and we ended up losing by two points.
Yes, it was a painful loss. And no, we didn’t win the trophy like we had the year before. But honestly, looking at the way we reacted to adversity, I have never been more proud of being on the Stanford hurling team than I was that day.