Most college athletes experience a traditional recruiting process. After coaches notice them and get in contact, they are offered a spot on the team and get to jump right in once they arrive on campus. However, some of their teammates take a different path to collegiate athletics.

All-American senior swimmer Harrison Pire is among these athletes. Pire knew he wanted to pursue his passion for swimming for “as long as possible,” but said he had to take the lead on his own recruiting process.

“My junior year, I was 5-foot-1,” Pire said. “I hadn’t really grown yet or gone through puberty, so it was kind of difficult. I wasn’t really fast at all, so I had to do most of my recruiting based off potential and what I could potentially grow to be or do in the pool.”

During his junior year at Lycee Francais de New York, Pire got in contact with Emory University Swimming and Diving Assistant Coach John Petroff, who referred him to the team’s head coach, Jon Howell. Howell met with Pire in Atlanta and gave him some “pretty lofty” goal times to hit to make the team. After being accepted into Emory, Pire decided to take a gap year to allow himself to keep growing and spend more time improving in the pool. 

Senior swimmer Harrison Pire waits by the pool during the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships. (Courtesy of Harrison Pire)

Pire said Howell was helpful throughout his gap year and eventually gave him the good news about his confirmed status with the team.

“He was really encouraging and responsive throughout the whole process,” Pire said. “During my gap year, I hit those times and actually went a little bit faster than he wanted. So during my gap year, once I was already admitted into Emory, he said I would have a spot if I wanted to on the team, which was amazing.”

Petroff recalled how pleased he was with the obvious work that Pire put in during that year to improve his times and make the team.

“He told us that he’s gonna take a gap year and go after it, and he did,” Petroff said. “We’re always excited when someone shares our excitement for what we’re doing but also shows the markers for improvement.”

Petroff emphasized how impressive Pire’s achievement of significantly improving his times to make the team was, and he said it can boost an athlete’s confidence to earn their spot in a non-traditional way.

“It’s gotta be huge to achieve something like that,” Petroff said. “If I’d gone through it that way, that would just tell me that I can accomplish whatever I want. Or if I set my mind to it, I can accomplish pretty incredible things.”

After arriving on campus for his first year at Emory, Pire grew close with his fellow freshman teammates since they were the only class allowed on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. When the upperclassmen joined in the spring, the team continued to grow closer through traditions and their tight-knit dynamic.

The men’s swimming and diving team has seen great success during Pire’s time at Emory, including national championship wins in 2022, 2o23 and 2024. Pire said competing at nationals for the first time as a senior and helping the team win for the third year in a row in March was a great way to wrap up his time with the team.

“Ending my career being able to go to that meet and contribute on relays or individually was a pretty special feeling,” Pire said. “Being surrounded by 40 of my closest friends was definitely an amazing feeling and time.”

Reflecting on Pire’s development, Howell said he has seen Pire grow both as an athlete and as a person. 

“He’s matured a lot during the four years here,” Howell said. “As a senior, he was just so much fun to work with. You saw the results as well, making our national team and scoring in the meet, being an All-American. I think there was a lot of progress personally as well as in the water that led to this breakthrough year, and this was a really fun year with him across the board.”

After completing his journey as a walk-on, Pire said he has learned to “be in the moment” and will carry that lesson with him beyond Emory and the pool. He offered similar advice to other athletes starting their own walk-on paths.

“It’s cliche, but trying to persist through certain challenges or finding an alternate route,” Pire said. “It doesn’t have to necessarily be point A to point B, and it probably won’t be. There’s a lot of challenges you need to overcome, but taking a moment and reflecting and not just getting all panicky is important.”

Senior jumper Thomas Powell also found an alternate route onto the Emory men’s track and field ream. After playing basketball all four years in high school, Oxford College men’s basketball recruited him to play for the team in 2019. 

After graduating from Oxford, Powell knew he was not going to continue playing basketball, but he still wanted to find a team. He decided to pursue track and field even though he only competed for two years in high school.

In the summer before his sophomore year, Powell met senior Haden Fulkerson, a member of Emory’s men’s track and field and cross country teams, through a summer course. They connected over a Zoom call, during which Fulkerson told him about the team.

“He just asked me a little bit about the team and if I’d be willing to maybe make an introduction to him to the coach, and I was immediately down,” Fulkerson said. “Right off the bat, you could tell this guy had a good attitude, and he had the mind of an athlete and really seemed like he worked hard and could be a good fit in our team.”

Fulkerson referred Powell to his coaches, and Powell spent the rest of that summer training for his tryout before he was eventually offered a spot. 

Senior jumper Thomas Powell competes in the long jump at an indoor meet. (Natalie Sandlow/Visual Editor)

Powell said that because of his walk-on status and other teammates’ talent, he felt like he had to put in more time in doing the “extra stuff,” like being helpful and supportive of the team.

“As a walk-on, it almost felt like I needed to try to go above and beyond with the hard work aspect to keep up with everyone else because everyone else is so good at what they do,” Powell said. 

Powell’s work ethic was immediately apparent to Fulkerson, along with his vibrant personality and humble attitude.

“[He’s] an absolute fun guy to be around, but you could also tell he was a go-getter,” Fulkerson said. “He reached out to me and he wasn’t just saying, ‘Hey, what can you do for me?’ He was like, ‘Can you help me so that I can help the team?’ … He was very much the guy who wanted to put more on his plate and be part of the team.”

In addition to competing, Powell said that being a college athlete can help build skills that are useful off the track.

“The discipline that it takes to even be part of college athletics, it translates to a lot of other facets of life,” Powell said. “Whether that be in the classroom or even maintaining relationships, it absolutely carries over. … If you have a good basis in discipline, it really helps you in a lot of other facets of life.”

After completing his own walk-on experience, Powell knows the challenges of having to earn your way onto a team in a non-traditional path. Like Pire, he said being a walk-on encourages athletes to keep trying despite the challenges.

“I had a ton of adversity learning each event [and] being noticeably behind everyone,” Powell said. “Don’t get discouraged. Keep working as hard as you can. Take feedback from your coaches. They want to help you, they’re there for you, and be able to take constructive criticism and use that to make yourself better.”

Fulkerson said that Powell’s journey to the team set a good example of what athletes, including future walk-ons, can achieve through hard work.

“He absolutely set a good precedent for anyone who comes after him,” Fulkerson said. “Maybe you’re not recruited, maybe you don’t know about this squad before you actually come to Emory. But if you’re an athlete and you work hard and you want to be part of this, there’s absolutely a place for you.”

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Will Peck (25Ox) is from Chesterton, Indiana and currently an undecided student. In his free time, he enjoys going on bike rides, watching Chicago sports, and listening to music.

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