From MIT to Nicaragua
Leonard plans to work for ‘Teach for America’ after graduation
The name alone begs curiosity: Columbus Leonard.
Throw in that he went from California to play water polo at MIT and you’ve probably got a story, yet it’s even better when you learn that he was a pretty good baseball player who only turned to water polo because he hurt his arm before his senior year in high school and had to have Tommy John surgery.
But then add in his trip last spring to rural Nicaragua with an MIT class that came up with an invention that helped villagers store their orange juice longer so they could sell it later, and, well, the guy they call “Bus” is pretty good stuff.
“That’s one of the best nicknames or assuring names I’ve ever heard,” said first-year coach Mark Lawrence, who only joined his new team in mid-August and learned quickly his senior goalie was the rock of the team.
“He’s one of two team captains we have [senior Nikola Otasevic from Serbia is the other], but he’s our physical leader,” Lawrence continued. “Bus is our verbal leader outside the pool and in the pool during games and practice, he’s our physical leader. He’s a leader in a lot of ways and inspiration for our young guys. He’s definitely the guy everyone looks to, not necessarily for guidance, but they follow his lead. He’s fills that lead-by-example captain’s role just naturally.”
Leonard, 21, grew up in Mill Valley, Calif., just north of San Francisco, and played at St. Ignatius High School. The right-handed pitcher actually blew out his arm at a baseball showcase, he said, but he still played two seasons of baseball at MIT.
In 2010, he pitched in 11 games, all in relief, with a 5.49 earned-run average, certainly lending credence that his best time was spent in the pool. “I never got back in baseball to where I was before the surgery,” he said.
After big polo seasons for MIT in 2008 and 2009, he backed that up last fall with another great campaign in goal, making 199 saves and 19 steals.
Leonard is majoring in environmental engineering with a minor in energy and a concentration in economics. He scored a 32 on his ACT he said, and went into this year with a 4.5 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale, and was an honorable-mention All-American last year. He named to the CWPA Northern Division first team and he has also found the time to be president of his fraternity, Delta Upsilon.
But consider the trip last spring break with three other students, taken with a class from MIT called Development Lab Energy in conjunction with a non-profit organization in Nicaragua. The original plan was to help “really rural” townspeople use a pedal-powered washing machine. But that was no good in this town “a three-hour bus ride and an hour-and-a-half hike” from the capital city of Managua.
“The purpose of the trip was to ask questions about different projects that we were looking at for the class and when we got back we decided on one of those projects to work on the remainder of the semester,” Leonard said. “We went down with a couple in mind, but it turned out they wouldn’t use a few of them after we asked questions. It would require extra work on their part and wasn’t completely functionally. Like the pedal-powered washing machine. A community could only afford a few of them and if you put that washing machine in the center of town and there’s a river that goes through there, they will only wash clothes in the river at the closest point from their shack houses. So if you put it in the middle of town, it would be too far to walk with the laundry.
“So the one we worked on was a plastic-bag heat sealer.”
This is one of those where someone is saying only at MIT. Or, as coach Lawrence joked, “We have a team rule that we don’t talk about math or sciences, only humanities, so I can be part of the conversation.”
As it turned out, the farmers in the area grew oranges and what the MIT students came up with enabled them to process their juice and preserve it longer before selling it.
“We made a low-powered heat sealer so they could actually make a profit on their crop,” Leonard said.
“It was delivered in August, just in time for their harvest season.”
Leonard, of course, didn’t get to make the return trip because water polo beckoned. But the impact of it on him remained.
“It was wild,” Leonard recalled of his first trip outside the United States. “It was completely eye-opening.”
MIT has a new coach, an interesting mix of young players with a few veterans, and, while MIT is Division III, it plays water polo in a league that includes DI teams such as Harvard, Brown, Iona and Fordham, and also an aggressive non-conference slate, that included a California trip in mid-September.
After graduation, Leonard hopes to be part of Teach for America for two years and then get into environmental engineering or something energy related. The Bus keeps rolling. Which begs one more question: How did he get his name?
“My great-great uncle’s first job after coming from Italy to America was at the Columbus Café in San Francisco, but I think more than that my mom wanted me to have a unique name. So it was Columbus.”