Competitive Hoop Rolling: A Wellesley College Tradition

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Class of 2014 seniors storm the course at the start of the race. (Arthur Pollock/Boston Herald)
Class of 2014 seniors storm the course at the start of the race. (Arthur Pollock/Boston Herald)

It’s 8:45 on a Saturday morning and Wellesley College seniors are trickling down Tupelo Lane for the school's 120th Hoop Rolling Race. They gather clutching thigh high wooden hoops about two inches wide. They're ready to run.

Underclass students have camped out in tents. Some have mimosas in hand.

Excitement bubbles up at the starting line as more students cram onto an impossibly narrow sidewalk.

Underclass students in 1983 sleeping outside for the best spots. (courtesy Wellesley College Archives)
Underclass students in 1983 slept outside for the best spots. (courtesy Wellesley College Archives)

“Are you ready to roll? Ok, on your marks get set go!”

The seniors in the first rows burst forward while those in the back are caught in a bottleneck. Each senior is vying to be the first to push a hoop down the quarter mile paved course to the finish line at the chapel.

Like other runners, Adrienne Ogle is wearing her long black graduation gown over her clothes.

"You're getting caught up in your robe and other people are accidentally tripping each other with their hoops. So it is a mess," she says. "It is not graceful at all. Even though you're just running down a road. The speed at which everybody runs is a full sprint. You get to see your friends being like, 'You can do it. You're going to get there.' And you're like, 'I don't know. I'm really bad at this.'"

The winner is presented with flowers, carried to the lake, and tossed in.

Throwing the winner in Lake Waban began when a Harvard man dressed up as a Wellesley senior and won. When the students discovered he’d cheated, they dumped him in the lake. Every race since has ended with a ceremonial dunking.

There's a lot of history and tradition here at Wellesley. The campus looks frozen in time, with brick buildings and towers wrapped in ivy.

Hoop rolling at Wellesley dates back to the late 1800s. According to Wellesley’s director of library collections, Ian Graham, students at Wellesley first picked up hoops as a part of May Day celebrations.

"Students went to Boston to buy their hoops and then came back and didn't race around with them, but just rolled around with them in general among the other activities they were sort of taken part in," said Ian.

By 1917, the activity turned into a race. Eventually students decided that winning needed to mean something.

Like the bridesmaid who catches the bouquet at a wedding, the winner of the hoop rolling race would be the first to marry. Some of the runners who were already married pushed strollers instead of hoops.

"I don’t think with living babies in them," said Ian. "I know of one that a student — a picture that we have a student is rolling a shopping cart with a baby doll in it."

A participant in 1952 swapped a hoop for a carriage. (courtesy Wellesley College Archives)
A participant in 1952 swapped a hoop for a carriage. (courtesy Wellesley College Archives)

By the late 60’s and 70’s, the strollers were gone. Racers decorated their hoops with peace signs.

And when senior Adrienne Ogle's mom, Joanne Avallon, graduated in 1982, winning the race had taken on a yet another meaning.

"I think when I graduated there was a big push to be the lawyer, the doctor, the big name professional with a big paycheck."

During Joanne's time, the victor was said to be the first woman to get her PhD. But soon after, it changed again to being the first woman to become CEO. As graduation approaches Joanne's daughter, Adrienne, is thinking about the meaning of winning.

"So I guess winning would be just getting what I want most which, at the moment, would be a steady job. I didn't win so I don't know what is going to happen."

After graduation, Adrienne's heading off to California to follow her dream of working in the film industry. That's the kind of thing then first lady Barbara Bush encouraged when she talked about hooprolling in her 1990 Wellesley commencement speech.

"I want to offer a new legend: the winner of the hoop race will be the first to realize her dream — not society's dreams — her own personal dream," Bush proposed.

During my time on the Wellesley track team, I ran dozens of races.

I dreamed of winning hoop rolling — being the first to break the tape and achieving success in a way I hadn’t been able to on the track.

But, we all knew our classmate Alex Poon was going to win. Alex had been training on the course in good weather and in bad.

Not only that, but success ran in the family. Alex’s sister, Cathy, came in second in 2011. Mom, Helen, won in 1982. The whole family grew up practicing the sport.

Helen Poon after her 1982 hooprolling victory. (courtsy Wellesley College Archives)
Helen Poon, Alex's mom, after her 1982 hooprolling victory. (courtesy Wellesley College Archives)

"So that's true," said Alex. "I did. My mom taught me and some of my siblings how to roll hula hoops. And so we all had different techniques but out mom like ended up showing us her technique."

Alex’s mom said she’d teach it to me ... but first I’d have to marry into the family.

The night before the race Alex was unable to sleep, instead rolling the family hoop up and down the halls of the dorm. That dedication paid off.

"It was nice to stay within the tradition of hoop rolling and be able to carry on that family legacy while at the same time making a little history of my own as being the first trans person to win hoop rolling at Wellesley."

Alex is transgender and identifies as a man. His win comes at a time when more people are paying attention to transgender rights. In the year since Alex's win, historically women’s colleges — including Bryn Mawr, Smith and Wellesley — have re-evaluated and changed their admissions policies to be more inclusive.

Alex Poon celebrates his victory with a selfie with College president Kim Bottomly. (Arthur Pollock/Boston Herald)
Alex Poon celebrates his victory with a selfie with college president Kim Bottomly. (Arthur Pollock/Boston Herald)

Alex spent more time training for this race than thinking about what winning would mean to him, but his dream happens to have a lot in common with those of graduates from the 80's.

"For me, though, I actually would like to be CEO someday, but of a company that helps other people."

Joanne Avallon didn't win the race in 1982, but she says then, like now, hoop rolling was never about the prize.

"It's a metaphor, right? It was almost as though someone was saying to you, 'OK, here it comes. This is life. It’s going to be out of control. People are going to expect you to do objectively ridiculous things, and the only way you get through it is with your friends and with a sense of humor.'"

And she adds, maybe a mimosa, too.

This segment aired on May 23, 2015.


Zoë Sobel Production Assistant
Zoë Sobel was formerly a production assistant in WBUR's newsroom.



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