Hall of Fame

Elissa Hart-Mahan

Graduation Year


Induction Year


Hall of Fame

Harvard Athletic Achievements

It’s quite an accomplishment to be the first at anything in Harvard history, but it comes as no surprise that Elissa Hart-Mahan is the first women’s volleyball player to be inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame. A senior co-captain, Elissa helped the Harvard volleyball team to an undefeated season her senior year (1996). She is a two-time First Team All-Ivy League selection (1996, 1997), was named to the Second Team All-Ivy in 1994 and received Honorable Mention honors in 1995. A four-year letterwinner, Elissa is first all-time in career blocks (287) and career solo blocks (142). She ranks second in kills (1,398) and holds the record for most kills in a season (511 in 1996). Elissa also holds season records in solo blocks (53 in 1997), and total blocks (138 in 1996). In 1998, Elissa was awarded the Mary G. Paget Prize and the Harvard-Radcliffe Foundation for Women’s Athletics Prize for her contributions to women’s athletics and as Harvard’s best female scholar athlete. In 1996 and 1997, Elissa was recognized for her stellar academics as she was named to the GTE District 1 Academic All-American and Academic All-Ivy teams.

Hall of Fame

Remembering Harvard Athletics

Being inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame is such a tremendous honor. Trying to sum up my four years of Harvard volleyball in a brief essay is a tall order. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the volleyball program here, and I owe a great deal to my coach and my teammates, all of whom taught me so much about both volleyball and life. I thought I’d try to share some of my favorite memories in the hopes that they will capture the most important parts of my experience. My freshman year, I reported to Harvard in August for pre-season training. It turned out that moving across the country for college was a lot harder than I expected it to be. I struggled for my first couple of months at Harvard, shedding lots of tears and really missing my family. Although pre-season training was especially difficult (I have vivid memories of dragging my exhausted body up five flights of stairs to a stuffy room in Dunster House), I’ll never forget the kindness of my teammates and Coach Jen Bates (now Weiss). Lots of my new teammates had experience with moving far from home for college, and everyone was so supportive. Judy Iriye, who was a senior my freshman year, was especially kind to me. She was never too busy to listen and always made a special effort to check in with me. Eventually I did get used to being so far from home, and the volleyball team became my family and support system at Harvard. Another memory from my first year was our match against Cornell. The previous season Harvard had finished near the bottom of the Ivy League standings, while Cornell was the defending league champion. We went into the match at Cornell determined to prove ourselves, and after a five-game battle we came out on top. That feeling—of exceeding expectations, of surprising an opponent, and of playing our best—was intoxicating. We had a long bus ride home from Ithaca ahead of us that night, but nothing could contain our exuberance. We persuaded the bus driver to play our warm-up tape, and we spent almost the entire five-hour drive back to Cambridge dancing in the aisle. Every time I hear “Little Red Corvette” by Prince or “Dreams” by Gabrielle, I’m reminded of that gleeful bus ride. My sophomore year we reached a new level of success for Harvard women’s volleyball, compiling a winning record and beating teams like Boston College. Back then, the league champion was determined by a double-elimination tournament over the course of a single weekend in November; league play throughout the course of the season only determined your tournament seed. We went into the 1995 tournament, which was hosted by Penn, with a 4-3 Ivy League record and a number five seed. We lost our opening match to Penn in the Palestra, which consigned us to the losers’ bracket and made an Ivy League Championship pretty unlikely, as we had no room for error going forward. The next day we were playing in a secondary gym on campus, and we went on a tear, defeating Brown, Yale, and Cornell, without dropping a single game. I remember how confident and determined we felt, and we played our hearts out. There was no question of losing. By the end of that day we were all exhausted, and I remember being barely able to feel my shoulder. But that wasn’t the end of our remarkable run. The next day we played Penn again in the Palestra and, this time, got the pleasure of eliminating them from the tournament. Only Princeton remained, but we would need to beat them twice in order to win the tournament. We won the first match, but after a brief rest between matches our exhaustion caught up with us, and Princeton ended up winning their second consecutive championship. We were like zombies on the ride home—our co-captain Jen Jose was so dehydrated that she had to go to the hospital to get IV fluids. While I mostly remember a feeling of disbelief that we were unable to pull out that final victory, I remain so proud of the remarkable string of underdog victories we were able to put together. The next fall, we all wanted an Ivy League title more than ever. But this desire and determination was tempered with a strong sense of fun. On one of our Ivy road trips that fall, my classmate Lolita Lopez had the idea to bring candy representing our opponents to eat in advance of the game. Before our Princeton match that year, she bought candy orange wedges. Kate Nash, our setter, was disgusted at the prospect of eating them, and somehow a ritual was born: before each match we would huddle together chewing up candy that was the same color as our opponent. Then, all together, we would spit the candy into a garbage can. It became a team joke and a strong superstition that we continued for the next two years. We arrived at the 1996 Ivy League tournament prepared with candy symbolizing every potential opponent. We had the satisfaction of defeating Princeton and ending their run of championships that year, but we ultimately lost to Brown in the tournament finals. My senior year, we had a strong group of starters returning and added an impressive crop of freshman, including my sister Katherine. We had all worked harder than ever in the off-season to prepare, and it finally felt like the pieces were falling into place for the Ivy League title that had eluded us the last two years. In all of my years playing volleyball at Harvard, we had always had good team chemistry, but that 1997 team was really something special. I’ll never forget Anne Schafer’s tireless enthusiasm, Catherine Betti’s infectious laugh, or Kristin Priscella’s perpetually positive attitude. Laurel Rayburn managed to combine epic forgetfulness with the sweetest nature in the world, and Kristen Schaeffer always had the best stories to tell. Melissa Forcum and Kate Nash played with fierce determination, and Lolita inspired us with her athleticism on the court and always kept us all laughing. We put together a terrific record, winning every single regular season Ivy League game. We were so fired up for the Ivy League tournament and were proud of our hard-earned number one seed. Melissa Forcum’s parents, who had always been tremendous supporters of the team, drove from Indiana in a borrowed RV full of food that they prepared for us throughout the tournament so that we wouldn’t have to wait to eat at restaurants. I still wince when I think about that weekend, as it was a painful way to end my volleyball career at Harvard. After an easy first-round victory, we lost to the host Yale in the second round, and then Dartmouth eliminated us from the tournament. We had beaten both teams during the regular season, which made the final result that much more disappointing. But I can’t end my memories of Harvard volleyball on such a sad note. Just a few months after our loss in the Ivy tournament and shortly after my graduation, I got to attend Jen and Jay Weiss’s wedding. I will always remember dancing with Jen, Lolita, Heather Rypkema, and other members of the Harvard volleyball family on that happy day. Jen did so much to support me and to cultivate a caring environment on the team. While she helped to make us better volleyball players, her first priority was to help us grow and develop as people. She can take credit for so much of our success during my time at Harvard, and it was wonderful celebrating her happiness. And no reflection about my volleyball experience would be complete without a few words about my family. I would not have become the volleyball player that I did without the love and support of my parents. They never hesitated to do whatever was necessary to help me succeed: watching hours of excruciating beginners’ volleyball, getting up at four in the morning to drive to tournaments all over northern California, making enough pasta salad to feed a team of ravenous teenage girls, helping me to improve my running speed on family vacations, and, of course, traveling across the country each fall to watch me play for Harvard. My two younger sisters both became excellent volleyball players, and did more than their fair share of spectating at my games growing up. Getting to play with Katherine my senior year was one of the highlights of my career, and the pride of seeing her named Ivy League Rookie of the Year almost made up for the disappointment of losing in the Ivy tournament. Watching my youngest sister Laura play at Georgetown was similarly inspiring. Most importantly, my family’s unconditional love always helped me keep things in perspective. Their ideals helped me strive to be a good teammate and an honorable opponent. My Harvard volleyball experience will always be with me—whenever I face a new physical or intellectual challenge I draw on the lessons that I learned during that time. And I’ll always love good competition—I had the pleasure of reuniting with Sarah Mattson to play in an intramural league at Harvard Law School four years after I graduated from college (I’m happy to report that we chalked up several league championships during our three years playing together at HLS). I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to play with all the amazing women who came to practice each day at the MAC. I hope that my children will someday get to experience the joy of being part of a team and of having hard work pay off in victory.