Zuckerberg Freshman Roommate Goes From Harvard to Haiti Olympian

Zuckerberg Freshman Roommate Goes From Harvard to Haiti Olympian
Samyr Laine, who will compete in the triple jump at the London Olympics for Haiti, stands for a photograph at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t the only freshman losing sleep in Room D11 of Harvard University’s Straus Hall back in 2002-03.

While the founder of the Facebook Inc. social network site was spending long nights at his laptop in the dorm at Cambridge, Massachusetts, roommate Samyr Laine focused on twin goals that are within reach over the next two months.

Laine will compete in the triple jump at the London Olympics for Haiti, the country of his parents’ birth. Then he probably will start a job at a New York law firm that he twice deferred to stay in training.

“We had a good time our freshman year in Straus, we played a ton of PlayStation,” Laine said in an interview at his home in Lorton, Virginia. “We probably didn’t sleep nearly as much as we should have. None of us slept as little as Mark did, and now you can see why.”

Laine, 27, holds Harvard records for the triple jump, both indoors at 51 feet, 11 1/4 inches (15.83 meters) and outdoors at 53 feet, 7 1/2 inches, which compare with the world outdoor record of 60 feet, 1/4 inch by Britain’s Jonathan Edwards in 1995. After graduating in 2006, Laine competed at the University of Texas for a year while getting a master’s degree in kinesiology and sports management.

After the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro that July, he began three years at Georgetown Law School while maintaining an intense training regimen that includes working about once a week with an unpaid coach who used to play minor-league baseball. He was a summer associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP and passed the bar before deferring a law career to focus on jumping.

Earthquake Aid

This month, he’ll go to London to compete for Haiti, a nation still recovering from the destruction of a January 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000 people and left tens of thousands of others injured and homeless. U.S. government aid to Haiti has totaled more than $2.1 billion in the past three years, according to a State Department website.

Chris Lambert, a former Harvard teammate and now a financial and commercial analyst for London’s Olympic organizers, called Laine “very calm and very assiduous.”

Another former teammate with the Crimson, Lawrence Adjah, who recently finished Stanford Business School, pointed to Laine’s “monomaniacal focus.” Former Harvard jumps coach Jackie Hoover said Laine is “the definition of passion.”

“He has focus like I’ve never really seen before,” Trisha Weiss, the director of legal recruiting for Shearman & Sterling, said in a telephone interview. “He really does it all. He’s just so disciplined and really knows what he wants.”

Four Roommates

Zuckerberg and Laine, both from the suburbs north of New York City, shared one of the doubles in Room D11. The other double paired Australian rower Bede Moore and musician Justin Coffin.

“We were all very different,” said Moore, who now lives in Jakarta and co-founded the e-commerce site Lazada Indonesia after leaving Boston Consulting Group Inc.

“Sam and I were both athletes, but he came from New York whereas I was fresh from overseas,” Moore said in an e-mail interview. “Justin was musically very gifted. Mark was obviously on the computer. But even despite the differences, the room worked brilliantly together.”

Larry Yu, a spokesman for Facebook based in Menlo Park, California, declined to pass requests on to Zuckerberg seeking comment about his former roommates.

In their sophomore year, when they were no longer rooming together, Laine became the 14th person to sign up for Facebook after getting a message from Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg Overslept

Laine still laughs at an incident from freshman year. He remembers Zuckerberg running out of their dorm room after oversleeping and missing the first hour of a computer science final exam, only to get the highest mark in the class.

“The mastery he had of computer science, even as a freshman, it was almost comical,” Laine said. “We would often try to see how fast he could hack into our computers.”

Zuckerberg, 28, with an estimated worth of $16 billion, ranks 40th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Laine grabs free pizzas these days through a deal at a local restaurant, and sometimes needs help from his parents to pay his share of rent.

He can afford coach Skeeter Jackson, a former Olympic long jumper who was a minor-league center fielder for Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, only because Jackson has never asked to be paid in five years of working with Laine.

‘Thrown Together’

“Everybody asks that: Why don’t you just ask Mark for money?” Laine said. “Our friendship isn’t based on him being Mark Zuckerberg, Time Person of the Year. It’s based on us being a couple of 17-year-old kids who happened to be thrown into a room together. I haven’t asked any of my friends. So for him it wouldn’t be any different, because he is my friend.”

He said he last spoke with Zuckerberg in June and they are in touch every couple of months.

He survives thanks to a $1,250 monthly stipend that the International Olympic Committee offers to athletes competing for impoverished nations. He has a sponsorship deal with Mizuno Corp. that provides him with clothing, spikes and cash.

Laine also gets money from the U.S. Athletic Trust, a non-profit organization based in Briarcliff Manor, New York, that is providing financial support for the London Games to three former Ivy League athletes -- Laine and javelin throwers Craig Kinsley from Brown University and Sean Furey from Dartmouth College. The Olympics run from July 27 to Aug. 12.

Pizza Deal

He sought a sponsorship with the Zpizza chain, which instead offered him a house account that allows him to get free food. He uses it to get pizzas and salads from Zpizza, founded in Laguna Beach, California, three to four times a week.

“Some months here it’s touch and go, my landlord will tell you that,” Laine said, “but it comes with the territory of chasing your dreams and being an Olympian.”

Jackson, a high school teacher, works with Laine about once a week. On a recent weekday, in 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) heat, they met at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, about 30 minutes south of Laine’s home.

Training partner Ayanna Alexander, who will compete in the women’s triple jump for Trinidad & Tobago, and Laine practiced in a pit with weeds at its edges.

Laine, shirtless in the midday heat, screamed before each of his jumps and ended each run by wiping sand off his sweaty arms and back.

Best Jump

His career-best triple jump of 57 feet, 3/4 inch came in 2009. He failed to automatically qualify for the 2012 Olympics, reaching them by surpassing a secondary standard when he jumped 56 feet, 1 inch in July 2011.

Laine, who is now in France training with the rest of the Haitian Olympic team, has a best official jump this year of 55-4 3/4 that ranks him 30th in the world. Christian Taylor of the U.S. has the year’s best jump, at 57-10 1/4.

Jackson, 50, said part of his goal is to get Laine -- who acknowledges he is “hyperanalytical” -- to think less and react more when he is sprinting down the runway.

Laine grew up in Newburgh, New York, and had never visited Haiti until last year. He contacted Haitian sports officials in 2007 and told them he wanted to compete for the Caribbean nation in the Olympics.

He knew he would have a better chance of reaching the games as a Haitian than an American, and said he felt such an achievement would mean more.

Haiti Foundation

“In the U.S., even gold medalists are a dime a dozen,” he said. “There’s a lot more good I can do competing for Haiti, representing the country on the international level.”

He is in the process of creating the Jump for Haiti Foundation, which he envisions helping sports programs throughout the nation. That might be when he calls on his former roommate for financial help.

“Of course, in hindsight, I wish I had gotten in (as an early Facebook investor),” Laine said. “Mark and I took different paths, and our paths are still somewhat intertwined. If it ends up that Facebook becomes a big donator to Jump for Haiti, then that’s how I’ll be able to benefit from it.”

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