It’s a Monday morning and Katrina Patterson eats a protein bar and stretches before going on her daily run through Kiawah Island in Summerville, South Carolina with four teammates on the University of Cincinnati track & field team.
The group has developed a new routine since finishing 0.5 points out of first place in the indoor track & field American Athletic Conference Championship Feb. 29. The team was fired up to begin preparing for the NCAA Championships March 12. But now, they are following optional workouts every Sunday from their coaching staff on the day they should be competing for a championship.
“In the beginning I stayed pretty positive,” Patterson said. “Each day was something different. We would get an email saying practice was canceled, then nationals got canceled and a week later our conference [outdoor season] was canceled. So, it was really hard to stay positive through that. But the coaching staff was very hopeful we were going to be able to come back and practice and compete.”
NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division-I men’s and women’s winter and spring NCAA championships set for March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak — leaving student athletes of six different sports at UC and across the world without a completed season.
The virus even forced Patterson to stay away from her hometown of Buffalo, New York.
“I didn't go back to New York just because of how bad it is there,” Patterson said. “I would love to go back, but I talked with my mom and everyone back home and it’s better for me to stay away.”
Since the season’s cancelation, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine banned gatherings of more than 100 people in stadiums, arenas and indoor and outdoor spaces and urged residents to keep six feet of social distance as a safety precaution. Luckily, athletes of sports such as track & field and golf can practice on their own (most golf courses remain open), but for team sports like baseball and women’s lacrosse, athletes have little to no access to fields, equipment or teammates to practice with.
The cancelation also occurred mid-season after months of hard work and preparation. The lacrosse team was prepared for the regular season to be postponed, but losing the entire season left the players and coaches in shock.
“It still kind of feels surreal, like we’re waiting to come back from spring break and get back on the field,” UC women’s lacrosse coach Gina Thomas said. “I look forward to the day-to-day development, interactions and engagement with each and every player on our team. So not having that is really hard and really strange.”
The initial stoppage of play left seniors unsure if they’d ever be able to compete at the collegiate level ever again, making it easy to forget what underclassmen and coaches lose with them along the way. Players have spent months going through strength and conditioning programs, and coaches have invested time in recruiting trips, watching film and planning. As a result, the toll on athletes and coaches has proven to be rigorous, both physically and mentally.
All spring athletes, including seniors, were granted the opportunity to have an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA March 31. While having a fifth-year option has its pros and cons, it puts extra weight on coaches with recruiting.
“I think it wouldn't necessarily affect recruiting in the next year,” Thomas said. “The stranger part is this summer. I know a lot of things are being canceled over the summer when it comes to the recruiting calendar, so if anything, it's really going to have an impact on the 2022 recruiting process… I have no idea how it's going to work out.”
The next step for seniors among the three affected sports—baseball, women’s lacrosse, track & field—and players on UC’s men’s soccer team who had their program cut entirely, is deciding whether or not to return for a fifth year.
Athletes may consider post-graduate employment or other options instead of coming back, which could bring financial challenges. They’ll have to make those decisions away from campus, as UC’s athletic department sent all athletes home and made accommodations for international students, who were allowed to remain on campus.
The athletic department agreed their initial four-week phase of at-home workouts would stay the same for all programs, except football and men’s basketball who are following separate conditioning programs. UC has sent optional, do-it-yourself videos, such as putting soup cans and other household items into a backpack to row or squat, so the student athletes don’t have to go out and purchase equipment themselves.
Athletes are encouraged to use advanced equipment if available; however, the videos are for everyone since UC’s athletic department isn’t sending equipment to the athletes in the mail physically. The athletic department plans to create more specialized videos for athletes in each sport to better accommodate the particular conditioning needs of their sport, but initially the communication effort was broad and expected to provide a short-term solution.
“We weren't thinking this is something we have to talk about for a week and find a solution, or two weeks,” UC Associate Athletic Director of Sports Performance Kelly Powers said. “We were really thinking a month out of what that would look like and it just kind of keeps expanding that way.”
Athletes of different sports may be tempted to disregard the workout videos if they are playing for a non-fall season program. But skipping the workouts could lead to physical and mental unpreparedness when their training sessions or season begins, experts say.
“[Athletes] are not intrinsically motivated to workout on their own,” Peter Ganshirt, a longtime UC athletics psychologist, said. “Should they be doing some conditioning? Absolutely, but they’re not doing it. These structure programs hold them accountable for training, lifting and conditioning, and they don’t have that anymore… I'm very concerned about a lot of players just sitting at home doing nothing.”
Whatever the athletes are doing, they’ll be doing it for the foreseeable future. No one knows when collegiate sports will return, and there’s growing concern if the fall college football season will occur as scheduled. The spring sport athletes and coaches lost their 2020 season, and are likely still feeling that loss, but there’s often something positive to take away from experiences like these.
“I'm a big believer in everything happening for a reason,” Thomas said. “I really think that a lot of our younger athletes and seniors will mature. This is a life lesson that everyone has to kind of take a step back and really enjoy every moment.”