Toeing the line of my last cross country race of this season, surrounded by 300 other runners, I was reminded of the stark contrast between this season and last. As most athletes can attest to, the pandemic impacted so many aspects of sports. Whether it was wearing masks, limited games, breaking up teams into smaller pods or minimal fans, every team had special guidelines they were forced to follow.
As an athlete involved in three sports — cross country, nordic and track, the experience during the 2020-2021 school year was one I will never forget. Beginning in March 2020, the pandemic immediately put a halt to the athletic activities I was eagerly anticipating. Starting with my freshman track season, which was delayed week after week, it soon became obvious that any hope of a season was out of reach. Instead, my only source of exercise was daily runs around the neighborhood between Zoom meetings. Fast forward to the summer, restrictions were relaxed and cross country was given the go to hold summer practices — masked and socially distanced, of course.
Heading into the season we were given pods, splitting up the team based on ability. Although this was necessary to contain a potential outbreak, the team dynamic was not the same. Meet days were no exception to the abnormal season. There were no longer 20 plus teams per meet, riding the bus to competitions was discouraged and the team utilized mainly two courses, instead of the usual 5-6 that we run at in a season. While athletics during a pandemic was far from ideal, it was an experience that truly changed the way I viewed sports. I’ve alway been a competitive person, particularly in running, but cross country became not only an activity, but my outlet for socialization after copious amounts of isolation. I found myself getting ready for practice hours before I needed to, out of sheer excitement. Soon, they became my favorite part of the day, not only for the opportunity to get out of the house, but for a break in the mundane routine of distance learning. Coming back to this season, with huge invitational meets, hundreds of participants per race, screaming fans everywhere and a vibrant team atmosphere was overwhelmingly special to say the least.
If there is one thing that the pandemic had a positive impact on, it was my first nordic season. Had it not been for COVID-19, I would never have joined nordic skiing, believing I wouldn’t have time for it. But during distance learning, I was able to try new things and find something that I really enjoy. Having never skied before, the structure created by the pandemic was a great environment to learn in. Being split into pods for contact tracing, top varsity skiers went to Theodore Wirth and lower level skiers were at Louisiana Oaks. This gave me an easier place to gain skills without the challenges of larger and steeper hills. Although we still had restrictions with racing and mask wearing, it was an amazing experience.
While none of this was ideal, I’m grateful for the seasons I was able to have, as many high risk and indoor sports faced much greater challenges and restrictions. Being an athlete during the pandemic made me realize the tremendous value sports play in my life and to not take those opportunities and experiences for granted.