Harvard Athletes 'Heartbroken' To Miss NCAAs Over Coronavirus Concerns

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Ten minutes before Harvard distance runners Kieran Tuntivate, Abbe Goldstein and Anna Juul were scheduled to leave campus for the airport to compete at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships this weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, athletics staff informed the student-athletes that they would no longer be permitted to travel and were effectively scratched from the event.

The decision comes after a whirlwind of new social distancing measures implemented by the university and the Ivy League in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 125,900 people worldwide and 1,232 people nationwide as of Wednesday evening. At least 95 cases have been reported in the state of Massachusetts, the fourth-highest total in the nation. 

Yesterday, the Ivy League canceled both its men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments and Harvard announced it would shift all classes to online-only instruction for the remainder of the semester. All students were asked to vacate the dormitories within five days. Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Cornell and Yale also shifted to virtual classes for the foreseeable future this week, which ultimately led to an announcement late Wednesday afternoon from the Ivy League Presidents that all spring athletics in the conference would be suspended for the remainder of the school year.

“Given this situation, it is not feasible for practice and competition to continue,” the Ivy League press release said. “Individual institutions will decide whether or not winter teams and student-athletes who have qualified for postseason play will participate.”

A total of seven athletes from four different Ivy League schools qualified for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Right now, Harvard appears to be the only program that will not allow its athletes to compete in the postseason. 

When asked for comment, Harvard Associate Director of Athletics Tim Williamson referred to the university’s press release, which simply states, “Harvard will not participate in any team or individual NCAA or other postseason competition.”

The one exception is the Crimson ski team, which is already in Bozeman, Montana for the NCAA Skiing Championships.

“No other winter teams will be competing in the postseason,” Williamson said in an email.

Harvard is the only Ivy League institution to produce multiple NCAA qualifiers in indoor track this season. All three athletes were to race the mile and Tuntivate also qualified in the 3K. This would be the first NCAA Indoor Championships for all three runners.

Tuntivate, an All-American in cross country, has aspirations of running professionally after he graduates this spring. 

“Someone told me that if we can get someone to say that [missing NCAAs] does have financial ramifications, then maybe that can delay Harvard’s decision and we can compete,” he said. “I’ve been looking to go pro after this year, so every meet matters for me at this point. What I did at this meet would have definitely impacted what I’m able to do after college in regards to pro running.”

Tuntivate was the No. 10 seed in the 3K and the sixth-fastest athlete entered in the mile at NCAAs. He broke four minutes for the first time this year with a nearly 10-second personal best of 3:57.36, and in so doing also became Harvard distance coach Alex Gibby’s first sub-four athlete.

“It was a really special moment,” he said. “I’ve known I wanted to go pro for a long time but I’ve never run fast enough to prove I could do that, so it was a validating moment and I was really looking forward to racing both races at nationals.”

He is a dual citizen of the United States and Thailand, and hopes to compete for Thailand in the Olympics.

For junior Abbe Goldstein, competing at the national championships signified her personal growth since combating mental health issues last spring. 

She sat out the fall cross country season to recalibrate and go through therapy. She watched from the sidelines as her teammates raced to a historic cross country campaign that saw the men’s and women’s teams sweep the NCAA Northeast Region Championships and qualify for nationals together for the first time in program history.

“I was obviously so happy for them, but not to be there, personally, was kind of tough,” she said. 

Goldstein and Juul both ran 4:37 at BU’s Bruce Lehane Scarlet and White Invitational in early February—a 10-second personal best for Goldstein. Two weeks later, she lowered her time to 4:35.70. It was the breakthrough she’d been waiting for for years.

“I turned to my coaches, Gibby and Jason [Saretsky], and was like, ‘thank you so much for letting me take the time to come back and be able to be a better athlete,’” she said. “For me, [qualifying to NCAAs for the first time] was really representative of going through it and not having the best time but making it out the other side. A lot of patience went into that result. 

“Two and a half years of not doing anything great, to have a time that’s 15th in the NCAA right now. It took a lot of patience and meant a lot, a couple tears were shed and I was really excited to go.”

Juul, meanwhile, was “just happy to be there” when she competed in the 1500m at last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships as a sophomore.

But watching the final from the sidelines at the University of Texas reawakened her fire to compete. And this winter, the chance to race alongside her teammates at nationals made the qualifying feel more meaningful.

“It was devastating this morning. I really can’t describe it,” she said. “I was not only heartbroken for myself, but heartbroken for them.”

The idea of missing NCAAs became a possibility late last week when they learned Harvard banned all domestic travel, which meant Saretsky, Gibby and the rest of the coaching staff would not be allowed to accompany them to the championship. The loose plan, which the runners say the athletic department advocated for, was for the trio to fly solo to New Mexico, with travel arrangements provided by the NCAA.

“Scratching us from the competition was never a thought that crossed anyone’s mind,” Goldstein said. “If you take away our tickets, we’ll buy our own. All of us are privileged enough and knew people would chip in if need be. But to scratch us is the thing that’s insane, because now we can’t go.”

Tuntivate, facing his final season of NCAA eligibility, says he may enter the transfer portal. 

“I’m still exploring all these options,” he said.

Goldstein and Juul plan to stay at Harvard, but they’re not sure what that looks like yet. The deadline to drop classes without record was the day before the announcement, so taking the semester off from school isn’t an option.

Both Goldstein and Juul are from Pennsylvania, and Tuntivate is from Delaware, so there’s a chance they go home. The track team might also take an unofficial training trip somewhere together. 

While the teammates waited for their belongings to be picked up and taken into storage, anything seemed possible.

“For students who don’t have the resources to either fly home at the drop of a hat, or store their things, or find alternative housing, I cannot even imagine how stressful that would be,” Juul said.

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