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When his flight touched down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the 2020 NCAA Indoor Championships on March 12, it didn’t take Penn head track and field coach Steve Dolan long to find out it would be a quick trip—after he turned on his phone, he received a notification that the meet was off. He and his two athletes would be turning right around the next day and flying back to the east coast.
The NCAA Indoor Championships were part of the wave of cancelations in the sports world in response to the global pandemic of COVID-19. And, like other sports, it brought an abrupt end to competition and plenty of questions about what came next.
For NCAA track and field, it extended beyond those championships. On that same Thursday in March, spring sports were called off, campuses closed, and classes moved online. The NCAA prohibited organized practices for sports.
Dolan, and coaches throughout the NCAA, were forced to figure out what coaching looks like when you can’t meet with your athletes and you don’t know exactly what you are training for.
“Everyone builds with a goal in mind, and right now, the goal isn’t so clear,” Dolan said.
“We had a lot of people dreaming about this season.”
In the days that followed, Dolan began contacting his athletes. He led with questions.
“In your heart and in your mind, what type of training do you feel comfortable doing right now and do you want to be doing now?”
This involved taking inventory on what resources were available. Some athletes have access to a park or weights; others do not.
“I think we are all kind of regrouping right now. To say, ‘hey, what does this mean?’ Dolan said.
“Are there really going to be meets? Is there value to try and train at that level, especially in a time that we need to stay safe and keep social distance?”
The issue of meets is one that is evolving constantly. When the Penn Relays announced they were canceling the 126th edition of the meet, they floated the idea of a replacement meet in May or June.
“We would love to host something later in the summer if it was safe and if it felt right, but each day it seems more and more challenging as things unfold,” Dolan said.
Columbia University, located in New York City, sits in the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. As of Friday morning, the city had 51,809 cases, including 1,562 deaths.
Three of Columbia’s athletes are still on campus (Columbia has made accommodations for athletes who can’t go home). The other 100 on the roster went home—some in the city, but most in other parts of the world. Like Dolan at Penn, Columbia coach Dan Ireland spoke individually with athletes to see what resources they had.
“Some of our kids have full home gyms in their basement, other kids have absolutely nothing. Some kids have tracks they can get on. Some, the tracks are locked. We went around and basically collected information from all the event groups,” Ireland said.
In New York, and other cities throughout the country, the shelter-in-place orders caused a flood of people seeking fresh air outdoors. That’s made maintaining social distance a challenge.
“You go to the park, and I’ve never seen it more crowded,” Ireland said. “Because everybody is home in the city, and when everyone goes for a walk, they are packed with people, and you are trying to stay six feet apart, but it’s just crazy,” Ireland said.
Ireland opted to break training into two-week chunks, ensuring the coaching staff remains in communication with the team. There’s also a fear of overdoing it during a time of stress on the hospital system. Non-elective procedures have been canceled in many hospitals throughout the country. X-rays and MRIs aren’t an option. And athletes who were counting on a procedure this spring may have to wait.
“They feel if they are missing something, they are falling behind. So our bigger issue is, you know, 'Hey, just relax—if you miss two weeks of mileage right now, it’s not going to kill you. The next time you are racing for something that matters is probably October. If you are a track person, it’s not until January.'” Ireland said.
“Let’s look at this like a 'July: get healthy, get strong and start thinking about the fall.' But you can’t start (training) for cross country in March.”
Utah coach Kyle Kepler is adjusting to his new routine. He’s learning to use Zoom for team meetings, checking in with individual athletes and pushing his two kids in a running stroller every morning.
“I might be as fit as I’ve ever been in the last 10 years,” Kepler said.
He’s been impressed with how his athletes have dealt with their lives being turned upside down.
“That age group (college-age) is critical to this pandemic. We asked them to step up and be leaders in that regard.”
Kepler recently sent a message to two fellow coaches asking how they were approaching coaching their teams during this time.
“I think we are all asking each other, 'What do we do? Do we keep them doing track workouts, trying to imitate the season or do we pull back a little bit, let them catch their breath and maybe start the long cross country build?'” Kepler said.
The consensus? There wasn’t one.
For now, the priority is making sure students are academically and emotionally supported. But running does have its place.
“It’s something that keeps them in their routine and keeps things as normal as can be in a time like this when nothing is normal,” Kepler said.
There are also more complicated issues to sort out about the future. The NCAA granted an extra season of eligibility for the spring season due to the cancelations. But that doesn’t mean every senior is going to return. Some have already been admitted to a grad school program; others are just ready to move on. Coaches have begun having discussions about who plans to come back for 2021.
“There might be less seniors that want to come back than originally thought,” Kepler said.
Columbia and Penn are part of the Ivy League and are thus in a different situation. There are no athletic scholarships or medical redshirt years. Still, Ireland sees the issues that could arise throughout the NCAA.
“Will the athletic department have the money? Will the track team have the money for five extra scholarships?” Ireland said.
“There’s someone graduating whose scholarship was promised to an incoming freshman.”
The time away from campus halted the hectic NCAA travel schedule. This forced break has given them more time with families and some time to focus on the tasks that often get pushed aside--updating the team website and all-time lists.
But coaches want to coach. This period of social separation has magnified just how much value there is in the simple daily interactions.
“The best part of my day is the couple hours a day I get to go out to the track and interact with the students. We are watching them chase their dream. Helping them, guiding them through workouts. That’s the hard part,” Dolan said.