Early mornings, late nights, countless hours of training. And now, perhaps nothing to show for it.
That’s a glimpse at the uncertainty for college athletes across the country who have had seasons derailed. In some cases, their programs have even been cut altogether as schools react to the health risks and financial ripples of COVID-19.
The pandemic has shaken the college sports scene to its core, dealing an emotional blow to athletes as they’re forced to stay on their toes about the status of their careers.
Some college football conferences have made a loud return to action, but many athletes in lower revenue sports – the runners, swimmers, golfers, and soccer players – are still waiting to take the field or hear if they’ll be able to compete again.
Many athletic conferences have pushed non-football fall sports to the spring. But with CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield saying a vaccine won’t be widely available until mid-2021, even that timeframe could make it difficult to restart sports en masse while keeping everyone safe.
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Between the decisions made by schools, conferences, local and state officials or the CDC itself, the fates of so many athletic careers rest in the hands of higher powers.
Some students have already been dealt disappointing results.
‘A total slap in the face’
Wrestlers at Old Dominion, swimmers at UConn and baseball players at Boise State are all in the same boat. So are athletes from 11 different athletic programs at Stanford and seven different teams at George Washington.
They’re among the dozens of programs that have been cut by colleges this year, leaving athletes with a nerve-wracking decision: To stay at their school or transfer to continue playing the sport they love.
Connor LaMastra is one of those athletes.
He spent his junior swimming season littering his name across the Dartmouth record books. He broke school records in three individual events. He was on the fastest 800-yard freestyle relay in program history. And after delivering what he called his most successful conference championships as an individual, he was named captain for the 2020-2021 season.
The stage had been set for LaMastra – a swimmer since he was 5 years old – to have a senior season he could cherish when his swimming days were over.
Connor LaMastra was named captain for the Dartmouth swim team before the program was abruptly cut. (Photo: Provided by Connor LaMastra)
When administrators scheduled a mid-summer Zoom call with athletes from five athletic programs, swimming included, LaMastra thought they might learn their season was canceled. But the news was heavier than that.
Dartmouth cut the swimming and diving programs completely. Men’s and women’s golf and men’s lightweight rowing were done too, effective immediately.
“I closed my laptop, and I just walked outside and sat down. I was totally incapable of processing what had just happened,” he said. “It was a total slap in the face.”
In the days and weeks after the bombshell had been dropped, he said his teammates dealt with a swirl of anger and sadness. Some tried to organize efforts to save the program. Some went quiet for days at a time.
“And with the pandemic going on, we couldn’t even comfort each other, really,” LaMastra said.
Having a program cut in normal times is a grueling process for an athlete. Experts say the isolation that comes with a pandemic only amplifies the stress and, in some cases, sadness, prompted by paused sports seasons.
“Our athletes are so accustomed to being connected to teams, and to their coaches, and to their larger support systems, and this has shifted that,” said Abigail Eiler, who leads a team of athletic counselors at the University of Michigan.
Aside from the loneliness, the isolation of a pandemic can trigger self-doubt in an athlete, said Dr. Lisa Post, a licensed psychologist who directs a clinical program for Athletes at Stanford University. As opposed to getting in-person guidance from friends, teammates and coaches, that feedback is now coming more often from the internet or social media, where perceptions can be distorted, she said.
And then, there’s the unpredictability and suddenness of it all.
Dartmouth’s decision upended short- and long-term plans for dozens of athletes and led LaMastra to what he called the “worst decision” he’s ever had to make. He was faced to pick between being with the people he loved at a school he’d grown to adore, or looking elsewhere to pursue his swimming career, a sport that he said makes him happy and gives him purpose.
A situation like that, where one is essentially placed at a life-altering crossroads, can strike up significant identity questions, Post said.
“To me, it’s one of the biggest decisions you’re ever going to make in your life,” the Stanford psychologist said. “It’s always good to think about your second career, if you will… who are you, in addition to being the athlete?”
LaMastra reluctantly entered the NCAA transfer portal, soon deciding on Northwestern as his landing spot. It’s another school well-renowned in academics and even represents a step up in terms of competition in the pool, but the emotional effects of leaving behind friends and teammates at a place he loved still resonate.
Typically, when people commit to a college they celebrate, the 21-year-old said. But this was different for him.
“I was so upset. It was incredibly bittersweet,” he said. “I just couldn’t see myself enjoying my college career without swimming.”
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LaMastra’s path is a glimpse at the emotional crisis facing many college athletes who have dedicated years to playing their sport.
Eiler’s team of athletic counselors has seen an increased level of stress in athletes at Michigan, she said. Some athletes at the school are still waiting for news from the Big Ten on when they’ll be able to play again.
Meanwhile, the conference gave the green light for football to kick off in October.
“That’s definitely a tough piece of it, and it’s frustrating,” said Big Ten athlete Sam Coffey, a senior captain on the Penn State women’s soccer team. The Nittany Lions had their fall season postponed back in August and have yet to find out when they’ll be able to take the field.
Even before the pandemic hit, the team had goals of winning a national championship this year, which made it “heartbreaking” to have that energy taken away in early August, Coffey said. The team is back on campus and training for a title, but there still remains the uncertainty of when they’ll be able make a run at their goal.
“I decided a while ago that I’m not spending my mental energy or my time in worrying about the timeline,” Coffey said. “The more I invest in that uncertainty, the more exhausted and depleted and drained I become. So, I really try my best to not even go there.”
Coffey and her teammates are just a handful of thousands of fall athletes, from those at the D-III level to the Pac-12 and Big East, that are forced to reckon with new timelines and widespread uncertainty. For those athletes, Post says, it’s important to prioritize activities that reduce one’s vulnerability to negative emotions.
“A lot of those are really the basics: balanced sleep, balanced eating, getting some sunshine, not doing mood-altering drugs.” Post said. “Doing things that make you feel successful and in-control, that’s a major thing.”
Coffey said the initial news about their season getting postponed was “devastating” and it produced a lot of racing thoughts. But she has since taken it as an opportunity to “get ahead.”
“We do have a choice when it comes to how we approach training, how we continue to talk about our goals, how to continue to build our team culture, how we approach every single day,” she said. “That time is still going to come when we’re back on the field together.”
Follow Jay Cannon of USA TODAY on Twitter: @JayTCannon
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