By Sally Ehrmann
Jason Kerst sat alone in the University of Iowa men’s tennis locker room winding down from an intense workout. Amidst the black and yellow equipment and Hawkeye tennis displays, Kerst received a screenshot of the NCAA’s announcement on March 12 that winter and spring sports were canceled the rest of the academic year because of COVID-19 concerns.
Kerst had an overwhelming reaction, bombarded with emotions. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. Calls and texts flooded into his inbox.
“Honestly, I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to deal with it at the time,” Kerst said. “I left my phone behind and sat on our courts. There was no one there at the time. So, I sat there, stared into space and thought and prayed about all of it.”
Kerst is one student-athlete among more than 460,000 who saw their futures changed that March day. The decision affected 32 teams at more than 350 Division I schools. And for senior student-athletes like Kerst, the following weeks led to emotional turmoil as they said goodbye to their college careers while making plans for the next few years amidst a pandemic.
Student-athletes share widespread feelings of shock, confusion and disbelief over the decision to completely cancel competition. Wisconsin women’s golfer Eloise Healey said she expected some sort of cancellation but not the measures taken.
Healey scrambled to understand what it all meant. As an international student from Liverpool, England, she had to consider if she should stay in Madison with teammates, go home and what it would all mean for her golf career. Soon after, she heard the U.S. planned a European travel ban. She spent the next four days packing up four years of her life to go home to England. Her sheets and comforter remain on the bed in her apartment in Madison.
“I was very emotional,” Healey said. “I didn’t know if school was going to restart. Is graduation even happening at this point? Am I ever going to come back? In the space of four days, I had to say goodbye to everyone and everything.”
Soon after the cancellation, student-athletes at schools across the country joined forces to petition the NCAA to grant another year of eligibility. The Division I Council did allow a special waiver for spring student-athletes. However, students competing in winter sports faced the realization their college careers were suddenly over.
Evan Cheek, a redshirt senior wrestler at Cleveland State University, had visions of an NCAA championship in his head. But he said he feels grateful to have been a part of his team for the last five years even if it wasn’t the ending he expected.
“If it wasn’t for wrestling, I honestly wouldn’t have thought about coming to college,” Cheek said. “I wasn’t super big into school in high school. Now I get to see everything I’ve done since then. College sports to some people might not even be about the sport. It might really be the reason they go to school.”
While winter sports ended, spring student-athletes considered what to do with the option of another year of eligibility.
Elizabeth Elder, a redshirt senior on Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse team, had long conversations with her parents about the possibility of her returning for another year. However, past injuries led her to decline the extra eligibility.
“It’s just been such a dream,” Elder said. “Since I was nine, I started telling my family and friends that I was going to play lacrosse at Northwestern. From that point on, I did everything in my power to make that happen. It was me living out a childhood dream.”
Not all student-athletes had the chance to utilize the NCAA’s waiver. The Ivy League announced in early April it would not allow senior student-athletes back. The University of Wisconsin’s athletic director, Barry Alvarez, made a similar decision to refuse the waiver for fourth-year student-athletes.
For Amy Davis, a Wisconsin women’s cross country and track and field runner, Alvarez’s decision is filled with pain.
“Camp Randall can be a very secure place for some people,” Davis said. “When you take a secure place away, where it’s really like one of the only for sure things in our lives, that’s really difficult.”
Uncertainty is an uncomfortable reality for many student-athletes right now. Sports psychologist Michelle Cleere sees the fear of the unknown being a significant cause of mental stress for student-athletes during this pandemic.
“Athletes are losing a piece of their identity,” Cleere said. “So, it’s ‘Ok, what do I do now? What do I do in the meantime?’ while moving through this. … Many times people don’t understand what it feels like to be in this place of ‘Well, I was just training and competing and now I’m not.’ Which is a very difficult, sudden transition.”
Finding new goals and ways to stay motivated is the key to getting over the hump of the fear of the unknown, Cleere said. For the 22 and 23-year old student-athletes, they can look to their future careers to stay inspired beyond the pandemic.
Davis said she would like to begin a professional running career with guidance from former coaches but is also considering graduate school to be a part of collegiate recruiting in the future. Healey said she plans on transferring to another American university to finish two years of collegiate eligibility before earning her LPGA card.
Elder is finishing a master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern through December. Kerst declined an internship to return to Iowa and finish his final year of tennis. Cheek will coach high school wrestling in Cleveland once sports are back.
Amidst the confusion, pain, frustration, anger and loss, many student-athletes remain hopeful. They realize that life, eventually, will return to a semblance of normal.
“It would be easier to be super upset and depressed about it,” Elder said. “And, at first I was. But, I have my house. My family is healthy. There’s a lot bigger stuff going on.”
Photo at top: Tennis courts on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus sit empty with no nets, a symbol of the NCAA canceling winter and spring sports for the remainder of the school year. (Sally Ehrmann/MEDILL)