Pandemic amplifies mental health struggles in already vulnerable young athletes

By Dan Moberger
Medill Reports

At 5:30 p.m. on a muggy Tuesday in mid-July, parents dropped off their teenage daughters at Fleet Fields, a parking lot converted to basketball courts in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. Flanked by industrial-looking brick buildings on three sides, the blacktop has afforded an attractive, open-air training grounds for Flow Basketball Academy during the pandemic.

The thermometer read 83 degrees when practice began, and sparse, wispy clouds decorated the otherwise clear blue sky, leaving the sun an unimpeded lane to the young athletes. Not long after coach and co-owner Korie Hlede started running the team through drills, sweat beaded up on the brows and arms of players. None of them wore a mask.

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Where are they now: Catching up with former Olympic figure skater Rachael Flatt

By Olivia Lee
Medill Reports

In early 2014, Olympic figure skater Rachael Flatt sat in her hotel lobby in Boston. She was surrounded by friends, family and former competitors, all scarfing down cannoli from one of Flatt’s favorite little hot spots in the city, Mike’s Pastry. With glasses of champagne raised, they toasted to Flatt, her final performance at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships and her retirement.

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Women’s professional sports leagues utilize social media to continue pre-pandemic growth

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler stands against the blue backdrop of a team-themed blanket, staring into a camera to address nearly 1,000 fans sitting in front of their screens on the other end of a Zoom call on Thursday, April 30, 2020.

It’s the annual unveiling of the new team’s jerseys, called a, “Kit Launch,” and it was supposed to be the largest ever jersey unveiling event, where 250 fans would gather at Pinstripes on Chicago’s riverfront raising their signature cocktails to toast what should’ve been the start of the most exciting season of the National Women’s Soccer League yet. While the in-person event would’ve been more fun, the online version of it attracted more fans from across the country.

The room for growth in women’s sports exceeds men’s. Before the pandemic’s impact, Deloitte projected that the rise of women’s sports in 2020 would dominate the sports industry and that “sponsors should consider getting involved now to capitalize on the new opportunities and avenues for engagement that this growth area may create.”

On March 12, that dream of a record-breaking season came to a halt when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, making the NBA the first domino to fall in what was a chain of professional sports postponements and cancellations. The pandemic’s impact was especially disheartening for women’s professional sports, where teams were anxious to continue their pre-pandemic growth.

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Kayla Caudle impacts lives one basketball bounce at a time

By Caroline Kurdej
Medill Reports

There’s a reason the hallway leading to Doug Bruno’s office is decorated with hard hats, lunch pails and pictures of steelworkers. “I want my players to walk out the door here, knowing there’s a real-life world out there,” Bruno said.

Kayla Caudle, a rising sophomore on DePaul University’s women’s basketball team, brings a contagious blue-collar work ethic to every day of practice, regardless of her station on the Blue Demon hierarchy.

“Just like work ethic is contagious inside of practice, the willingness to be a servant is also contagious,” Bruno said. “That she cares about serving her fellow humans is contagious as well.”

Caudle’s personal philosophy reflects in her double major of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies and Political Science. Her social justice roots intertwine with DePaul’s Vincentian mission.

Bruno reflects DePaul’s Vincentian values in his belief that true leadership is founded on service. “She is a true service leader,” Bruno said. Caudle’s service extends into not only the local Chicago community, but hundreds of miles overseas.

DePaul’s basketball players aren’t just talented athletes, “they’re players that are even better people,” Bruno said, “and value what St. Vincent de Paul is all about — service to others.”

Kayla Caudle playing basketball on a mission trip in Uganda at the St. Jerome COVE Primary School. (Courtesy of the Caudle family)

“I’m an able-bodied, healthy basketball player,” Caudle said, “who has the opportunity in the world. What am I doing with that?”

Caudle’s family has had orphanages and churches in Haiti for generations — Kayla’s “great grandfather, times five,” from her mother’s side was the emperor of Haiti. Caudle directly descends from Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution. “So my family believes,” she said with a laugh.

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Senior student-athletes react to NCAA cancellations

By Sally Ehrmann
Medill Reports

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)

A world without sports

By Tony Garcia, Yousef Nasser, Josh Skinner and Allegra Zamore
Medill Reports

In a matter of hours, the sports world changed. This half-hour documentary recounts those harrowing days leading up to the cancellation of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and how COVID-19 changed the sports landscape as we know it. From Texas to Germany, from collegiate swimmers to a sports psychologist, we set out to tell the stories of those in the sports world affected by the coronavirus.

Photo at top: A World Without Sports.(Leila Nasser)

Personal trainer adapts to stay-at-home orders

By Allegra Zamore
Medill Reports

Personal trainers and fitness instructors are finding new ways to reach clients in their homes. Caitlin Akey, a personal trainer and Orangetheory Fitness coach, has been offering donation-based workout classes to keep her fitness community motivated over the last few months. Akey tells Medill Reports how she plans to ease into coaching in person once stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Photo at top: Caitlin Akey leads workout class on Zoom. (Caitlin Akey/Orangetheory Fitness)

College football recruits commit to uncertainty

By Dave Peck
Medill Reports

When a high schooler commits to playing college football, they do so expecting a season. That’s not the case for this year’s class of recruits. For incoming freshman Jacob Horigan and transfer Max Jacobs, the decision to play football for Bowdoin College came amid the most unusual circumstances.

Photo at top: Avonworth High School’s Jacob Horigan tumbles into the endzone. (Jacob Horigan/Avonworth)

Weathering the storm: Live streaming with no events

By Yousef Nasser
Medill Reports

When former Washington Post high school sports writer B.J. Koubaroulis realized that media consumption habits were changing, he decided to start his own business. Named Synthesis Multimedia Productions, Koubaroulis’s company specializes in the digital production of live sporting events. However, as a result of COVID-19, there are no longer any live events or sports to cover. Here’s how Koubaroulis is looking ahead.

Photo at top: Sideline reporter Jeremy Huber interviews Gonzaga College High School head coach Steve Turner during a live broadcast of the 2017 Capital Classic. (Courtesy of B.J. Koubaroulis/Synthesis Multimedia Productions)