Despite challenges, a renewed sense of promise accompanies the return to practices
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early March, Washington University sports teams have resumed practices. Practices are a far cry from normal, but they have provided some sense of normalcy for athletes who have missed their routines for months.
The return of athletic activities comes amidst continued uncertainty over what intercollegiate competition will look like in the coming year, as Wash. U. teams are unlikely to play games until at least January.
The return required significant planning, as Director of Athletics Anthony Azama noted in a statement that the department has worked “closely with the University COVID Monitoring committee to design meaningful team-related engagement activities to meet the campus, St. Louis county and city guidelines while simultaneously complying to NCAA resocialization guiding principles.”
As a result, the practices themselves have taken on a new look. With new social distancing guidelines in place, athletes have been forced to adapt and reshape their training regimens.
For senior Christina Passerell, a forward on the women’s basketball team, the new practices have proved challenging. Though the team was recently granted limited access to the Sumers Recreation Center basketball courts for shooting practice, practices are still non-contact in order to comply with University regulations. “Usually we’d jump right in on October 15 and compete in scrimmages,” Passerell said. “I definitely do miss playing pickup. It’s always a lot of fun to do.”
Nevertheless, Passerell maintained a positive overall outlook on the season. “We are really just trying to focus on making the most out of the season, having fun, and doing what we can do to succeed,” she said.
Some teams, such as track and field, had spent the majority of their pre-pandemic practices outdoors—making the transition to COVID-era practices slightly less daunting. Still, in order to adhere to University standards, the Track team has split into a number of smaller event-specific pods, each of which practices together.
Sejal Rajamani is a sophomore who hurdles for the track team. Though Rajamani noted that hurdling in a mask is noticeably more difficult, she also credits the new, smaller-scale practices with bringing the team closer together. “Our little event groups have actually made the freshmen feel a lot more comfortable,” Rajamani said. “I know last year, for me as a freshman, because there were so many people on the team, I was a little intimidated. But this year, because our groups are so much smaller, you get to know the people in your event group a lot better because you’re spending so much time with them.”
Whether there will be conference and non-conference competition remains undecided. For track and field, it appears likely that outdoor events and races will continue in some shape or form. Rajamani, however, noted the difficulty of fitting a number of schools’ track teams—each of which has more than 100 athletes—into an indoor facility, making it unlikely that the Bears will get to compete inside this winter.
For sports that can only be played indoors, such as basketball, a number of proposals are on the table. Men’s basketball junior forward Justin Hardy said that the team hopes to compete in some capacity, noting the potential for a winter break bubble where teams come together to play. “Still, we’re definitely looking at a shortened season,” Hardy said.
In spite of the lack of schedule clarity, Hardy and the Wash. U. men’s basketball team has a championship in its sights. The Bears had made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in the spring before the pandemic cut the playoffs short. “While there’s so much more to this game than just winning a championship, our eyes are on the big prize,” he said. “We’re committed to making that happen.”
For Hardy, Rajamani and Passerell, the potential to still compete for the Bears has not gone unnoticed. “Never take this game for granted—you don’t really realize what that means until it’s gone,” Hardy said. “We all kind of got to experience that being stripped from us and I think that we all kind of feel that sense of urgency now. That our time together is that much more valuable.”