COVID Contaminates Fall Sports
Trees and sky blur into one as the rhythmic tempo of shoes striking the pavement quickens. The park falls away, leaving the ground ahead in sole, stark focus. In each stride, the power of months spent training in anticipation of races that never came. In each breath, the endurance built through countless long and lonely miles. In each pulse, the faith that the grind will not go unnoticed. Speeding across the grass, she banks around a small curve and tears into the final straightaway of the repeat. Her lungs feel like bursting, her mouth and nose smothered by a mask. She races across her finish line - winded and triumphant.
This is Norma Alvarez, lead runner at Santee EC and two-time Los Angeles City Section Division 2 Cross-Country Champion.
Alvarez, now a senior, was at the top of her game during last spring’s track season. She was working toward running a big PR, and her dedication showed in her times early on in the season. Unfortunately, her season - and the goals she had set for her junior year - came to an abrupt end when much of the world was forced into quarantine by the onslaught of COVID-19.
Alvarez continues to train. She runs alone, always with a mask, in the same park, every day. It’s repetitive, and Alvarez hates running alone. Many of her workouts are demanding without a mask; with one, it's 10 times as exhausting. “It’s a love-hate relationship right now,” she says. “But I love running so much. This has made me really appreciate it more.”
Still, crushing workouts in the park is not enough. Alvarez wants to race.
Athletes everywhere are anticipating a return to high school sports, but it’s not that simple. At Eagle Rock High School, Athletic Director Richard Martinez, says he expects a return to in-person practices will be a “logistical nightmare.” Entirely unprecedented conditions demand the creation of new plans that balance the orders of two distinct entities, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) and LAUSD. While the CIF anticipates a return to competition in accordance with their updated 2020-21 Sports Calendar, the LAUSD makes no promises. “There has been no definitive word from the LAUSD other than, ‘You cannot work in person with athletes,’” Martinez says.
When athletics do resume in district schools, Martinez cites the top concerns as gym usage, monitoring athletes during practices, and adhering to district and state-wide protocols. “We’ll need to take temperatures, engage in socially distanced practices, find the space to do work, and place limits on the number of athletes meeting with a coach at any particular time,” he says.
Spreading athletes out requires both a larger practice area and a sizable staff. These needs raise questions over the economic discrepancies between different schools’ athletic programs. COVID restrictions likely will limit the number of athletes supervised by a single coach. The more funding a program has to field a larger staff, the more athletes will be able to participate. “Different programs will suffer differently,” explains Martinez, who is also the cross country and track coach at Eagle Rock. “It will be a lot harder with a smaller program with less staff and facilities … Private schools and schools that might have more money to hire coaches will have the advantage.”
Martinez anticipates obstacles, but he does not predict defeat. Though “some challenges will be worked out and some will be building the plane as we fly,” he characterizes the tough situation as a chance for growth. “It will be a good opportunity to exercise patience, to figure out things down the line, and to learn from challenges,” Martinez says.
Other schools already sidestepped several of these concerns. At Harvard-Westlake, a private school in west Los Angeles, in-person academic instruction remains on hold. But athletic practices began on August 24 under what Jason Kelly, Athletic Director of Communications, terms “very strict social distance guidelines.” Coaches enforce the 6-feet policy, athletes are distributed into small pods, and masks must be worn except when performing exercise requiring heavy exertion. Sports may look different, but here, at least, they continue.
So what does Harvard-Westlake have that Eagle Rock does not? Notably, tuition to Harvard-Westlake’s Upper School, a 22-acre campus of nearly 900 students, ranges from $45,000 to $50,000 annually. A bigger budget benefits everyone, athletes included. At Harvard-Westlake, this translates into a staff boasting four athletic directors (on top of a Head of Athletics and his Executive Assistant), four sports medicine trainers, three sports performance coaches, four additional athletics program administrative staff, a sports psychologist, and 22 program heads for each of the varsity sports offered on campus. The facilities at the Upper School include an NFL-caliber turf field, a 6-lane synthetic track, and a 7-lane, 50-meter pool.
Harvard-Westlake’s deep pockets give the school a leg up in ordinary times. In the age of COVID-19, money talks even more. The procedures introduced at the school’s August 20 Athletics Town Hall highlight the cost of a smooth re-entry. Prior to attending practices, athletes respond to a health screening questionnaire and complete a check-in, both via the school-built iHW app. All activities take place outdoors. Although this raised concerns regarding temperature spikes, on-site athletic trainers stand by to escort athletes experiencing heat illness symptoms to prepared cold tubs. If athletes can’t make the school’s mid-afternoon practices, the athletic performance staff records regular workout videos available online.
And when Harvard-Westlake does begin allowing more students on campus, school leaders plan on instituting a policy of universal testing. With the price of a COVID-19 diagnostic test running anywhere from $20 to $850 with an average list price of $127 and some 65% of Harvard-Westlake’s 1,620 students involved in interscholastic sports, this safety precaution doesn’t come cheap.
Private schools are not alone in returning to sports routines. After several months without practice and matches, the SoCal Blues-F.C. Golden State Girls 2004 soccer team resumed in-person training this fall. Though the Blues met regularly for workouts and film sessions via Zoom, it simply wasn’t the same. “It was really hard, honestly,” says defender Isabel Hyman of quarantine. “Soccer is a team sport, so it’s crucial that you practice with your team. Not being able to practice will definitely hurt us in the long run.”
In addition to impacting the team’s performance, a lack of spring and summer matches also affected individual players’ recruitment processes. Players are doing what they can to contact college coaches and scouts - like sending highlights pulled from the previous season’s games. But they’re still unable to play any matches. “It’s going to be a lot harder for us to get recognized and recruited than in past years ... We’re a team of mainly juniors, so we’re lucky to still have our senior year,” Hyman says.
Others are not so lucky. Santee’s Norma Alvarez expected to run big times in track this past spring. “Junior year was supposed to be the year I shined,” she says. “My times in the first races were good, and I wanted to go under 5 [minutes in the mile].” She expects to run in college and had hoped that running a sub-5 minute mile would put her on the radar of some bigger-name Division 1 universities. Then quarantine happened, and the opportunities to compete - and achieve a personal record - dissipated.
Still, while all runners stopped racing, Alvarez has not stopped running. She is putting in the work now to make the most of her senior season. A single park and a single athlete: It isn’t the season she hoped for. It isn’t a season yet at all.