Island’s student athletes adjust to COVID-19 modifications

Evansville’s Joseph Maxwell, a University of Tennessee student, hurls a shot put at a competition last year.

MANITOULIN – The world of academia has largely been able to adapt to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic but some of Manitoulin’s promising student athletes say they are still preparing for their fall semesters despite the uncertainty of a world where public health constraints have cancelled or dampened athletics across the globe.

“My school hasn’t cancelled anything yet but we have quite a big budget, so we’re better off than a lot of places that have cancelled sports,” said Evansville’s Joseph Maxwell, a shot putter at University of Tennessee. “It’s tough because these schools have not been getting the ticket sales they anticipated.”

Mr. Maxwell is going into his fifth year at the Knoxville institution as a marketing major with a minor soon coming to his studies. He is on an athletics scholarship to the American school and the shot put season remains uncertain at this point.

Many American school athletic conferences have cancelled all of their fall sports, including football—a major part of US post-secondary life and a considerable revenue generator. However, at the Southeastern Conference, of which University of Tennessee is a member, practices are continuing with more distancing between members and matches restricted to local teams.

Shot put is a spring-season sport, meaning Mr. Maxwell would mainly spend his fall months—when not in class—training with fellow athletes in groups of up to 50 people. Classes have switched to virtual delivery at University of Tennessee for the fall, meaning he can keep up with his studies from the relative safety of Manitoulin Island, but he has to train independently.

Mr. Maxwell has built some home workout equipment and said he got used to solo training in his high school days. Tennessee also let him take some training equipment home with him when he drove north in April.

He was one course shy of graduating this spring and opted to spread out his education to include an extra year, partly to accommodate his added minor, but said he had “no regrets at all” about extending his schooling despite the pandemic.

“I’ve loved my time there and as long as my (athletics) scholarship is available at Tennessee, I’m very happy to be there and competing there. I’m going to stretch it out as long as I can,” he said.

The University of Tennessee has assured Mr. Maxwell and other athletics students that they will not lose their scholarships even if future seasons get cancelled.

Mr. Maxwell said he would feel comfortable returning in the spring if the US can better control its COVID-19 caseload by then; the outdoor shot put season starts in March.

The changes have been substantial for the athlete who has Olympic aspirations, given the interruptions to his usual training routine and the increase in the Olympic distance standard by more than half a metre to 21.10 metres.

However, Mr. Maxwell said he was determined to keep focused on his goals and working toward the Canadian Olympic team for the next summer games.

Closer to home, COVID-19 led Ontario University Athletics to cancel all sports until the end of 2020 at the earliest.

For Little Current’s Sydney Koehler, who was preparing to begin her post-secondary career as a Nipissing University Lakers volleyball team member, the changes haven’t dampened her enthusiasm to begin the next phase of her life.

“I’m still super excited to go, practice and train with the team even though there’s a possibility that we won’t have a season,” said Ms. Koehler. “It really sucks because it’s my first year and I might not get to play or experience the true feel, but all of us (on the team) are just keeping our hopes up and doing everything we can to prep just in case (the second half of the season goes ahead).”

The volleyball season starts in late October and stretches into the late winter, meaning the team will lose at least half of its season due to the pandemic restrictions.

A Nipissing University statement reads that the school intends to restart athletics as soon as it is safe and encouraged student athletes to prepare to return. 

The school will deliver most classes online and has begun to open its residence units for students who must be on site. The campus is only presently available for a core number of employees and students who require specific in-person services but Ms. Koehler is moving into a small apartment-style suite this coming Monday, August 31.

The team has stayed connected virtually and coaches keep regular contact with the players. The team meets every two weeks for a Zoom gathering where coaches share updates on the province-wide restrictions from Ontario University Athletics. Coaching staff also send regular emails to the players when important issues come up in between meetings.

The team has also risen to the challenge of training while physically distanced. The Lakers use an app called TeamBuildr to allow their conditioning coach to send virtual workout instructions to all players.

Earlier in the summer such workouts consumed as many as six days per week; this has since dropped to two. Ms. Koehler said she began training virtually with the team since shortly after she signed to the Lakers in May.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to get back into a gym; I’ve gone five months without volleyball and I’m definitely really anxious to start training again to get back to where I left off,” she said. “I’m also just really excited to finally meet all the girls in person.”

Ontario University Athletics stated on its website that it has yet to make any decisions about the winter term but that it continues to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation in Ontario and with its colleagues in other provinces.