In the third week of February, the COVID Leadership Team denied the Wheaton Wrestling Team’s request to compete in a national tournament. In many respects, the decision wasn’t surprising. National competition, with the challenges it poses to social distancing and contact tracing, flies in the face of the college’s pandemic protocols. And yet, because the wrestling team had navigated conference play without any athletes contracting the virus, team members thought there still might be a chance.
“We made it an entire wrestling season kind of being the unwanted stepchild of sports with the high contact and everybody thinking if going to blow up, it’s going to blow up with wrestling,” said Head Wrestling Coach Jim Gruenwald.
Throughout the regular season, each wrestler had to obtain three negative test results per week to maintain conference eligibility. They also had to mask unless they were actively wrestling on the mat. Ethan Harsted, a junior communications major, described the annoyances of competing and practicing with strict restrictions.
“ weird trying to warm up with masks on. You feel really out of shape, you can’t breathe at all. The protocols are pretty extreme for the most part,” Harsted said. The measures, however tedious, proved successful. The team did not have a single positive COVID case during the season.
Wheaton placed fourth out of nine teams at the CCIW championships on Feb. 13. Following the tournament, the team hoped that there would be an opportunity to compete nationally. When the NCAA decided to cancel the national tournament, the National Wrestling Coaches Association, a non-profit organization independent of the NCAA that’s dedicated to the promotion of ameteur wrestling, began planning an alternative tournament for the top 32 wrestlers in each weight class. This alternative championship was set to take place March 12-13.
Coach Gruenwald is president of the D3 leadership group that helped put together the alternate NCWA tournament. Gruenwald was hoping the COVID Leadership Team, a group of staff and administrators that makes decisions at the college level related to COVID-19 safety, would allow them to compete, especially given the fact that they had competed safely throughout the season.
“We were hoping that the college would look at the data, see that we had wrestled conference with zero COVID cases, that we’d gone our entire season with zero COVID cases,” said Gruenwald. Ultimately, Wheaton’s COVID leadership team decided against it.
Paul Chelsen, Vice President for Student Development and one of the administrators on the leadership team, said in an email to the Record that the CDC has discouraged out-of-state travel and that very few groups have been granted permission to travel off campus.
“Winter athletic teams were given permission to a limited competition schedule with other colleges in the CCIW with the understanding that other colleges were following the same COVID protocols,” Chelsen wrote. “For these reasons, national tournament participation for any winter sport was not in view from the beginning of the modified season.”
But this reasoning didn’t lessen the emotional blow of losing the chance to compete at a national competition.
“We had these high expectations and we were really excited that they were going to go ahead with the national tournament. The only approval we needed was Wheaton’s, and Wheaton said ‘No,’” said Hunter Harrison, a senior business economics major.
Harsted said missing the national tournament was a major letdown. Harsted injured his knee shortly before last year’s NCAA championships and would have been unable to compete even if the national tournament hadn’t been canceled due to the pandemic. “I’ve been wrestling since I was six years old, so it’s been a part of my life for a very long time, and my biggest goal was to win a national title. Having that taken away from me is brutal.”
The decision to prevent the team from participating in the NCWA tournament came mostly from COVID safety concerns. Wheaton’s existing rules for wrestling competitions include no overnight stays and no competition outside of the conference. A national championship was out of the picture on both counts. Athletic director Julie Davis confirmed by email that these regulations applied to wrestling and other sports that might have participated nationally.
Both Harsted and Harrison expressed frustration that the administration didn’t try harder to find a way to let them compete safely.
“I know that they definitely could have made it happen if they wanted to, if they were willing to take suggestions, work with us,” Harrison said. He says coaches offered to have athletes sleep in buses instead of hotels. Other athletes said they would have been willing to quarantine when they got back to campus.
Despite a disappointing end to the season, Gruenwald pointed out that in a time where many athletes have been unable to compete at all, Wheaton’s teams have been relatively lucky. “Despite the frustration, the disappointment, the heartbreak of not having a national tournament, we still did get a chance to become better versions of ourselves,” Gruenwald said.
Likewise, Wheaton wrestlers expressed their gratitude for the support and wisdom of their coaches.
“They’ve been taking time out of their own day to give us as much of a season as we can have at this point,” Harrison said. “The coaching staff really cares about their athletes.” Harrison said. Harsted said that Coach Gruenwald taught them to place their worth in Christ.
“We’re all upset and angry and we need to go to Christ and build our relationship in Christ,” Harsted said. “It’s still hard to still find joy, a lot of us find joy in wrestling because we’re representing Christ, but we can still do that without wrestling.”