On March 13 in Bloomington, Ill., Wheaton’s track team wrapped up their indoor season with the CCIW Elite Invitational meet. The top nine athletes in field events such as sprinting, distance running and jumping were able to compete against athletes within the conference.
This meet, like the rest of the season, operated under COVID-19 guidelines. Athletes were asked to warm-up in masks, only removing them to compete, and to stay in spaces designated for their separate teams.
“Any of us who had thought very much about [track] were highly skeptical that we would get any kind of experience,” said Head Coach Scott Bradley, “but we competed as much this winter as we would in a normal winter.”
Spectators were not allowed at indoor meets. In a normal year, a dozen schools might compete. This year’s meets were limited to two or three teams. This resulted in competitions that were unusually quiet, according to athletes and coaches who were there.
“Typically an indoor track is extremely loud because you have literally hundreds of people in the building and there’s a lot of energy in all of that. That was gone,” Bradley said.
The meets were even quieter without the presence of the “injured crew,” who normally accompany the team to meets. Injured athletes instead stayed home and watched via livestream, unable to cheer on their teammates from the side of the track.
“It was really isolating for our ladies and men who couldn’t come to the meet,” said Kaitlin Armstrong, a senior interdisciplinary studies major and distance runner who is serving as a team captain this year.
“It’s been hard to know how to care for people and mentor them,” Armstrong said. “We’re in different places because of training or athletics but now we’re in a different physical space [during training and competition] and that is hard.”
Because of Covid precautions, the team also had to separate into different training groups based on their events. These pods could choose whether to socially distance depending on their personal comfort levels.
This set-up was a bit more lenient than what Armstrong experienced during her cross country season in the fall. According to an email sent to all spring sport athletes, Wheaton now allows athletes to train without masks and distancing during practice as long as no one outside the team is in the room. After this update, the track team was given the option to train in pods, where the athletes within each pod would be considered a close contact if someone in their group contracted the virus.
“I’m very much a physically affectionate person, so having the freedom to give my teammates a hug after a really great race or put my hand on their shoulder after a really hard one—it’s allowed freedom to be in community in ways I wasn’t able to last year,” Armstrong said.
The indoor season ended without a normal conference meet and national championship. Since March 27 with a meet at Elmhurst University, the team looks forward to the full outdoor season. Runners will now run a track that is twice as big and compete in more throwing events. This season is highly anticipated given that when the pandemic broke out last March, the outdoor season was canceled entirely.
“You expect to have a full season, so you set your mind and your goals on things you want to accomplish in April, and that was obviously taken away from us,” said David Bradley, a senior classical languages major and the coach’s son. Bradley, who competes in pole vault, says that one of his greatest hopes for this year was that they would have a full track season.
“I feel like I can put up with anything as long as I have a track season,” Bradley said. “We’ve been really grateful [for the chance to compete].”
Both Coach Bradley and his athletes say that their hopes are high for the outdoor season, partly because the setting of competitions and practices makes it safer in terms of possible virus transmission. The team had very few COVID-19 cases over the last few months, and if they can keep that up, outdoor competitions offer even more possibilities to compete at a high level. There are tentative conference and national competitions scheduled for May.
Even so, the athletes and coach say they are making the most of every opportunity, knowing that any meet could be their last.
“We do need to remind ourselves that it could come crashing down again,” Coach Bradley said. However, Bradley commended his team for not letting the circumstances dampen their spirit of hard work and community on the team.
“The attitude of our team has been fantastic. They’ve supported each other. They’ve encouraged each other. They’ve competed as hard and successfully as they ever have.”