It’s been a whirlwind month for everybody.
Just 36 days ago everyone at University of Wisconsin-Madison campus was going to classes and extracurriculars like nothing was wrong.
But, as we all know now, the spread of COVID-19 throughout America caused changes across the campus including the cancelling of Spring commencement and the shift to online classes.
Sports have been cancelled — from elementary school rec leagues to the pros, and everything in between — due to fears of the virus spreading.
The decision to cancel spring sports on the NCAA level has caused some issues for the organization however, as college athletes across the country weren’t able to compete in an entire year of eligibility. For graduating seniors, seeing their final season disappear suddenly can be devastating.
“It kind of started out as just a chance we wouldn’t be able to go on our Spring Break trip,” Lauren O’Connor, a senior on the UW rowing team, said. “But then I started hearing from friends at other schools that [the NCAA] was cancelling everything.”
O’Connor — from the small town of Belleville, Wisconsin — has been racing with the varsity team since her sophomore season, and was with the top eight varsity boat when this year began. That all changed on March 12.
“There was like a day or two where we were all kind of like, this won't really happen. But then one of my friends got sent the notification that said all NCAA sports were suspended,” she said.
“It was like we found out at the same time as a lot of other people did.”
O’Connor said the Badgers coaching staff didn’t even know the announcement was coming until it had already happened, and it left everyone with more questions than answers. Rowers weren’t sure if the season was still going to be played out later in the summer, if team activities would still continue as planned or if everything was just over.
Unfortunately, that confusion was cleared up quickly.
“Our coaches finally called everyone to meet, and basically told us they had to shut down the Boathouse and all the athletic facilities, and that they wouldn’t reopen,” O’Connor said.
“There were a lot of emotions. It was really hard to take.”
After being told the season was officially over, O’Connor and many of the other senior rowers weren’t sure if they would ever get an opportunity to compete again. However, rumors began to pop up that seniors in spring sports were putting up a fight — and it was possible the NCAA could allow another year of eligibility to those affected by the pandemic.
On March 30, that finally happened, as the NCAA announced it would allow schools to provide an additional season of eligibility to affected seniors.
“For a couple of weeks there was that option of us maybe getting a chance to come back in the fall to train and compete again,” O’Connor said. “But our athletic department came out last week and said they wouldn’t provide eligibility because they wouldn’t have the funding.”
Just 10 days ago, UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez made that announcement, citing budget concerns as the main reason for not pursuing that additional year. With sports being cancelled — especially when a cash cow like football is under threat of a shortened season — the university just didn’t have money to cover those seniors who would be eligible for the extra season.
That would have left a situation for UW where seniors who could afford to play their sport without financial assistance would have been able to return, but any athlete without that kind of support would have been out of luck.
O’Connor said and her teammates understood the reasons for the decision, but that moment of hope being snuffed out again hit her especially hard.
“[My teammates] agree it’s a fair position for the university, but it was almost just like I had lost my senior year a second time when I heard the announcement,” O’Connor said.
“I think everyone expects to have that moment when things come to an end, but it just ended. It’s very hard to deal with that wave of emotions again.”
Going forward, O’Connor still has another semester to complete her degree in kinesiology before she can graduate. She is now just seen by the university as a regular student, though she will be able to work with incoming walk-on freshmen through the rowing teams fifth year program.
As crushing as it may be to have a career end with these cancelations, O’Connor said she will still treasure the moments she was able to have over her four years on the team.
“There are so many [good memories] … the biggest thing I’ve noticed and loved is the community around rowing,” she said. “There are so many people from different parts of the country, and everyone’s just so excited about [rowing].”
“Plus our coaches and staff have fully set the bar on how wonderful a team can be, it’s absurd.”
It’s unfair, but her career is officially over due to the coronavirus. It’s a situation many across the country in both college and high school are facing, so to those athletes who are lucky enough to be reading this with eligibility left, O’Connor has some advice.
“Appreciate everything as it comes, and make the most of what you have while you still have it.”