In the shadow of Cleveland, Ohio, tucked away in the cornfields, lies a small town and one of the nation’s premier academic institutions, Oberlin College. But you already knew that. What you didn’t know was that this small liberal arts college, known more for its progressive history than its athletic history, is where some of the best athletic teams in the North Coast Athletic Conference train and compete. Among them are the Yeomen and Yeowomen of the cross country and track and field teams. These athletes are so determined that the only thing that could stop them was a global pandemic. Now, the teams are working to pick up the pieces of stolen seasons and broken dreams to make something special.
The varsity cross country and track and field teams, led by Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Ray Appenheimer, have been some of the most successful in recent Oberlin athletics history. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the team’s dominance on hold. In the spring, it stopped a Yeowomen track and field team that was poised to regain its conference championship in the 2019–2020 outdoor season, after coming in second in the 2019–2020 indoor season. This year, the cross country team’s season has been cancelled altogether.
“COVID-19 made it impossible for us to have a safe and normal cross country season, but even with this devastating reality, it hasn’t stopped the camaraderie or commitment that the team has to each other or the sport,” College third-year and cross country and track and field athlete Anna Scott said.
There is a lot of overlap between the cross country and track and field teams. Starting at the top, Appenheimer coaches both squads, and other coaches and athletes are also associated with both sports. This has created a unique community, and with nearly a quarter of both teams off-campus, it has been more important than ever to stay connected.
“Being off-campus has been hard,” Scott said. “I miss my friends on and off the team, but I’ve been working really hard to stay connected to those on campus right now. [Thanks to] team events and personal phone calls [and] texts, it feels less bad being away right now.”
Scott isn’t the only member of the teams who has missed the normal routine.
“I really miss having the entire team together at 4:40 [p.m.] every day,” Appenheimer said. “We have always been able to get such good work done in those 10 to 15 minutes of talking and sharing. We’re lucky that so many team members have taken it upon themselves to create these moments outside of practice.”
As noted by Appenheimer, the teams have managed to stay connected through months of quarantine and social distancing thanks to Zoom.
“Zoom meetings, Zoom movie nights, Zoom workshops, Zoom talent shows, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom — as can be expected right now,” College third-year and track and field athlete Malaïka Djungu-Sungu said. “By this time in previous circumstances, we would have seen a lot of each other in person so it’s expected that we’d be on Zoom a lot to emulate that.”
Both Djungu-Sungu and Scott point to the team’s collective effort and interest in social justice this summer as another way they have been able to make the most out of the circumstances.
“We’ve started conversations about how we can become a better team and support our Black teammates and POC teammates, started team-wide mutual aid funds, and collectively encouraged each other to come up with individual voting plans for the upcoming election.” Scott said.
Djungu-Sungu recalls one event in particular as notable.
“The team has also stuck together by collaborating on projects, like a fundraiser that we did over the summer to raise funds for the NAACP Legal Defense [and Educational] Fund,” Djungu-Sungu said.
College second-year and cross country and track and field athlete Lilly Crook points to the leadership on both teams for keeping the community united during this time.
“I think we have some awesome captains so they have made us all feel very taken care of,” Crook said. “It is just so amazing to have such a strong community of people looking out for each other both on and off campus.”
While the camaraderie on the teams may be as strong as ever, that may be the only thing that feels remotely normal about their circumstances. With teammates missing and no season, the athletic and competitive side of the sports are distinctly different this year. Some, like Scott, are trying to find ways to stay in shape despite not physically being with the team.
“Training has been a mixed bag,” Scott said. “While it has been challenging to stay consistently motivated to keep my training up to the same caliber as it was on campus, I have a constant spark in the back of my mind telling me to stay excited and committed for the next season, no matter when that will be. Instead of hitting the local weight room at home, I’ve been focusing on using my body weight to keep me strong while I’m not out on the roads or trails running.”
Workouts and practices for those on campus have been vastly different than in years prior too. Notably, all athletes and coaches have a very new pre-workout routine in the era of COVID-19.
“Everyday, before stepping foot onto the track, you have to get your temperature checked and do a symptom check,” Djungu-Sungu said. “While we’re practicing, we have to stay mindful and stay over six feet apart from each other. We have to bring our own rollers and things to practice because it’s no longer safe to have community items. Running with a mask on has posed its challenges, but you do what you have to to stay safe, you know?”
Despite the strangeness of these new practice protocols, Appenheimer has been impressed with the way the student-athletes are responding to these challenges.
“Workouts and practices are going really well,” Appenheimer said. “You can imagine how excited folks are after not running with one another since March. The energy and enthusiasm has been amazing even though we aren’t preparing for a normal competitive season. We only meet in groups of ten or less, and no one is allowed to start practice without a temperature and symptom check. We are running in masks and in groups of no more than four. Despite all that, we feel very fortunate that we get to practice and want to take every precaution to protect the team and the greater community.”
While they may be enjoying themselves and the moments they share with their teammates, many cross country and track and field athletes are constantly thinking about the future. While the cross country season had originally been cancelled, there is hope for its resurrection in a unique way.
“Instead of the normal season, our coaches have coordinated a virtual season with other schools in the conference,” Scott said. “No matter where our team is, we will be able to do independent time-trials and upload our times to compete against other schools by comparing results.”
It may not be the same as usual, but this has provided a glimmer of hope for cross country athletes. Track and field athletes, on the other hand, are still stuck hoping that another season is not dramatically altered by COVID-19. Some, like Crook, are not so optimistic.
“I would say, barring some miracle, we won’t have a season [in the spring of 2021],” Crook said
Others, like Scott, see the grim reality of the situation, but still hold out hope.
“I would rather not have a season and keep my team, school, and broader community healthy and safe, than risk it for another championship,” Scott said. “I love our coaches and I appreciate how real and practical they have been with us. It seems as though they have maintained the same mindset since the beginning of quarantine: Since we don’t know what the future holds, we are just going to act as though there will be a season.”
Still, the vast majority of these athletes fall somewhere in between, frustrated by the uncertainty of it all.
“I wonder everyday, if we’re having a season or not because of COVID,” Djungu-Sungu said. “I spend every day in limbo about the topic because I am always hearing something new. It’s hard to be sure and all one can do is hope.”
The Review will continue to follow the track and field and cross country teams as the semester progresses. Stay tuned for the next installment of We Keep Yeoing to see a glimpse into teamwork and community in this bold and unprecedented time …