Freshmen athletes have lost their first collegiate season to coronavirus restrictions — but they’ve also lost the opportunity to bond with their new teams and immerse themselves in college athletics.
Women’s swimming and diving has especially felt the weight of these restrictions. Without the possibility of wearing masks, individual swimmers are forced to practice in distanced lanes with strict pool capacities. Gone are the team bonding traditions and dinners — and without any swim meets this winter season, acclimating a new pool of swimmers to the swim team has become yet another hurdle.
Freshman swimmer Priscilla Wongso knows the struggles of socially distanced athletics firsthand. Although she had met with fellow teammates before the pandemic hit, bonding with her team on campus has proved challenging — but not impossible — with the new on-campus restrictions in place keeping small groups six feet apart.
“I was excited to come here and spend time with the team,” Wongso said. “The thought of not being able to do that was really hard because in general, I like meeting people. That just made me appreciate my time more with them and made me want to make bonds and make those relationships faster.”
The swim community reached out to her first: Upperclassmen messaged her and her fellow freshmen during the summer to make sure they felt welcomed and supported before they arrived on campus.
Freshmen members of the women’s swim team saw each other in any capacity possible. From distanced dinners in dorm lounges to going out in smaller groups on the weekends, the new generation of Cornell swimmers has continued to stay together as a unit even with strict guidelines in place. The gatherings provided a new way for the athletes to bond and uplift each other over a stressful first semester.
“There’s just this big blockade of support that comes from all sides of the team,” Wongso said of her team’s dynamic. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s like a pool. You have the water which we [compete] in, and then there’s the walls that hold up and support the structure. I feel like the team was that support system which held us together.”
Wongso has endured a shared rollercoaster of emotions, as the virus gradually forced the team to reorganize practices and restructure their schedules over the fall semester before ultimately receiving the news in mid-November that the winter sports season would be canceled.
“I feel that was the hardest for the seniors because they didn’t get their last season. It was taken away from them very unknowingly,” Wongso said. “I was obviously sad, but I feel that I have hope knowing that I will still have a future in competing.”
Patrick Gallagher, the head coach of the women’s swim team since 2015, said this year has particularly strained the team’s overall morale.
“This has been really difficult on the mental well-being of our athletes,” Gallagher said. “Athletics is such a huge part of their support system on campus, and when so much of it has been chipped away, we have to really be cognizant of their mental health.”
For the freshmen swimmers, Gallagher said the greatest disappointment has been watching the new athletes miss the collegiate athletic scene: “No home meets, no travel, limited time together, weight room limited, on and on.”
“The vast majority of coaches and athletes understand why [the precautions are in place], but we also continue to stress to the team and supporters, we want to come out of this stronger than we went it,” Gallagher said.
In a trying season, Wongso said she hopes for a return to some semblance of normalcy. Both in the classroom and in the pool, she and her fellow athletes have been left wondering what Cornell has to fully offer them.
“I’m really hoping to just train,” Wongso said. “I really miss being able to train with the entire team. It’s hard when you’re in a lane by yourself. You can’t high-five each other or cheer each other on. I’m hoping to get that back — that sense of excitement that you get from competing as a team.”