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Football starts Ivy play on Saturday against Yale.

November 21, 2021

Students, then Athletes: Cornellians Navigate the New Normal On and Off the Field

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For two years, many Cornell student athletes faced training cuts and lost games as the Ivy League put sports on hold. Spring 2020 seasons were canceled, Fall 2020 – Spring 2021 practices were sparse, but the latter portion of the Fall 2021 season has shown a hopeful return to pre-COVID schedules.

The Men’s Lightweight Rowing team, which competes in both the fall and the spring, has started practice in full swing. Eric Whitehead ’22, who has been on the team since he began at Cornell, said the team is practicing five days a week. Though it’s hard, he said that the structure creates consistency in his schedule.

Whitehead has been rowing since he was in the eighth grade and said he is excited to return to the water next season.

 “I think everyone is very excited, loving the sport, loving where we are right now,” he said. 

The team closed the season on Nov. 7 in the Princeton University 3-Mile Chase, where all three of Cornell’s boats finished in the top ten. 

“We were just smiling,” said John Jaicks ’22, the team’s coxswain — the member who steers the boat. “We were about to have some fun and show up for the team. We were just excited because we were able to throw down against some of the best lightweight rowers in the country.”

A senior like Whitehead, Jaicks has also rowed on the team throughout his time at Cornell. As an upperclassman, he has more rowing experience than many team members, since the last two seasons were cut short. Thus, only the seniors on the team know what it’s like to go through a full competitive season.

Though the team does have access to indoor rowing machines and other equipment to train, they have lost time to train on the water in the past two years.

However, many members stayed in Ithaca and continued to train throughout the hiatus, mainly by biking. Using an app called Strava, they tracked their times on various routes and competed amongst themselves and against Cornell’s cycling team. 

“We’re just competitive guys,” Jaicks said. “It doesn’t have to be rowing.”

He and Whitehead said this helped keep the team in shape, but they still had a shaky start to practices this year. Since there wasn’t anything to train for, Whitehead stated, the team found difficulty staying motivated.

Other Cornell sports teams have faced adjustment challenges as well. In early November, Cornell women’s soccer wrapped up its first full season since Fall 2019. Despite the sudden return to normal life as a student athlete, Evanthia Spyredes ’22 managed to find success and earn All-Academic Ivy League honors this fall. 

“During COVID, everyone got into loose cycles of rolling out of bed and getting everything done last minute,” Spyredes said, “but I figured out how to regiment myself this fall and stay organized.”

The return to competition has meant that athletes are back to traveling for games, which has strained their schedules and limited the time they have to do schoolwork. 

“It’s stressful, to say the least, having to work on bus rides and in hotels with every free minute you have,” Spyredes said. 

Through increasingly unpredictable schedules, student athletes find solace in their teammates above all else. 

For the rowing team, living in the same space contributes greatly to their team cohesion, according to both Whitehead and Jaicks. The teammates see each other in and out of practice and maintain strong relationships off the water. 

With Cornell’s new policy mandating sophomore on-campus housing, the team fears that their culture will suffer. “We think that it’s a huge, huge, huge part of the team,” Jaicks said of living with his teammates. 

Underclassmen and upperclassmen live in two houses that are located on the same block and they travel to practice together; changing these conditions would disrupt a long-standing team dynamic. 

According to junior cornerback Josh Porter ’23, watching the football team stay committed to academics gives him the motivation he needs to succeed. 

“Being constantly surrounded by high achievers, especially athletes who spend three or four hours a day just practicing their sport, really gives you no excuse but to work as hard as your peers,” he said. 

For Spyredes, in addition to morale boosts, her teammates also provide her with emotional support.

“My teammates are paramount,” she said. “Whether I need someone to quiz me or I need a ride to class, they are physically there for me.”

Despite the strong sense of community within teams, the combination of academics and athletics can contribute to academic anxiety, Spyredes said. 

“It really starts to take a toll when everything starts piling on,” she said. “A bad practice or game can carry over into the classroom, and it can get difficult.”

Although the university offers free tutoring for student athletes, several athletes noted difficulty in tapping into resources for themselves and their teammates. With packed schedules, they find themselves having to work around limited availability of tutors.

The “new normal” has reintroduced challenges that athletes have to deal with, and having a strong commitment to a team sport may exacerbate them further. Cornell sports teams are working together to get back on track. 

“There’s always that little spark that at every practice someone is always going to have,” Jaicks said.