The University Athletic Association’s (UAA) decision to cancel all winter sports, along with Emory prohibiting teams from holding practices or events throughout the fall semester, has presented myriad challenges for student athletes beyond original pandemic-related expectations.

As a member of the swim and dive team, I began to understand firsthand how difficult this semester would be. After scrambling to find available Atlanta-area clubs where Emory swimmers could train, it became clear that practice and training made up only a small part of what it means to be a college athlete. The absence of team traditions, the separation from teammates and friends and the lack of shared goals further complicated efforts to keep the team motivated and in the pool. An even bigger challenge has been on the individual level: each swimmer, including myself, has been forced to reflect on what they value most within the sport and within the team itself. 

Restrictions on athlete and coach interactions have placed a much higher degree of accountability on each individual athlete this year than in seasons past. In a typical season, we spend upwards of 20 hours per week training, with numerous practices starting before 6 a.m. Very few would subject themselves to this regiment through their own volition, so having a supportive coaching staff and team full of friends enduring the same demanding schedule is essential to staying motivated. I’ve found during this period that the inconsistent team attendance and involvement has increased feelings of burnout, both for myself and the team. Even as someone who has always enjoyed the training component of the sport, jumping into a frigid pool in the early morning has been harder during this period than any other time in my athletic career.  

The season’s cancellation also requires an athlete to be more self-motivated, as the lack of UAA and NCAA competition removes the end-of-season championship goals around which our training schedule is based. Every season, the entire team pursues a national championship, and there is a great deal of effort and preparation from all team members to make this goal a reality. With the removal of competition, though, each swimmer must decide for themselves what motivates them to swim and train every day.

The Emory swimming and diving team celebrates on the fourth day of the NCAA Division III Championships in 2018. The team will now have to likely wait another year before formal competition resumes. (Anastasia Hrivnak/anastasiahrivnak.com)

This period has also allowed for a more thorough reflection on the process rather than the end goal. Many of us get so caught up in how our season ends, and whether or not we met our objectives, that we boil our entire athletic career down to just a few short performances. It’s a toxic approach to the sport that we care so much about, but it is inevitable when one centers their entire season around one or two competitions. Because of this unusual season, however, I now have a greater appreciation for the day-to-day training and ordinary team interactions, as those will be the important moments that truly define my athletic career. When I reflect on my collegiate experience in the future, I won’t worry about whether or not I swam a certain time but will instead remember the shared experiences with my teammates and friends. 

While the past semester has been undeniably difficult for all of us swimmers and athletes, when we hopefully return to practice and competition in the coming months, we’ll have a more rigorous understanding of why we compete in the first place. 

Many members of the swim and dive program, as well as other student athletes, have been competing in their respective sport for more than half of their lives. The pandemic restrictions have forced every one of us to face the reality that we don’t compete purely for the love of the sport and that we have always needed the support of our teammates, friends and coaches. I hope that when we all return to the proverbial court, every athlete can recognize that being an Emory Eagle means much more than just competing.