As the days are dipping to seventy degree temperatures and my seasonal allergies are starting up again, I’ve begun to reflect on what this fall means as a senior student athlete during yet another season of COVID-19.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) made the decision in late July to delay the start of high school sports until September 14th. As of now, the Amherst Regional High School response has been vague, encouraging sanitation and social distancing but with no concrete idea of what training will look like for athletes or whether there will be sports at all.
For almost all students in the district, the coming fall semester means remote, isolated learning and online classes. In consideration, the prospect of athletes continuing to have practices feels, in the simplest words possible, awkward. Both my teammates and I can’t help but feel cynical towards the notion of normalcy.
It’s not that athletics aren’t important. For me, they have served as an extremely foundational part of my life as a high school student, bringing me more confidence and community than I ever could have imagined. But now, in the midst of a pandemic, treating athletes as exceptions to public safety regulations is neglectful.
COVID-19 exposure transcends issues of individual circumstance, and has predominantly affected communities most vulnerable in this country. Black Americans suffer from the highest coronavirus mortality rate of any other race (at 80.4 deaths of 100,000 as of August 4, according to the APM research lab), followed shortly by Indigenous Americans (at 66.8 deaths per 100,000). To act as though the virus is containable among sports teams, and will not continue to target these communities throughout the region, is delusional. Socioeconomic status and healthcare quality only deepens these disparities. Even if young student athletes are low-risk, their families and everyone else they come into contact are not.
Coming to this conclusion is not easy for me, as someone who has trained as a runner for Amherst Regional High School Girls’ Cross Country (ARXC) since my freshman year. Much of my high school experience and senior year has been disrupted, but losing my senior season is by far the biggest challenge. My friends on ARXC feel similarly.
Many of us have continued to train over the summer despite the growing understanding that our season will not take place. It’s part of the beauty of running– even in isolation, we can maintain the comfort of our usual routine, with the knowledge that our teammates are doing the same. Of course, there will be no pre-season camp in Vermont, no mentor/mentee runs and bonding, no group hikes and swims and runs.
As a high school athlete, each year brings the possibility of a new goal to achieve, whether it be a new personal record (PR), a new mileage, or even just attaining a new level of fitness and well being. If those goals aren’t reached, senior season is still waiting for you in the back of your mind. Unless, of course, you’re in the class of 2021.
Additionally, my experience on ARXC transcends athletic goals. This season would have been the final chance to connect with the community that has become a “home away from home” for me.
Some memories of my freshman season feel like only yesterday. For example, my first pasta dinner, a tradition the night before each of our big invitational races. In the yellow evening light of a teammate’s backyard, the older girls taught us the song “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” by Paul Simon, the song we sing at the starting line of every race as a form of team spirit. The moment encapsulates the ineffable experience of running for our team: a mixture of blood, sweat, tears, laughter, singing, and quirky traditions.
Running for ARXC has gifted me most of my closest friends and given me a space to grow and lead with the powerful women around me. Together we have conquered everyday challenges like mindfulness, nutrition, and body positivity, alongside the physical challenges of workouts and competition.
I understand as well as anyone how difficult it is to lose this coming season. Instead of weaving through loopholes and potentially endangering families, it is time to finalize decisions so that teams can create plans to work within the restrictions of social distancing. Our team is still tossing around ideas, virtual running challenges being one of them. Everyone has experienced loss in different ways during this unprecedented time. When possible, it is vital to approach these new situations with ARXC’s core value of “PMA”, positive mental attitude.
There will be moments this fall, when walking or running surrounded by foliage and cool air, that the loss of my senior season will finally hit me. Maybe it will be running through the field loop of our annual first workout, or passing by our home course. Although I never imagined my senior year to end up this way, I am determined to make the best of it that I can. I have plenty of faith that in the near future, when this pandemic is over, we will snuggle up for a pasta dinner again.
Annalise Peterson is a senior at Amherst Regional High School, where she can be found running cross country, stage managing, and playing ultimate. Her writing has appeared in ARHS’s The Graphic, the New England High School Journalism Collaborative’s The Vanguard, and The Amherst Indy.