The season didn’t end. It stopped.
Student athletes come to terms with all that seemed within their grasp
In his first week home after the coronavirus pandemic shut down UVA’s Grounds, Jay Aiello (Col ’20) took inventory of the exercise equipment he had on hand in his apartment.
One dumbbell. A pair of resistance bands. One battle rope.
It’s not exactly the weight room at Mem Gym, home of the UVA wrestling program. But it will have to suffice for Aiello, a redshirt junior with a year of eligibility remaining, as he strives to maintain some semblance of the fitness that carried him to an ACC title. Aiello had been poised to compete for a national championship at 197 pounds before the cancellation of six winter and 11 spring sports at UVA on March 12.
Hundreds of athletes were affected, including some whose careers were abruptly cut short. Among them: Aiello’s teammate Jack Mueller (Col ’20), who was seeded fourth heading into the NCAA championships.
The women’s swimming and diving team will also never know what might have been. After scoring the most points in program history at the ACC meet, the Cavaliers were seeded second heading into the national championships.
Morgan Hill (Col ’20), who won 11 ACC titles in her career, believes this was the year UVA would have knocked off Stanford University, which had won the past three NCAA titles.
“We definitely felt like this was our chance to win,” Hill said. “Not going to the meet doesn’t take away from that.”
Teams were scattered when their seasons ended abruptly that Thursday in mid-March. The baseball team had stopped for lunch in Hagerstown, Maryland, on its way to Pittsburgh when the news came. They turned the bus around. The men’s basketball team was riding an eight-game winning streak heading into its ACC tournament opener in Greensboro, North Carolina—not to mention gearing up to defend its 2019 national championship title. Jordan Scott (Col ’20) was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, preparing to defend his triple jump title at the NCAA men’s indoor track and field championships.
On the Rivanna Reservoir, the women’s rowing team was prepping for its first race of the season. Knowing it could be her last time in a boat before the University shut down, Lizzie Trull (Com ’20) tried to savor every moment of her final row: one last pass under a bridge that spans the water, the familiar sight of coach Kevin Sauer alongside in his launch, and the sensation of the boat rushing through the water with eight rowers in perfect balance and synchronicity.
“That’s where my joy in the sport comes from—eight girls pushing with the same goal,” Trull said. “Rowing at UVA is the proudest thing I’ve ever done. I felt like it was my life’s work, and I was losing that connection.
“It was heartbreaking.”
Athletes, who are accustomed to clear outcomes, win or lose, have felt haunted by the lack of closure and the sheer abruptness of it all. Back on Grounds, which was largely deserted for spring break, they rallied together.
The rowing team held an impromptu senior night on the Lawn. Wrestlers, who live a spartan life during the season, broke training with burgers, ribs, chicken fingers, fries and “a big ol’ tub of ice cream for each of us,” Aiello said.
When athletes will resume training and competition is anyone’s guess. The NCAA on March 30 granted an extra year to spring sports participants but not winter athletes. UVA will not increase its scholarship budget for spring sports so it’s unclear how many student-athletes will be able to return.
Scott, who had been expected to compete in the triple jump for his native Jamaica in the Tokyo Olympics before it was postponed, plans to return.
Trull has a job waiting as an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs but said she’s also considering returning.
“I’m still in shock my season ended like this,” she said.