Consumed by contentious politics, a global pandemic, and the ongoing fight for civil rights in America, the world of sports has been pushed down the ladder in this year’s hierarchy of importance. While typically one would weigh the detriment of an alarmingly increasing COVID-19 infection rate more greatly than a canceled football season, the loss of sports in our daily lives has proved to be more disruptive than initially perceived. An integral part of our society, sports serve as a modem of connection between people, one that has been entirely severed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly on a high school level, sports facilitated school spirit, unity among diverse members of the student body, and social interaction beyond the classroom. Without the extracurricular, attending school would have become a monotonous endeavor for students at The Wheatley School. Instead, students have taken setbacks and challenges within The Wheatley School’s modified sports program in stride, their passion serving as the antidote to an unrelenting plague.
“It’s an individual community free of judgement,” Neil Shah ‘21 a long-standing member of the elusive Wheatley Varsity Soccer team explains. “Having a chance to at least win counties before graduating keeps me going.”
Despite being able to attend school five days a week, The Wheatley School was unable to continue its four season sports program as it had in previous years. With Governor Cuomo’s decision on whether or not low-risk sports would be able to continue in the fall of 2020 oscillating, The Wheatley School made the decision to cancel fall sports (tennis, football, soccer, and cross country) in August of 2020. This decision proceeded to extend to the beginning of the winter sports season—which normally begins in November—with the exception of a “Sports Fitness Program” that was implemented in the fall. The Fitness Program allowed students to practice their chosen sport while waiting for their modified season to be approved and start. Practices included but were not limited to socially distanced fitness drills, scrimmages among the school’s players, and a focus on technique refinements varying based on the sport being played. The wearing of masks was strictly enforced during all sessions and attendance was heavily monitored to ensure contact tracing could be conducted if need be.
When asked how the dynamic of the team shifted with this drastic alteration in playing and team structure, Anika Mittle ‘21 of the Wheatley Varsity Tennis Team said it wasn’t the same without being able to celebrate victories and grow stronger from losses, but she was thrilled to have been given an opportunity to at least practice the sport she loves.
Unable to play with teams from other schools, Wheatley’s Varsity Soccer Team instead invited teachers from our athletically inclined science department to enjoy a couple of scrimmages with them and lose themselves in the love of the sport instead of the worries of the world.
During a typical season, cheering team members during games, getting together for celebratory dinners, and even belting timeless favorites like “Jessie’s Girl” on the bus were all ways students could form emotional bonds with each other. A part of this pandemic we often forget is how largely it affected the social interactions of children and young adults whose only feasible option of spending time with people their age is through school and sports. With the transition to a heavily academic school environment and social distancing precautions enforced at all times, there are little to no opportunities for students to interact with one another and develop those same lifelong friendships they were able to form through team comradery during a sports season.
With hope for a modified fall sports season beginning March 1st glimmering in the distance, students reminisce on the unique communities they forged a bond with through their sport. Playing a sport for a Wheatley student is a time to engage in a passion that is not explored in classroom curriculum and gives students the reprieve from the stress of rigorous academics as well as stress unrelated to school. With external societal tensions at an all time high, the removal of sports would’ve meant yet another outlet for students to simply enjoy their youth completely tarnished by the darkness of this pandemic.
“It’s worth playing because it’s a break from all the other craziness around us right now. Gathering a few friends and just hitting for a bit is so nice and gives me a break from everything else!” Anika explains when asked if COVID-19 restrictions would keep her from playing tennis. “Figuring out how to navigate COVID regulations will only make our team stronger.”
In most recent news, the head of the athletics department, Michael Scatturo, announced the return of athletics in the winter season with options for moderate risk sports including bowling, track, fencing, and gymnastics as well as high risk sports such as basketball, cheerleading, wrestling, and dance. The approval of high-risk sports is viewed as a considerably large step in the right direction in terms of the containment of this pandemic and sparks the embers of hope in athletes that life can return to a state of normalcy in the near future. However, despite the long sought after resurrection, members of close contact teams like wrestling must make the transfer to online learning for the duration of the season and all teams must abide by all social distancing/mask regulations dictated by Nassau County and New York State.
In a time where the status quo has ceased to exist entirely, sports are more necessary than ever to satisfy students’ need for—masked—face to face interactions and embracing their common humanity through shared passions. The fight for the continuance of high school sports seasons is essential because being an athlete is more than developing skill and discipline or even engaging in competition. Being an athlete is about the relationships you form with your teammates. It’s about the laughs shared over an epic failure while practicing a serve, the shared pain of having to run extra warm up laps when coach says you weren’t good enough the first time, and the surge of pride felt knowing that you’re part of a community that will always be there for you no matter what 2021 has in store for us all. And while it may be the endorphins they get running around on the field that makes them so optimistic, Wheatley athletes can’t see a pandemic standing in the way of the future success of the athletics program. Because, just like in any sport, a game lost is only truly lost if given up.