Good shooting form, graceful swim strokes and precise golf swings live in an athlete’s muscle memory. They take years of practice and mindful repetition.
Times of day and year also resonate in an athlete’s memory. Waking at 5 a.m. for a morning lift, swim or team run. Spring and summer trainings in preparation for fall competition. Even a high-five is a habit so ingrained as to be almost automatic.
The pandemic is throwing all these things out of balance, but student-athletes at the University of Arizona are reimagining sport and creating new rituals.
"'I can’t high-five my teammates. I can’t spit anymore. And I can’t go where I want.' That’s their experience," says Jim Krumpos, associate athletics director for sports performance at Arizona Athletics.
Krumpos is training teams eager to compete in spring competition. They are all learning new ways of doing things and following strict protocols for in-person training.
“All of our teams follow risk-mitigation policies. We’ve educated the kids about what is expected and why,” Krumpos says. “This is the safest place they will be all day.”
When student-athletes arrive at the state-of-the-art weight room on the lower floor of McKale Memorial Center, they must get there on time or miss their window for daily wellness checks. No bags. Mask on. No chit-chat. Ready to go.
After being cleared for workouts, student-athletes enter the weight room and wait their turn in an area 6 feet apart from each other. Then they train 15 feet apart. Masks on, always.
After workouts, no shower. No dining hall. They head home for Zoom class.
“Our exposures are low risk. If a positive test comes through, anyone who is exposed has to quarantine,” says Krumpos. “Contact tracing shows that it is not occurring in our activities.”
Along with tracking student-athlete wellness, Krumpos and athletics trainers use a misting gun to clean the equipment after each workout session. And custodial crews complete a sanitizing routine at the end of the day.
Making team connections might be challenging, but COVID exposure is minimized. And student-athletes are finding the silver lining.
“It’s definitely not what I expected my senior year to look like,” says Paige Whipple, an outside hitter for Arizona Volleyball. “Things in practice are very different. Not being able to high-five. We can’t huddle. Masks make breathing more of a task. It’s strange not being able to see people’s faces and harder to communicate.”
Whipple is the lone senior and a captain for a team hoping to start Pac-12 competition in January. In the meantime, they are getting creative.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise not having a fall season,” says Whipple. “We’ve been able to incorporate new people and come together. We do high-fives with our feet.”