This is the second edition of “The Season That Could Have Been,” Spectator’s series on spring 2020 sports.
“None of this feels real at all,” senior Gianna Vierheller said. “Every time you add another layer onto it, it hurts in the moment but then a couple hours later, it’s just another part of a dream.”
Vierheller was living a very different kind of dream a month ago. As one of 11 Columbia fencers newly qualified for the NCAA Championships, Vierheller had just boarded the team bus home from Regionals. The team hadn’t yet left Ithaca when an email arrived from President Lee Bollinger announcing that a Columbia affiliate was in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Classes for the next two days would be canceled, with the remainder of the week to be held online.
Those with midterms scheduled for the next day were suddenly off the hook. Vierheller said that the team spent Monday on the lawns “trying to figure out what was going on.” It was the beginning of a tumultuous week for not only the fencing team but the entire Columbia community.
That Thursday, Vierheller and fellow senior épéeist Anne Cebula met with head coach Michael Aufrichtig and the épée coaches to review coaching strategies for the NCAA Fencing Championships. However, just after that meeting, Vierheller received another email stating classes would be conducted online for the remainder of the semester.
After that email, Vierheller knew she would not be making the trip to Detroit for the national tournament. She said that while it meant a lot to go to the NCAAs, she found herself wishing that the official news would arrive saying that her final season as a Lion was over.
“It was just like, I don’t want to be strung along anymore,” Vierheller said. “I kind of just want to call it so that everything can crash down at once instead of having to go one at a time.”
However, it was not only the fencers who had to endure the news one bit at a time. The first news Aufrichtig received was about the Ivy League basketball tournament being canceled, he said, followed by a statement that NCAA tournaments would proceed, but with the potential of few or no spectators. For him, it was an announcement from the world of professional sports—the NBA postponing its season—that confirmed the Light Blue was finished competing.
“At that moment is when I knew that it was over even though it wasn’t announced to us,” Aufrichtig said. “And then probably three or four hours later we heard all NCAAs, winter and spring, [were] canceled.”
On the cusp of spring break, with the team scattering, Aufrichtig sent out an email acknowledging the “crazy end to [the] season” and spoke to some athletes in person. Meanwhile, the fencers grappled with the sudden turn of events, a promising season cut short, and, later, pressing requests to move out of the residence halls.
The Lions would have been defending last year’s NCAA title, and two members of the Light Blue—Cebula and then-sophomore Sylvie Binder—had been recognized as individual national champions in 2019. Vierheller said it was hard to consider what could have happened had the NCAAs occurred. For the fencing team, there was an incredibly fast turnaround time between Regionals, to realizing that the team only had 11 qualifiers instead of the full 12, to attempting to prepare for the coronavirus, to “everything shut[ting] down.”
“In a positive sense I would like to think that we would have worked closely together, worked really hard, and been able to pull it off as 11, even though that’s harder,” Vierheller said. “Unfortunately, all of the prep work was overshadowed by the looming cloud of ‘is this going to happen or not?’”
Meanwhile, Harvard had already withdrawn from the competition. The Crimson, which won the men’s Ivy title in 2020, consistently vied with Columbia for the top team in the country. Competing without one of the Lions’ top rivals present seemed incomplete, Vierheller said.
Senior Andrew Doddo, a top-ranked sabre fencer, said that he was confident about his chances at the NCAAs even before the Crimson backed out, and his confidence only increased after that. Still, Doddo was shaken by the uncertainty of the atmosphere surrounding the tournament.
“There were a thousand people saying a thousand different things,” he said.
After the NCAAs were canceled, Doddo had trouble finding an outlet for his disappointment due to the fact that everything was so out of his control.
“It probably won’t even hit me until next season starts and I won’t be the reigning NCAA champion because I hadn’t fenced in NCAAs,” he said. “I don’t even know who to be mad at or how to be mad, or if I even should be.”
Luckily, Doddo still has one semester of eligibility remaining. He was granted an injury waiver during his first-year season when he suffered a shoulder injury and was forced to undergo surgery. He plans to return to Columbia in the spring of 2021, hoping to cap an illustrious college fencing career—he earned silver at Regionals and took sixth place at NCAAs his junior year—with a national title.
But Doddo is an anomaly for the Class of 2020. Stringent Ivy rules prohibiting graduate student-athletes and fifth-year seniors from competing mean that if other Lions hope to embark on one last NCAA campaign, they will have to transfer to a fencing dynasty outside of the Ancient Eight, such as Ohio State or Notre Dame.
“No one’s coming back,” Aufrichtig said.
Since Aufrichtig will have the opportunity to return to Nationals next year, he feels especially sad for the seniors, he said. He takes solace in the fact that the Light Blue won the NCAAs last year, the only national championship for the Class of 2020. The Lions placed second and third in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
This lost opportunity has evoked unsettling emotions for athletes like Vierheller. Though she has already secured a job in Boston after graduation, Vierheller said that without one last trip to the national tournament, her fencing career feels “unfinished.”
“I think if I had been able to do NCAAs, it would have been a good way to close a chapter and I would have felt more comfortable maybe accepting the fact that I might not compete in fencing anymore,” she explained. “Now … I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to totally give it up yet.”
Senior staff writer Mackenzie George can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kenziegeorge22.