This is the seventh edition of “The Season That Could Have Been,” Spectator’s series on spring 2020 sports.
Sophomore Boaz Willis was desperate to “get his stoke up” when he assembled the skateboard with a sail.
It had been nearly a month since the captain of Columbia’s club sailing team last took to the water, a “soul-wrenching” time of social distancing at his home in California. Willis missed the feeling of “having some control, but not all control, [of] a force that’s beyond you.” So, he took out his skateboard, tied a royal purple bedsheet to a stick, and wobbled down his street, twisting himself side to side as the bedsheet billowed in front of him. The endeavor was filmed for the team’s Instagram as part of their “#SailAtHome” challenge.
Willis did not get a chance to say goodbye to the seniors on the sailing team, attend the end-of-season barbeque, or to cheer on his mentors at the senior regatta. Instead, he—and other club sports athletes—settled for online connections. Many other club teams are mourning similar conclusions to their seasons, as they have been made impossible due to the coronavirus.
For many club sports teams, who spend hours organizing, recruiting, and practicing for spring competitions, the cancellation is a heartbreaking loss. For club sailing, the pandemic foiled the team’s national championship ambitions and interrupted a rapid period of growth where team membership tripled in three years. For club water polo, an almost-undefeated season ended with its members dissipated around the globe without the chance to say goodbye. And for club soccer, which is not recognized as an official team by Columbia, it could mean the end of the team.
As club sports teams try to keep going despite the possibility of a year without competition, they must also deal with the loss of the in-person community which many of the sports helped to build.
For senior captain Venus Law, the water polo team provided an immediate community after her transition to Barnard College in the spring of her sophomore year. Law, who played club water polo at Boston University before she transferred, saw the change as “one of the luckiest things that ever happened” to her.
“I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop with my transfer experience being so smooth and easy … and it never did,” Law said. “I’ve been playing ever since, stuck with all the communities and all the groups that I’ve joined so far, and just really created a family here on campus, and it’s really helped root me to the school.”
Although the team practices late at night, often past 11 p.m., it is one of the best teams in its conference and was hoping to compete in the conference championship to earn a spot at nationals before the pandemic. Law was looking forward to the championship and fundraiser the team holds in honor of a former teammate who died in an earthquake in 2017; instead, she is now Zooming with teammates to study for finals and reluctantly running to stay in shape—an activity she hates “with a passion.”
“They’re my family, my second family,” sophomore water polo co-president Aya Chang said. “It’s been really hard to have to end the season early and come back home.”
Senior David Treatman has similar feelings. As the former captain of the sailing team, he spent hours recruiting new members to the team and orchestrated the move to a larger sailing facility in New Rochelle. When 86 sailors appeared on the roster this fall, Treatman took on assistant coach responsibilities, spending six hours nearly every day this fall coaching different groups and teaching dozens of newcomers how to sail for the first time. The spring would have marked his first extended-time sailing in several months.
“I was looking forward to being able to reap all the joy and benefit of actually sailing that much, which I was so excited about, especially because the weather gets so beautiful in the spring,” Treatman said.
Junior Cassidy Gabriel, who founded Columbia’s unofficial women’s club soccer team, felt similarly. Although Gabriel entered Columbia knowing she wanted to play club soccer, it took her two years to figure out how to start the club. Columbia does not fund or recognize club sports teams that play the same sports as the Lions’ varsity teams, such as soccer.
This fall, Gabriel organized a roster of over 30 players and raised money to travel to games and rent playing fields. The time-consuming endeavor left her exhausted, and she was looking forward to playing more and organizing less in the spring after onboarding new officers.
However, after the pandemic, Gabriel doesn’t see the club returning in her last year at Columbia. Although she recruited dozens of players and made new friends through the club, she worries the work will be in vain.
“The biggest loss is all the hard work we did to show Columbia, ‘Hey, a lot of students are interested in this thing,’” Gabriel said. “We kind of have to start from square one whenever that’s a reality again?”
Not all sports are as vulnerable as soccer—sailing is established enough that it will likely be able to survive the hiatus. However, like Gabriel, Treatman fears a loss of momentum for his club, although he takes comfort in knowing that whatever happens in the future, he made an impact on this year’s sailors.
“It feels really gratifying to know that I had a role in creating a home away from home for people,” Treatman said. “It’s very, very cool to see all these kids who would have never met otherwise hanging out every week virtually just because they miss each other. It’s been really comforting for me.”