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The Snapchat memories from last year remind Diego Zarate of what he’s missing this spring. For two days in mid-April, he should’ve been in Knoxville, Tennessee, running the 53rd edition of the Tennessee Relays with his teammates on the Virginia Tech track team. A week later, he should’ve been flying to the Duke Invitational in Durham, North Carolina, the same place he would’ve gone a month later for his final Atlantic Coast Conference outdoor track and field championships.
Instead, Zarate, a fifth-year senior and middle distance runner, has been in Blacksburg, Virginia, living in an off-campus apartment in the increasingly desolate college town nearly 300 miles away from his family in Germantown. All of his outdoor track events have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It really hits you how fast time has been going by,” Zarate says. “To me, the quarantine, with everything going on, it’s almost like these weeks have been taking so, so long … But then we’re looking at the actual memories from Snapchat and all that, and it seems like these things are flying by like, wow, this season would be pretty much getting close to over by now.”
Like thousands of other college athletes who had their spring seasons abruptly canceled due to the global health crisis, Zarate is now in limbo. The NCAA voted in late March to allow schools to authorize an additional season of eligibility for spring-sport student athletes, and while Zarate is leaning toward returning to Virginia Tech for a sixth year next spring, he will need to look at how things work out with scholarships—something determined by the school—and decide which graduate school program to attend. To compete in NCAA sports, Division I student athletes must meet the minimum full-time enrollment requirements as specified by the university or college.
Zarate, who earned Maryland’s Gatorade Player of the Year award for cross country as a senior at Northwest High School, planned to use both the NCAA indoor and outdoor track and field championships to run personal bests and elevate his profile before potentially competing in the now postponed U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field in June. Afterward, he wanted to run for a professional group, like the D.C.-based District Track Club.
The pandemic has halted those dreams.
“There’s still a lot to figure out,” Zarate says.
After being cut from the University of Maryland baseball team following his freshman season, Elliot Zoellner had one goal: Make it to senior day. Coming into college as one of the highest-ranked pitching prospects in Maryland, Zoellner expected more from himself. He finished his first season with the Terps with only one appearance on the mound.
“I really just wanted to prove it to myself and to my team and to my coaches that I really could do it and was worthwhile in the sport, and then hopefully make it past senior day to play professionally,” Zoellner says.
When Rob Vaughn became the head coach before Zoellner’s sophomore year, the two worked out a deal that allowed Zoellner to return to the team as a walk-on. Zoellner never regained his athletic scholarship, but improved his performance each year he was on the team, from 16 appearances as a sophomore to 18 appearances his junior year.
This year, Zoellner made a team-high seven appearances out of the bullpen and was only one of three Maryland pitchers to not allow a single run in the shortened spring season. On March 11 in College Park, Zoellner played in what was potentially his last collegiate baseball game, striking out two batters in two innings in Maryland’s 4-2 loss to James Madison University.
The following day, the Big Ten Conference canceled all of its spring sports, just 15 games into the Terps’ baseball season.
“On a personal level, I envisioned this to be the best year,” Zoellner says. “I wanted to leave everything out in the field. I had been snakebit by injuries and illness through my junior year and my sophomore year and it made me miss time …. This was the year I thought I was gonna put [it] all together. On a team level, I thought this was one [of] the most cohesive teams that we’ve ever had, or at least while I’ve been there. Everybody loves playing with each other …. I can’t speak for how far we would have made it. But I think we had something really special going on this year, and it was unfortunately cut way too short.”
Zoellner and the team had just arrived at their hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, to play Texas Christian University when Vaughn broke the news that the season was over. “It didn’t feel real,” Zoellner says.
Later that day, he and teammate Mike Vasturia, a redshirt junior, decided to take a quick trip to get food. It turned into an hourlong walk.
“We were just kind of going over the good and the bad of our four years there and just kind of reminiscing about what things were like and what things could have been [this] season,” Zoellner recalls. “And that’s when it kind of started to become reality for me.”
Zoellner is currently back in Annapolis with his parents and younger brother, Bradley, who plays baseball at Anne Arundel Community College. He maintains a regimented routine, waking up at 8 a.m. to work out in the basement for an hour before doing schoolwork. Between 3 and 5 p.m., the general time that he would have been practicing in College Park, he throws with his brother at a nearby high school field.
He still dreams of playing professional baseball. The MLB Draft will likely take place sometime next month, but on March 26, teams and the MLB Players’ Association agreed to a deal that will allow the league to cut the draft from 40 rounds to as few as five this year—making his chances of joining a team even slimmer.
Zoellner hasn’t decided if he will use his extra year of eligibility to return to Maryland. (He would pursue an MBA degree if he chooses that route.) If he doesn’t get drafted or signed as a free agent with an MLB franchise, he also has a management trainee job in D.C. waiting for him. Zoellner knows he’s lucky to have options.
“It was my goal to be drafted eventually after obtaining a college degree, and it’s kind of not great seeing it all change because of something like this,” he says. “And it’s affected not just me but the lives of millions, which is much more important than what’s going on with just me.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there are more than 1.19 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, leading to more than 70,000 deaths. New York has been hit particularly hard, with more than 173,000 positive cases in New York City alone.
Cole Gittens’ aunt is one of them. After testing positive for COVID-19, she spent several weeks on a ventilator and only started recovering recently. Gittens’ mother works as a nurse in New York City, and he has another aunt who works in a Brooklyn hospital.
The impact of the pandemic feels more personal to Gittens, a senior on the Howard University men’s tennis team, than many others.
“It’s made it difficult, very difficult, for me to think about doing schoolwork,” says Gittens, who lives in Manhattan with his parents. “A lot of my teachers have been accommodating, giving me a little extra time to turn in assignments. And just the learning process is so very different when you don’t have class … Also the fact that I don’t go outside almost ever, other than for shopping or fresh air every couple days. It is a little saddening, disheartening, and a little depressing.”
At first, Gittens thought he’d be happy to be done with collegiate tennis. After playing the sport competitively since age 6, Gittens looked forward to letting his body rest and heal after the season was canceled.
But it didn’t take long for that initial wave of relief to turn into disappointment. He had worked hard to rehab a right hip injury to make it back to the season. A few people doubted he could even play his senior year. Gittens had competed in all five of Howard’s matches this spring before the season was canceled.
He and his good friend, fellow senior Sagar Raju, had finally received their letterman jackets and were excited to show them off on senior day—a celebration of senior members on collegiate sports teams that typically takes place during the last home competition. That won’t be happening this year.
“I wanted to prove that I got back and that I was fully healthy and that I could still do what I’ve been doing,” Gittens says. “And it’s definitely been hard for me to just have everything taken away. Not just my senior matches, but all the perks of being a senior taken away from me—all the fun of it, completely stripped.”
During difficult times, tennis has also given him an escape. When he gets angry over a bad test score or gets into an argument with a friend, tennis allows him to forget about that. All the stress dissolves into the repetitive sound of a racket striking a ball.
“It just allows me to clear my head,” Gitten says.
Now that option is gone. The public courts in New York City are locked, and the nets have been taken down. Gittens is considering returning to Howard next spring, but with only a few credits left before receiving his political science degree, he doesn’t think he will.
Gittens originally planned to apply to law school, but before he does that, he wants to find some “real work experience,” either as a legal assistant or at a real estate firm. Either way, Gittens is likely done with his competitive tennis career, unless he decides to pick up his racket to compete in local U.S. Tennis Association tournaments.
“The old man USTA tournaments,” he laughs.
He doesn’t know when he’ll see his teammates and friends at Howard again. To Gittens, that’s been one of the toughest parts of losing his senior season.
“I was just looking forward to just hanging out with them, because a lot of us, we’re going to be very busy in these next few months, and a lot of people are moving to just live in different states,” he says. “And I’m probably never going to get to see most of them again, unless I visit them, or they visit me. I expected at least a few more months with them before it all ended.”
Kaitlin Buff’s teammates have become her second family. They took classes together, lived together, and spent countless hours on the softball field at George Washington University over the past four years.
From the moment the six seniors on the softball team—Buff, Jenna Cone, Jessica Linquist, Priscilla Martinez, Elena Shelepak, and Faith Weber—stepped on to the Northwest Washington campus, they’ve been inseparable. And so when Shelepak brought up the idea of getting a tattoo to commemorate their time together in their group text last summer, Buff, one of the team’s starting pitchers, didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“I’m always down to do whatever, especially when it has to do with my teammates and Elena. We’re best friends, so we’re always doing weird things together,” Buff says with a laugh.
In November, at a local tattoo shop, both players got matching tattoos of the geographic coordinates of the GW softball field: 38° 55’ 1.20”N 77° 5’ 22.12”W. Buff’s is inked on her left bicep, while Shelepak got hers near her right elbow.
Now Buff is back in her hometown of Lomita, California, 2,700 miles away from where she and her best friends helped the Colonials’ softball team improve each year, from a 28-24 overall record in 2017 to finishing 44-18 last season.
Buff envisioned an even better performance this year.
“We were dreaming of going to regionals,” she says. “We really thought we could win [the Atlantic 10 Conference championship] this year, especially with the co-championship last year, we were really hungry for that win.”
The March 11 double header against Bucknell University would end up being their last games together. George Washington won the latter contest, 4-3, with Buff pitching five shutout innings of relief to earn the win. All week, their coach, Shane Winkler, told them to play each game like their last.
“And we did,” Buff says. “We took that to heart and we knew the importance of it, because we had been seeing so many seasons being canceled already for other conferences. And luckily, we were able to end on a really strong note together.”
Before the Atlantic 10 canceled the rest of the season, Winkler got the team together for one more team meeting. Later that week, they had a final practice together, and that Saturday, March 14, the seniors went to take impromptu graduation photos at the Lincoln Memorial.
They may not have had an official senior day, but that day proved to be the next best thing. The team decorated the locker room for the seniors, and gave each senior a heart locket that included dirt taken from each player’s position on the field.
Buff and her teammates will never get to know how the season would’ve turned out. And while some of the seniors may return, Buff has decided not to use her extra year of eligibility.
“Ultimately, I decided it’s better for me,” she says. “I wasn’t really prepared for grad school quite yet. Before all this happened, in my mind I would be going to grad school a few years down the road, and I didn’t want to rush it. I had planned to stay in D.C. and work. So I’ll still be able to be around my girls and hang out with them when I can.”
She doesn’t want her class and this season to be known solely as the one canceled by a global pandemic. Instead, Buff wants people to remember what they’ve accomplished, and how they did it.
“It’s unfortunate times for everyone,” Buff says. “There’s a lot of things going on in the world right now that we can’t control. And fortunately, I have a great group of girls that love each other. We’re a family, and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
For the first few weeks after the outdoor track season got canceled, Zarate had trouble waking up to go for a morning run. He would hit snooze once, twice, and then two to four more times. Some days, he woke up at noon or 1 p.m.
“I’m like, what am I doing with my life? Like, I’ve skipped breakfast and lunch already,” he remembers thinking.
Zarate struggled to motivate himself. He had overcome a cruel list of injuries—among them, a broken arm due to a bike accident his sophomore year, a hernia mesh surgery in the summer of 2018, and a stress fracture in his pelvis a year later—to put together the best performances of his college career during the most recent cross country and indoor track seasons.
Before the cross country season, Zarate began to write out his goals on a whiteboard in his apartment. They started out modest: “Run first cross country race.” Then one ambition led to another: “All-ACC.” “All-NCAA region.” “Run in nationals.” At that point, Zarate had not run in five months.
He ended up earning All-ACC and All-NCAA Southeast Region honors for cross country and finished fourth in the mile race at the ACC indoor track and field championships, with a time of 4 minutes and 2.87 seconds. Zarate was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gearing up for a breakout performance on the national stage at the NCAA indoor championships when the meet got canceled.
The outdoor season was axed shortly after.
“I can’t even describe the feeling. In a sense, it was unreal,” Zarate says. “It was like you were watching some movie, but you were in the movie and there was nothing you could do about it.”
For the outdoor season, Zarate had hoped to run under 3:40 in the 1,500 meters and work toward qualifying for the Olympic Trials. After years of pain, surgeries, and painful platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections in his pelvic region last July, this was supposed to be the year that it would all come together.
While still in New Mexico after the NCAA canceled the indoor championships, Zarate and his teammate, fellow redshirt senior Peter Seufer, took off for a hike to clear their minds. They reached the highest point of the mountain about an hour later. At the top, Zarate could see all of Albuquerque—and a future after the pandemic—in front of them.
“Being up there, it made me realize there’s a lot more to life than seeing who can run the fastest,” he says. “Even though running is so important to us, it’s not going to be completely gone. If you’re truly passionate about what you do, this shouldn’t be something that’s going to hold you back. I can still go out and run, and train, and get better. I can still work on falling in love with running again.”
Back in Blacksburg, he slowly accepted that he would not be racing again this spring and developed a routine. On Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes Tuesdays, Zarate works as a mechanic at the local bike shop from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. He tries to run twice a day, and recently came across an interview with professional runner and Olympian Shelby Houlihan, where she described workouts not as a chore, but a natural part of her balanced daily schedule—even without upcoming races.
Zarate asked himself why he started running in the first place. He realized the answer was simple, no matter what he chooses to do next year: He didn’t get into running for races, but to feel the pavement under his feet, to get the runner’s high. “Or just running up to the top of the hill,” Zarate says, “and being like, damn, I just did that.”
All of a sudden, he says, it became easier to wake up. No snooze necessary.