In the field of astrophysics, the term 'corona' refers to the edge of our sun's atmosphere. The sun's corona is especially pronounced during solar eclipses when the typical brightness of the sun is obscured by the dark moon. The brightness of day disappears during an eclipse, and the world is seen through a different, darker lens. But the corona of the sun acts as a reminder of the day that is to return upon the ending of the eclipse.
This article is meant to be a message of hope, in a time where hope may run thin.
On Monday, March 9th, there was an ominous feel to the evening that was certainly eclipse-like. Against the backdrop of a dreary, stormy day and a small handful of school closures, the Downers Grove South Mustang Relays at North Central College raged on in its typical glory. There were highlights, national times and great races, but my head coaches (Chicago St. Ignatius HS) Matt Haffner and Ed Ernst noted that there was a thinner crowd than usual to watch these races. Loyola Academy's absence from the meet due to their school closing suddenly that morning was notable especially to us, being their primary Catholic League rival school. As a society, we were still a couple of days from the paranoia of large-group gatherings, but the effect on our collect consciousness had already started.
The night was still a night full of hope for our program. Our 4x800 team (Lexi Affolter, Kristina Dalton, Rhiannon O'Keefe, Mia Trotter) ran 9:53.80 officially to put our squad on the map for the Illinois Top Times meet. Our 4x200 team (Gabby Meschino, Sheridan Carter, "Gigi" Gianna Bachand, Ari Afolabi) ran well (1:49.90) and, with me being the late-night bus driver for the day, I came to know this group so passionate about the sport much better. And our 4x400 team's (Emily Hwang, Alexis Fernando, Maddie Semmer, Zoey Holland) performance made me excited for what seemed to be shaping up as a showdown with Loyola at our Conference Championship meet to be held at University of Chicago on March 21st. Lots of hope for the season that lay ahead.
And then, the dominoes began to fall. When the Ivy League suspended all winter and spring sports and the NBA suspended its season (both on Wednesday, March 11th) due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the ripple effect from league to league and school to school was now inevitable. The IHSA held onto hope that the state basketball tournament could still be played, but finally with their feet to the fire, canceled the tournament on Thursday night. On Thursday and Friday, our remaining indoor meets dropped off the calendar one by one, including our conference championship meet, until it was evident that no meets remained on the state schedule.
The final hammer was our school administration's decision, in line with the Archdiocese of Chicago and ordinance of Illinois Gov. Pritzer, to suspend all in-person schooling and sports practices and competitions until further notice.
Friday, March 13th was a bizarre mix of emotions for everyone, including myself, as we grappled throughout the school day with this strange, unpredictable reality. As a teacher, I recognized mid-class that this will be the final time I see this group of students for what may be a long while. Overcome with emotion, I retreated after class to a friend's office and tearfully processed to him the pain and heartache of leaving the school halls that push me out of bed each morning.
I then looked ahead to our practice that afternoon, our final officially scheduled practice (as of now) for the season, and felt a mix of excitement and dread for this time. Excitement because this meant two hours of time that I knew I would get with my athletes and co-coaches, dread because I knew the disappointment and hurt our girls would have and the certain good-bye until whenever. I was sure our girls would ask if we would have an outdoor season at all, and of course I desired to respond in the affirmative, but I knew I would have to tell them the truth: that I could make no promises, and the future makes no promises for us, as we have already experienced.
Knowing the fitness and motivation of our girls was too high not to capitalize on, we organized a time trial that ended up having each distance from 100 to 3200. Every single performance was fantastic, because the girls took seriously their chance on the track, with beautiful weather and their teammates present in-person. One of our distance runners, sophomore Haley Rieckelman, ran 13:01 for 3200 last week so I decided to pace her under 13:00 with this chance we had. (Note: Haley's goal was to run 12:59.99 but we all had bigger hopes for her. She ended up running 12:47.) Even with clouds of uncertainty over our head, the sun was still bright and our team's attitude was positive and constructive. This practice still gave so much hope for our program, for what still may lay ahead.
Finally, as the girls departed from the training room after practice one-by-one, we stepped both feet forward into a new phase of run-logging and encouraging over email and by word of mouth. This becomes a true test of the inner drive of our athletes (and test of the values we as coaches have imbued), without the accountability of our 3:20pm meeting every day and the countless other bodies pushing themselves as well. When, and not if, we return, I know there will be countless stories that make me, as a coach, beyond proud of what our crew did while out of sight. I am encouraged by what I already have heard, particularly our girls' plans to text and meet regularly despite the long distances between houses since the Saint Ignatius student body is non-boundaried.
When not if, we return.
This is a period of eclipse right now. Dark and difficult to see what surrounds us and what lay ahead. There is a collective sadness in response to the absence of sports and community now from our lives, but I have witnessed therefore a collective desire for unity and hope as well. This article is meant to feed into that desire for hope, and recognition of the bright corona around the edge of the blotted sun, a reminder of the brightness that is inevitable in due time.
Every cancellation and every headline further constricting life this week was another hit to the heart for everyone in our country. Every league cancellation, meet cancellation, school cancellation. Losing sports as our ability to cope with tragedy is a shot to the hopes of those who lean on sports in these times. But for every cancellation, there will be a re-opening. In soon enough time, there will be a stream of tweets of reschedulings, re-openings, first guns, first pitches. There will be an abundance of symbolic returns to normalcy all over the country, when we get that first school day and first practice in, when that first meet begins and ends, the work that we put in during this time period will be all worthwhile. In no less simple terms, I am incredibly excited for the springtime that returns sports and therefore an outlet for our passions and dreams once again, with the newfound realization that every competition and practice we get is a gift.
Even in the name Coronavirus, we can find the hope of our situation, because the darkness of the eclipse does not happen without the brightness of our sun's corona, evidence that the sun will shine brightly as it did before, proof that feeling the sun's warmth the second time around is even more special now that we have felt the cold. Our meantime responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones who are at high-risk during this time of the pandemic. But I believe, as a coach, there is plenty on the other side of this eclipse to push us forward.
There will be so many magical moments, even if it does not feel that way now. Getting to the other side indeed will feel so, so, sweet. And you can bet that we will see you there.