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'Unprecedented times': Duke athletes reflect on cancelled seasons, quarantine and more

After winning the NCAA championship last season, Gina Kim and the rest of the women's golf team will have to look to next year for a chance at a repeat.
After winning the NCAA championship last season, Gina Kim and the rest of the women's golf team will have to look to next year for a chance at a repeat.

When Duke suspended all athletic activities March 12, hundreds had to suddenly quit practicing or playing games and leave their teams.

A couple of women’s golfers were in Augusta, Ga., over spring break, practicing for April’s National Women’s Amateur before the rest of their teammates joined them for a March 14-15 tournament. They never got the chance to meet up.

“I guess I didn’t realize the call would come up so soon, that they were just going to cancel everything,” sophomore women’s golfer Gina Kim, who was in Augusta waiting for her teammates, said. “So, obviously, we had to call some people from the athletic department to see if we would still be able to play [the regular-season tournament in Augusta], and they said, ‘No, unfortunately, you’re going to have to turn around.’ Later on, as things progressed, we realized, ‘Oh, this is getting more serious than we thought.’ You know, I think at first, some of our team was just in shock, before anything else. We were just kind of in disbelief that our season ended so quickly like that.”

While some, like women’s lacrosse senior Catherine Cordrey, were “on edge” even before spring seasons were cancelled, few players were even given the chance to officially receive the crushing news from their own coaches.

“Things were happening so quickly that we didn’t even have the time to talk about it as a team,” Cordrey said. “Just finding out about team seasons being cancelled over social media, just like Twitter and announcements online. It was frustrating.”

Junior men’s golfer Evan Katz recalls a similar experience.

“We were just practicing, and I checked my phone, and I saw a text from one of my friends that said, ‘Hey man, so sorry to hear about the news,’ and I didn’t know what exactly that meant,” Katz said. “And then I called him and he was like, ‘Yeah, the ACC just cancelled the basketball [tournament],’ and then I'm pretty sure he said Duke cancelled athletics or whatever…. It was a little bit unnerving.”

A unique situation

Losing a season is hard when one of your jobs is competing in a sport at a high level, especially for the players whose teams were poised to make championship runs this spring. But for many, it’s what their teams had off the field that’s so hard to be without.

While there’s yet to be any official word on Blue Devils exercising their additional eligibility, all of this went down before the NCAA had even considered helping the affected athletes. To most, it felt like their time with their seniors was over as soon as the call came down.

“Obviously it’s extremely disappointing to let our seniors go off like that with no national championship, no postseason, no nothing like that, so we decided to have our usual senior dinner much earlier,” Kim said. “We got together and had dinner and talked together about how crazy the situation has been, and I think it was good that we managed to wrap up whatever we had going on and let our seniors go off on a good note.”

It’s not just the end of the season that made this a unique situation, but the loss of playing their sport altogether. A large portion of Duke athletes, especially those with professional aspirations, play in leagues and tournaments year-round. Given the current pandemic, most opportunities for that are still a month or more away. 

For those who went home in March though, quarantine gives them a great opportunity to spend their extra free-time with family.

“It's been really nice [being home with my family]. I can't imagine having been alone through this time,” Katz said. “I definitely miss friends and getting to do some of that, but it's also been really nice to get to spend extra time with my mom and dad, especially with the fact that I’m going to be a senior this coming year and probably moving out after that, so I guess it's nice to just enjoy this last little bit where I’ll get to be living with them.”

Other athletes, however, are finding that being separated from family is harder than ever before. Cordrey, for example, has family in the Tri-state area, the worst-affected area in the entire country. So she’s stayed in her Durham apartment during quarantine.

Making use of downtime

Without a chance to devote energy to their sport, players are also using this time to catch up on some hobbies.

“I’ve been going and running the trails around campus. It’s definitely emotional any time I have to go near campus and think about where we would be with our season at this point,” Cordrey said. “I love to do puzzles, so I have a puzzle right now that I’ve been working on. I’m also very into arts and crafts, so I love to paint, and I have a bunch of crafts laying around my apartment, kind of like a whole workshop-type-of-thing. So I’m not just watching TV when I stay in my apartment.”

Quarantine can even be a good time to get into cooking.

“I’ve been cooking a lot, kind of experimenting. I think I might do some Bullet Journaling,” Kim said. “I don’t know, I’m trying to find little artistic, creative ways to keep my mind going, keep my brain functioning…. [I’m cooking] a lot of Korean food, stuff that I would watch my mom make, and I would try to cook dinner for the family. So considering no one has fallen victim to my cooking, I will say it’s a success.”

While that added time has its perks, it also means that a player's normally tightly-scheduled day is suddenly much more open. For a lot of people, this has meant trouble staying focused and motivated, which is why productivity and organization is so important.

“I’m trying to keep sort of a structure—the first couple of weeks, I didn’t really have a schedule or anything, but now I’m sort of trying to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time just to keep some normalcy,” Katz said. “On the guitar, I’ve been working on ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ That’s sort of what I’ve been working on, and then other than that I’ve just been reading some good books, trying to just work on my mind and keep getting better.”

Even after packing up bags, turning around and saying goodbye to Duke’s campus and facilities, it’s not always easy to process such an earth-shattering shift to someone’s life. It’s hard to stay centered and grounded when you have to completely reorganize everything.

“It hit me hard at first, but I hadn't really fully processed it, if that makes sense,” Katz said. “I understood that the season was over and all that, and we weren’t going to be playing with the seniors ever again, and that sort of all hit me pretty hard at first. But I guess I hadn't really fully processed the idea that in two days I would be home and transitioning to online school and all that. It was just a lot to handle at first…. I guess when I got home and kind of stopped moving for a second was when it really hit me.”

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