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Teen athletes relieved to return to sport but wary of more pandemic shutdowns

The last two years have been challenging for most Canadians, but high school athletes have faced a particular set of stressors as the pandemic repeatedly disrupted the school year, closed their fields of play and put their training, mental and physical health and athletic aspirations at risk. 

Since March 2020, teen athletes have juggled new models of classroom learning along with sports shutdowns and, more recently, patchy returns to sport. 

Seven student athletes share what they’ve been going through as COVID-19 changed life as they know it.

‘Rejuvenated’ on the court: Cheyenne Rowe, Ajax, Ont.

Having gone through quadmesters, virtual school, modified semesters and now a return to traditional ones, Ontario high school senior Cheyenne Rowe discovered an aptitude for learning online during the pandemic.

“I had my own time to study and I didn’t have any of my friends distracting me … I was able to actually focus on my grades,” said the Grade 12 student and self-described introvert from Ajax, Ont. 

Still, the pandemic also sometimes sparked anxiety for Rowe, 17, who plays forward for Markham Prep in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association. A lengthy sports shutdown dominated their Grade 11 year, which is a key showcase year for college basketball recruiters, and led to a dramatic drop in Rowe’s physical activity. 

“Usually, I’m practicing twice a day plus lift or conditioning training, but all of a sudden you just go to doing absolutely nothing, sitting at a desk and staring at a screen all day,” they said. “I walked up and down the stairs just to get some motion in.” 

teen athletes relieved to return to sport but wary of more pandemic shutdowns
After the pandemic shut down sports, Rowe felt ‘rejuvenated to be on the court and to be able to move and sweat and get knocked around.’ (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Solo training and online sessions with teammates gradually grew into live practices and a moderate return to camps and tournaments. Things have approached normal, despite ongoing restrictions such as limits on fans in the stands, they said.

“When I’m on the court … I don’t have to worry about homework or anything like that,” said Rowe, who’s headed to Virginia’s James Madison University next fall.

“It’s like a wall [around us] and inside that wall is just a beautiful breeze, fresh air. And I was … rejuvenated to be on the court and to be able to move and sweat and get knocked around.”

Wary of more lockdowns: Bruce Murray, Halifax 

Apart from still wearing masks, school doesn’t feel too different this fall, said 16-year-old Bruce Murray, who’s returned to taking four subjects daily this term and training five days a week. 

With just Mondays and Wednesdays free from lengthy afternoon training sessions, “I don’t really have time to catch up on any school work after school [most days],” noted the Grade 11 student gymnast. 

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‘Gymnastics is already a pretty hard sport to learn,’ says teen gymnast Bruce Murray. Add in months-long pauses in training, along with physical distancing restrictions for coaches, and ‘it’s been pretty hard to get used to.’ (Bruce Murray)

However, what the Halifax teen is most worried about is his performance in the gym, noting that he’s struggled to progress due to multiple lockdown periods over the past 19 months. 

Rushing in too quickly earlier this year led to injuries, so Murray is now taking it slower with his training. Yet he’s also concerned that a fresh round of restrictions could restart another cycle of cancelled competitions — which take months to prepare for — and further roadblocks for developing athletes.

“Gymnastics is already a pretty hard sport to learn because it’s usually not things that your body wants to do,” said Murray. 

“Mixing in not being able to train for a couple of months at a time and just not feeling that comfortable with your co-ordination … then not actually being able to get that much physical help from coaches [because of social distancing], it’s been pretty hard to get used to.”

WATCH | ‘My life’, ‘my happy place’: sport is more than a game to teen athletes:

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For teen athletes, sport is more than just a game

1 hour ago

Duration 3:42

A stress outlet, somewhere to learn life lessons, ‘my happy place’: 7 high school athletes share how they define sport and where they hope it will lead them. 3:42

Excited to get back on the field: Quintyn Rubaine-Andre, Toronto 

After the pandemic messed with his Grade 8 year, Toronto teen Quintyn Rubaine-Andre is turning things around both in class and on the soccer pitch. 

When school went online, he had trouble learning math. Now back in the classroom as a high school freshman, he says he’s quickly catching up on fractions, exponents and multiplying reciprocals. 

“I personally love in-person school. I love seeing people and being able to do projects … talk with the teachers,” said Rubaine-Andre, 14.

Though the defensive midfielder kept up with team training online and solo workouts when soccer was shut down, “it’s one thing to train by yourself. It’s a whole other thing to be in the game, having pressure on you,” said the Grade 9 student, who plays in the Markham FC, part of the Ontario Soccer’s Ontario Player Development League (OPDL).

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Midfielder Quintyn Rubaine-Andre is approaching school and the soccer pitch with renewed intensity this term after enduring pandemic changes and closures. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

After a 2020 season that was “training only” due to ongoing restrictions, Rubaine-Andre has been thrilled with the OPDL’s nearly normal return this year — although he really misses travelling to other parts of Canada and the U.S. for matches.

“At the end of the season, there is usually a trial to be on Team Ontario,” he explained. “I’m really excited to get back on the field … because I really want to show them how good I am.”

Just happy to be back: Amelia Hawkes, Edmonton

Being back in class this term has meant a bigger workload, but 15-year-old Amelia Hawkes has taken it in stride after last year’s pivoting between online and in-person schooling. 

“I persevered: came up with solutions to make sure I can get what I need to get done … strategies and self-advocacy have helped me manage it,” said Hawkes, who plays ringette east of Edmonton with Sherwood Park Power AA and lacrosse with multiple squads: the Sherwood Park Titans, North Strong, Team Alberta and her school, Vimy Ridge Academy. 

Juggling school with practices that span 90 minutes three times a week and four to eight hours on weekends, “the biggest challenges for me have been finding time to do it all, scheduling [and] making sure I give myself a break so I don’t work myself into exhaustion,” explained Hawkes, who’s in Grade 10. 

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‘Strategies and self-advocacy have helped me manage’ pandemic schooling, says ringette and lacrosse player Amelia Hawkes. (Amelia Hawkes)

The return to the playing field has taken some getting used to: the Edmonton student has navigated through temporary lockdown periods as well as things like cohorting limits — tricky for a player on several teams. Masks now stay on “pretty much until we put our helmets on” and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test have become routine for practices and tournaments.

“It’s tough to keep up with all the changes that keep being made, but for the most part it’s gone smoothly. I’m just happy to be back playing,” said the teen.

A mental toll: Ellie Lancaster, Halifax

Active with multiple squads, including the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Academy in Nova Scotia and a Canada Summer Games team, Ellie Lancaster is a seasoned pro at juggling school and soccer. 

“Because I started the high-level training at a young age, I’ve gotten used to managing my time, and managing school and soccer, and balancing everything,” said the 16-year-old Halifax goalkeeper.

However, amid COVID-19, the Grade 11 student faced difficult new challenges: virtual school, quadmesters with long classes and a tough stretch of no soccer, followed by an achingly slow, cohorted return. 

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Ellie Lancaster, who plays soccer with several different squads in Halifax, says most adults don’t realize how seriously teen athletes have been affected by the pandemic. (Ellie Lancaster)

Losing soccer, which Lancaster calls a major motivator and her “happy place,” took a mental toll and made dealing with school even harder.

“It affected me a lot more than I thought. I feel like most parents don’t realize … how much we were affected, like our mental health and everything,” she noted. 

She’s felt a big improvement, however, with this fall’s return to in-person classes, a regular semester plus nearly-normal practices and games. “It’s my outlet from stresses in life … The thought of not being able to play soccer again for a long period of time really scared me.”

A ‘weird mindset’: Edson Cheng, Toronto

Shifting from hybrid attendance and quadmesters last year to modified semesters this year has kept Edson Cheng off kilter at school.

The Grade 10 student is now working with a tutor to help raise his marks and keep him on his dream path to post-secondary education. Losing sports — he plays basketball and volleyball — for much of last year didn’t help either.

The 15-year-old says playing competitive sports helps him channel any feelings of anxiety, insecurity, anger and frustration.

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When playing sports, any frustrations slip away and ‘my whole mentality just switches,’ says high school athlete Edson Cheng. (Edward Cheng)

“I can just let it go …  If I was angry, stressed from school, I just play volleyball [and] my whole mentality just switches,”  explained Cheng, who plays middle blocker on his school team at Toronto’s York Mills Collegiate Institute and with Reach Volleyball Club.  

When sports were on hold, Cheng stayed active playing basketball at home and with solo workouts. Even still, he admits he was in “a weird mindset” during that time and felt anxious about when organized athletics would actually return. 

“When the school year [started] and I heard all the sports would come back, I felt super happy.”

Games look different: Jordon Heppner, Steinbach, Man.

School is much easier now that it’s in-person again, said Grade 12 student Jordan Keppner, from Steinbach, Man. 

Online classes “tested your self-motivation at home, always having to wake up and go straight to your Chromebook and look at a screen for six hours,” explained the 17-year-old Steinbach Regional Secondary student athlete.

The teen volleyball player is also back to balancing academics and athletics, playing both for his school’s senior squad as well as the University of Manitoba’s Junior Bisons, the club he’s been with for three years. 

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Jordon Heppner is taking new pandemic rules for volleyball practices and matches in stride because he found the sport shutdowns tough. ‘My life is literally volleyball and sports.’ (Jordon Heppner)

The games look different. Masks stay on for practices and when leaving the court during matches, for instance, and officials nixed switching sides between sets as well as handshakes with opponents. Still, Heppner says he’s good with whatever puts him back on the court.

Losing volleyball early in the pandemic “was really hard for me because my life is literally volleyball and sports,” said the teen, who plays middle blocker or left-side hitter.

Keeping his grades up for university — Heppner’s headed to the University of Manitoba — is also easier with volleyball in the picture. “If [volleyball is] part of my day, it just makes my day a whole lot better … That always makes me happy.”

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