In the wake of COVID-19 closures, high schools around the globe have been affected. In particular, the graduating class of 2020 faces startling disappointments as their senior year comes to an unexpected halt. Whether it’s uncertainty about traditional aspects of the high school experience, such as if prom and graduation will be held virtually, postponed, or cancelled altogether, or frustration at the rapidly dwindling time to make college commitments and see friends before they part ways, this year’s seniors are confronted with countless unanticipated concerns. For senior athletes like track and field sprinter Emma Brundige, who wanted to end their final season on a high note, the sudden limitations on team practice and training are a particularly rough blow.
Emma has raced competitively for six years, joining track before high school to stay fit for her role as a soccer goalkeeper at the time. “My mom was afraid I was going to lose a lot of endurance. I started running track and I found a group of friends and I stuck with it ever since. I committed to it because I realized I like being able to race for myself, but still be a part of a team.” She has competed and placed at the statewide level in sprinting events, long jump, and the heptathlon, a seven-event combined contest, for Bainbridge High School’s Track and Field team in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Additionally, she has qualified for the Junior Olympics and set several school and club records. A leader and inspiration, Emma has served as team captain for Bainbridge Track and field for two years and has been voted MVP (Most Valuable Player) and most inspirational by her teammates. Emma wants to continue her passion for running through college because “it’s something that will keep me grounded. I think having a routine similar to high school – school, track, homework – will be helpful.” She is committed to running track for Western Washington University next year and hoped to finish strong at her last track season running for Bainbridge.
But just a few weeks into the season, her plans began to unravel. “At first school was cancelled for two days and we had to cancel our home meet,” she says. Shortly after, the entire season was cancelled. Making the most of the temporary school closure at the time (this was before the stay-at-home order was imposed in Washington state), Emma was out with friends when she received the news via email. “I was devastated…I just went home afterwards and cried. I cried for a very long time,” she remembers.
After her initial distress, Emma began to tell herself that competitions might just be postponed, that “there might still be a club season in the summer.” She kept her training up, “pretending there would be a season,” she recalls. “I was able to record some time trials at the beginning of the shutdown. I was on track to get some more personal records and maybe another school record or two at the rate I was training and [based on] the results that came from the time trials.”
But as COVID-19 began to claim more lives, USA Track & Field announced that all summer meets would be canceled. This bitter news came a mere two weeks after Emma and thousands of other high school seniors learned that schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year. Disappointed but by no means discouraged, Emma is still staying active. “I know I need to stay in some shape to be better prepared for collegiate track and field, but I’m not training at the intensity I was training at [during track season]. I have toned down the workouts, training like I would in the off-season. I’ve also been focusing more on core, strength, and injury prevention since now is the time to take care of yourself.” She does have considerable time to prepare. “My next meet will be in the winter, so right now it’s just maintaining some endurance and not gaining the quarantine fifteen,” she jokes.
Emma has had to alter all of her workouts, which previously relied on her high school track that is now closed to the public. “I’ve been using whatever hill is nearby…for repeat [sprints] and training.” Besides speed workouts, Emma has been going on “longer runs – for a sprinter at least – of about four or five miles to have a [fitness] baseline.” Although to minimize breathing difficulty she does not run with a mask, Emma is still taking precautions. “When encountering pedestrians, I tend to cross the road if no one else is on the other side. Otherwise, I pause the run and just stand in the [roadside] ditch,” she says. “I think it is better to be safe than sorry so I avoid working out in places where others have been.” To avoid injury, she has several pieces of advice. “I make sure I am thoroughly warmed up to prevent any muscle injuries. Then I stay warm throughout the workout and am sure to be in constant motion.”
When asked if she found training in isolation feasible, Emma admits that “it’s definitely been harder.” She thrives on being able to run with others and being around teammates to push through workouts. Self-discipline is paramount while working out alone. “I don’t have a set workout time like I did in high school so it’s easier to want to skip a workout, or try and cut it shorter since no one is there,” Emma explains.
Although her workout performance is affected, Emma is not overly upset as she is not focusing on performance at the moment. She already had a delayed start to her spring season, having sprained her ankle while doing the long jump for indoor track in the winter. “I spent the first ten days of track in the athletic training room doing PT [physical therapy] and rehab. I was just finishing up PT for my ankle when quarantine [started]… and I was just cleared to be able to compete. If anything, quarantine has made me more aware of any injuries that might pop up since I have the time to take care of myself.”
Her solitary training has not only helped with physical endurance and recovery: “I’m gaining mental toughness, which may be the best thing to come out of isolation training,” she says. Quarantine has also helped Emma add new strengthening exercises and cross-training to her routine. “I have been doing the Chloe Ting workout so that was something new I added to my strength and core exercises,” she shares. “Chloe Ting has been kicking my butt and I’ve definitely gotten stronger and I would recommend [her workouts].” Practicing closer to home has its benefits; Emma is now able to spend more time with her family. She describes her parents as her “biggest fans,” adding that she has a pair of starting blocks at home for sprinting. “I’ve been practicing [race] starts and my sister has taken pleasure in being the starter for me.” She has also been biking with her father more often, going on longer rides and exploring Bainbridge Island before she hopes to leave for college. Her message about social distancing: “Fingers crossed; I really want to be on campus in the fall. Please stay home so seniors don’t lose another big part of traditions.”
And of course, Emma painfully misses racing. “Some days are definitely worse than others. Every Thursday at 3:30 I’ll start to tear up because that is [when our] meets start.” Although Athletic.net, an online database for cross country and track times, is holding virtual meets, she has no plans to participate. “I really enjoy racing when I have people on the track with me. I also don’t want to try and replace what would have been my senior season.” Although her team cannot legally gather for practice, they still keep in touch via Zoom, and “coaches have been emailing every week like they would in any regular season.” The close-knit friendships she has made throughout her track experience makes isolation even more frustrating. “We all hate not being able to train with or see each other. A lot of my closest friends run track with me, and my best friend and I have been on the same track team since seventh grade. I think we all feel awful over the fact that we didn’t know our last day of practice was our last day of practice.”
Emma continues to stay motivated by reminding herself that this pandemic will eventually end. Although she cannot see her friends in person right now, she is talking with them about hopeful summer plans to “make up for senior year,” including “a bonfire to get together as soon as quarantine is lifted.” She also finds comfort in anticipating a new academic chapter in her life. “I’m focusing a lot of my extra time on looking forward to college, meeting new people and experiencing something different.”
When asked about what she has concocted in her quarantine kitchen, Emma and her family have considerable cooking experience under their belts. “I’ve been making pizza dough every Friday night and my family and I have been experimenting with different toppings and trying to recreate our favorites. My mom has been trying out new bread recipes and I make brownies or cookies every other night. But nothing new or crazy has come out of the kitchen during this. That being said, we attempted English muffins and decided to leave that to the professionals.”
Emma thinks her life will eventually go back to normal. “But I feel that our generation will be more cautious when it comes to [similar] situations,” she adds. Her advice to other athletes in quarantine is to look forward to returning to training while also being sure to stay active. “Your mind and body will thank you. Even if it’s a short run, it’s beneficial for your mental health.”
I reached out because I was struggling with how to cope with my season ending in a way I never dreamed of. I needed this to reflect on my time running for my school and to be thankful for the times I did have with the team. I know that I could’ve had a better ending – but it is what it is.