A new normal: student-athletes share experiences during COVID-19 pandemic


Illustration by Lillie Busch.

For the last five months, college athletes have battled with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the cancellation of spring sports to the preparation to play in the fall, Southern Miss athletes reflect on their experiences with COVID-19 and their desire to return to normal.

When the NCAA canceled spring sports in March due to concerns over Coronavirus, many athletes’ seasons abruptly ended. Senior volleyball and beach volleyball player Madison Lawler remembers when she learned the news.

“We were told we could go home for a week and just kind of chill out and that we were going to figure things out,” Lawler said. “Then we got home and they canceled beach season as a whole, so that was already emotional for all of us beach players because we had only been two weeks or really two tournaments in.”

For senior golfer Valeria Pichardo, the spring season’s cancellation presented a challenge of deciding whether she should go back home to Mexico with her family or stay in Hattiesburg. She decided to stay in Hattiesburg for the whole summer.

“The reason I didn’t go home is I knew it was going to get worse and everything was going to shut down eventually,” Pichardo said. “Golf courses were closed for two months and here, we were lucky that our golf course was not closed.”

Pichardo spent time over the summer using the open courses for practice, sometimes by herself, sometimes accompanied by Head Coach Lucy Burke and Burke’s husband. Pichardo says that, while she enjoyed the Burkes’ company, she missed her teammates. At the time, her nearest teammate was in Alabama.

“Everyone else was either out of the country or a few states away, so I was here by myself,” Pichardo said. 

Regardless, Pichardo appreciates that she was able to practice over the summer and attributes it to the safety of golf during the virus.

“Golf is probably one of the safest sports to do right now. We’re out and about and we’re not in a closed area,” Pichardo said. “So, we are lucky because of that and I was able to practice the whole summer, which I feel really privileged because I know that a lot of sports weren’t able to practice for months.”

Lawler was one of the many athletes who could not practice during the early months of the pandemic. 

“Whenever everything was shut down, it was like, wow, I’m probably losing all my skills because I can’t even go practice right now,” Lawler said.

Now, Lawler and the volleyball team are back in the gym and able to practice. She says that the team is slowly working back to normal for the next season.

“We’ve definitely been easing back into things,” Lawler said. “We’ve just made sure to keep everything low impact to start with and just progressing throughout the summer.”

As teams at Southern Miss return to practices and prepare for games, athletes will have to adjust to new safety protocols. Lawler explains some of the procedures now in place at volleyball practices.

“We’ve had to do temperature checks when we come into the gym, and then we’re split into groups[. We] have to wear our masks everywhere and we sanitize before and after practice,” Lawler said. 

After the first football practice on Aug. 5, senior quarterback Jack Abraham says that the added procedures do not change much.

“There’s obviously different little safety precautions, but we just want to go out there and play ball,” Abraham said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to halt the spread of this thing and keep us safe so we can play some football.”

Pichardo says she believes the golf team will be splitting groups into smaller groups or pairs to practice social distancing when they return to practice on Aug. 24. She says that the measures will not bother her at practice or as the team plays tournaments this season.

“I don’t feel nervous about going back to tournaments, especially following the rules,” Pichardo said. “It will feel different, it will feel weird, but there’s nothing else you can really do about it. Golf, right now, is one of the safest sports[,] so I don’t really feel that uncomfortable going back to play.”

While student-athletes at Southern Miss are ready to return to play, they also understand the uncertain future for this season. 

“I have no clue what the future’s going to hold and of course, I want to have a season,” Lawler said. “I want to be able to play my senior season, but I also know how serious the virus is. I want to make sure we’re doing the right thing with having a season and we’re keeping each other healthy.”

Aside from all of the complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes are still looking forward to the season and school year.

“I just want to enjoy my senior year. I think that’s the thing I’m looking forward to the most,” Pichardo said. “I’m also looking forward to seeing how classes go because that’s also going to be interesting.”

“I think I was planning on taking my senior year one day at a time just because it’s my last time do[ing] it, but I’m definitely taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, because of everything else that’s going around,” Lawler said. “Just doing that and cherishing the memories I’m going to make this season for sure.”