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Feven Getachew
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The courts are closed, the season canceled; Grinnell senior athletes share hopes and regrets

Brenda Guan ’20 is the only senior on the women’s tennis team whose season was canceled due to COVID-19. Photo contributed by Ted Schultz.

On March 10, the Grinnell Athletic Department announced that it would cancel all spring programs as the College shut down the campus due to the impacts of COVID-19, a decision which players said left them feeling confused, angry and heartbroken.

The athletic department announced their verdict two days before the NCAA officially suspended competition nationally. Men’s and women’s tennis were in the middle of their season with an 8-2 record and a 12-0 record, respectively. Baseball, softball, track and field and golf were also in-season.

“I really feel like the administrators of our department let us down. They gave me no impression they fought for us,” said Brenda Guan ’20 of the women’s tennis team.

The Grinnell Athletic Department held a meeting for all spring athletes on March 10, the same day the College announced its shift to “distance learning.” During this meeting, Assistant Athletic Director Ben Cooprider allowed students and coaches to voice their opinions and ask questions about the future of the rapidly changing semester.

“The news of our season being cancelled was absolutely heart-breaking for me, our assistant coach and the rest of the team. While we saw the importance of doing our part to ‘flatten the curve,’ our students have given so much to the program over their 4 years and spent many years prior to coming to Grinnell honing their skills in preparation for college tennis,” said Paige Madara, head coach of men’s and women’s tennis.

“There was a lot of anger in that room, but I knew there was no way the College would make an exception for athletics,” said Guan. “As a senior, I felt very out of place in a space with a lot of non-seniors who were probably at most just annoyed about the whole thing but still had more seasons to look forward to. I had a lot to say but I felt like if I had spoken up in that room it would’ve just fallen on deaf ears,” she said.

Reflecting on her years at Grinnell, Guan said she wishes she would have had more of a voice on campus, calling on underclassmen to, “do something about the student/athlete divide.”

“We are alienated from the rest of campus and the administration,” said Guan. “If we want the administration to fight for us, we have to be able to reach out to those outside of the department and convince them we’re all in this together, that our experiences as athletes [are] an integral part of our Grinnell experience.”

“Since the news broke, I have felt just about every emotion possible,” said Nick Alex ’20, a biology and anthropology double major.

Nick Alex ’20 will miss the “home” he found in the tennis program. Photo contributed by Ted Schultz.

Alex participated in both doubles and singles matches for the men’s tennis team, only amassing two losses in the 2018/19 season. “I care deeply about Grinnell both as an institution and [as] a community, and having spent four years and two summers here, I had made a home for myself here where I was comfortable. Finding out about the discontinuation of the spring semester on campus made me feel that I was losing everything I cared about in a short span of six days,” he said.

Another senior athlete, 2019 Midwest Conference champion Ben Cobin ’20, said, “Unlike some of my friends, the decision didn’t hit me when I read the email. I think that has given me patience and understanding of the situation.”

Cobin had been in a semester-long race to climb the Grinnell College record-board of most wins for men’s tennis, but with the season cut short his place will rest forever at 11th with 132 overall victories.

The men’s tennis as a team was poised to win yet another conference title, extending their 16-year win streak.

“I believe the decision to cancel was correct and I fully support it. I do wish I had more time to cherish and understand what Grinnell meant to me. I think leading my team to another conference championship would have been a great way to end my time as a student-athlete,” Cobin said.

Each senior athlete shared immense gratitude for the time they had within their programs. Cobin expressed his appreciation for how Grinnell Athletics challenged him to sculpt a “growth mindset.” Guan said that she appreciated “the friends and mentors” she met along the way. Alex said he was given a sense of “family” from his team.

The seniors said that they were most proud of the team culture they were leaving behind. Cobin — a member of the Grinnell Judicial Council and the athletic department’s Gender Equity Task Force — is proud of the diversity of the men’s tennis team.

Ben Cobin ’20 was poised to break records this season for Grinnell tennis. Photo contributed by Ted Schultz.

“A lot of teams seek to recruit and train their players to be what they think is the single best type of player,” he said. “At Grinnell we have an extreme range of playstyles. I believe that this diversity allows the team to grow much more and develop a smart and tactical game style to overcome our opponents. … I hope that this remains a key aspect of Grinnell tennis.”

Alex said that he admires the culture of “support” of the men’s tennis program and that he wants younger players to support each other not only on the court but “in every other aspect of their lives.”

“I hope I set a good enough example for succeeding senior classes on this team,” said Guan. “Seniors are not there for the attention; no one should be on any team for attention. They’re there to give — give their time, their resources, their connections and their advice. I hope my teammates can understand from my limited time as their senior that all I wanted to do was help them be successful and happy on this team.”

While busy publishing articles on a blog titled Puppers and Pandas (an account of her experience as a Chinese American) in her free time, Guan said that she leaves the Grinnell community with regret that she did not cherish her time as much as she had wished.

“I didn’t get to say a lot of goodbyes. But no one ever said life was fair,” she said.

Guan left a message for the younger members of the tennis team and Grinnell College underclass-people at large.

“A lifetime at Grinnell is not enough. Not a moment is to be wasted. Every day is a chance to live your best Grinnellian life. It’s a hard lesson, and I will never have the chance to heed it and do better. For everyone else who does have time, I hope they treasure every second of it, because it’s one second more than I will ever have,” Guan said.

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