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Reflections from a Sidelined College Senior: The Class of 2020 Will Never Get Back to Normal

RowingThis was written by Carly Glickenhaus, a 2016 graduate of Scarsdale High School and a member of the Georgetown University Senior Class:

The novelty of teleworking is wearing off for many. For adults, the benefits of working home, perhaps the salvation from a Metro North commute or the silent glory of wearing pajama pants in a Zoom conference, no longer feel like a treat but a routine. Students too are itching for this extended snow day to end and trade distant for social. As Zoom University stole all the beautiful parts of our educational institutions while retaining the solo homework, I hear the daily musings of jittery younger students, across social media and quoted in newspapers. I feel for them. Admittedly, I envy them. They have every right to complain, but they also have more time. Like the working world, they will get to go back to normal. There is one population that does not get to go back to “normal,” and that is the Class of 2020.

Bombarded with unsolicited poetry exchanges, sermons from the Wall Street Journal reminding me how to be productive at home, “quarantine recipes,” and livestream yoga packages whenever I open my laptop, I can only conclude that people are desperately craving any digital vector of motivation in this dearth of normalcy. I keep coming back to this idea of motivation, and I want to reflect on what it means for the Class of 2020, particularly senior student-athletes.

When I started Georgetown four years ago, I was not recruited to play on a team. But after only two days on campus I realized I missed athletics and tried out for the only team to accept inexperienced walk-ons: rowing. Since that day, I have trained 364 days a year for a 7-minute race, which should sound irrational to a sane reader. Those countable seconds of racing demanded constant physical and mental commitment that did not end when practice was over, but applied to every minute of the day. Division I Lightweight Rowing assigned meaning to everything: every bite I put into my body, every minute of sleep I logged inched me towards the splits I chased for years. There was no isolating rowing from the rest of my life, so my life became dedicated to that speed. Going fast when it counted most required that I slow down enough to recover and reflect when alone on land, just as social distancing asks us to do now.

Throughout my career, asthma, herniated discs, nerve pain, mono, high blood pressure, searing hand blisters, and EKGs gave me every reason to stop rowing. But I refused to let pain and fatigue stop me. Being an athlete was everything I hoped to learn from college: It set the bar higher and skewed the standards of comfort and normalcy so that I could do the absurd. Now, as COVID robs more of me than I thought I had left to give, I can’t help asking the same question many senior athletes feel: was it all worth it?

Perhaps fittingly, my life of speed ended in a flash. A few miles outside civilization in rural North Carolina, my team inadvertently self-isolated in early March on our annual spring training trip. As rumors swirled about classes transitioning to what Georgetown calls “instructional continuity” (the term usually reserved for snow day “darties”), we spent 7 hours a day doing the only thing directly in our control: keeping our heads in the boat and taking stroke after stroke. Behind the scenes, we had little idea that our coaches were spending every minute on land fighting for our careers. Soon, there was no way for them, my parental figures at school, to hide the fact that the kids were soon to be sent to their rooms and not come out, feeling punished for something they did not commit. When the Ivy league was the first to cancel Athletics, we sobbed for our rivals, girls we did not know but respected so much. Those girls gave us a reason to get out of bed every day, determined beat them with integrity but scrappy grit. While we were out on the water for our third practice of the day, I had an unshakable feeling that any strokes could be my last. Sure enough, dry land brought news from the Athletics Department. In the van ride back to D.C., another black and white email from a distant office informed us that the rest of our senior year would be “virtual,” collapsing all of the complexities and emotions of navigating college into a two-dimensional simulation. I felt paralyzed as my reality became history. Around me, my best friends started booking flights to return home, indefinitely. We were supposed to be coming back to campus our strongest versions of ourselves, ready to dive into our first race week of the spring. Eight hours later, we pulled up to a silent campus and unloaded our rowing machines. I was the weakest I’d ever felt, not just crippled by dense trash bags of my filthy laundry, but having lost my vision, my mission, my purpose of four years.

Every few hours, a new wave of loss hit me as I realized each of the little things I could never get back. I would never walk to the river with all my best friends again. I would never sit down in a Georgetown classroom, look out the window at the Washington Monument, confess my dreams to a professor. As I weighed the pros and cons of deleting my Gmail account in self-defense, I was notified that graduation would be postponed until further notice. Humans construct milestones and ceremonies because it is easier for us to cope with helpless aging if we come together to acknowledge the passage of time in a sort of consensus. The Class of 2020 was robbed of that restorative closure. But losing the bits and pieces that glued together the last four years of my life hurt more. What I would give for another few minutes in the weight or erg room, where I found peace in the eye of the swirling hurricane of 5,000 intersecting schedules, to stand in the places that built me, and just say thank you.

We college students do love having someone to be angry at; it is no coincidence that the college campus is the birthplace of so many protest movements. But seniors like me have no one to be mad at, and that is a challenge like none other. Having no one to be angry at forces us to cope together even though we are more apart than ever. Lacking a target forces us to resort to kindness over hatred. Being a college rower, I assumed that the hardest part of my life was behind me, that any job would be easier than what I did every morning for four years. Before it was even over, the world reminded me that it’s only just beginning, and I am so grateful for that. Now, students are asked to love learning without the pressure of external accountability. Years of holding myself accountable to the team’s values have armed me with an internal sense of duty, the voice that coaches me to keep going when no one is watching.

My Jesuit education taught me to question the world around me incessantly, demanding magis, or “more,” of myself, of others, and of institutions that degrade notions of truth today. Commencement was supposed to solidify that commitment, but isolated introspection reminds me that my campus was always, ironically, preparing me to leave.

So, I ask myself again, what was it all for? All of those marginal fractions of splits producing raw power for my teammates forced me to break up my life down to the second, stroke by stroke. I, and senior student-athletes across the country, lost those seconds and chances, but the sacrifices we made stay. We equipped younger athletes to fight for what we love, and we can feel at peace leaving our programs poised to lead others with the very sense of purpose that was taken from us too soon.

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