Coronavirus cut USC track season short on eve of NCAA indoor championships
Trojans track and field program director Caryl Smith Gilbert’s team was about to practice in Albuquerque when news broke
Adam Grosbard (OC Register) — The USC track team was going about its final practice in Albuquerque last Thursday as it prepared for the indoor national championships. That’s when the world shifted under their feet.
Change had already been afoot as fears of infection from COVID-19 grew. Conferences like the ACC had already demanded their athletes return home from the event, which was supposed to be held with no spectators in attendance. The pre-meet banquet was canceled, and the coaches meeting was held online.
The Trojans had just completed their warm-ups and were about to begin practice when program director Caryl Smith Gilbert received the phone call: The indoor championships were canceled, along with every other winter and spring NCAA championship.
Smith Gilbert directed her athletes over to the training table so she could break the news, but even as they made their way over they couldn’t help but hear as other teams cried out about the cancellation.
Then the coach addressed her team, 13 members of which had traveled to Albuquerque, before they got on a chartered flight home as USC wanted the team to avoid commercial flight during the pandemic.
“I just told them this is how life works. This is how things go. Your health and safety is of the utmost importance,” Smith Gilbert recalled. “They were crying. ‘I’m sorry. I hate this. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.’ “
A week later, you could still hear the pain in Smith Gilbert’s voice as she recalled the abrupt end to their season.
“That might’ve been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, ever, as a coach,” Smith Gilbert said. “And even more so with the reality that they canceled the outdoor championship as well, to tell especially my seniors that their season was over. I think it took us all some time to digest it. I don’t think it still has registered completely. I keep thinking maybe they’re going to reinstate it, even though I know they’re not.
“It’s just really tough to swallow, knowing that they’ve been training since September.”
Smith Gilbert, named a finalist for national women’s coach of the year for the indoor season Friday, has been told most USC seniors want to return for next track season after the NCAA announced it would grant an extra year of eligibility to spring student-athletes.
The question is exactly what the details would be surrounding that extra season.
Smith Gilbert is a member of the NCAA executive board for track and field. She says there have been talks among coaches that these returning seniors shouldn’t have to take any classes next year. But she prefers to see the seniors take advantage by taking grad school courses.
“That’s a great opportunity. I don’t know what the NCAA will decide,” she said. “School is always a great thing in my opinion. But there’s so many unanswered hypotheses right now, who knows what will happen.”
Smith Gilbert said she’s been told there could be decisions made on the guidelines for the extra year of eligibility within the next week.
“They can’t wait too long because people have things up in the air, their lives are on hold and decisions have to be made,” Smith Gilbert said. “If you’re going to apply for grad school, you need to do that. So they can’t wait too long.”
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