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Nobody can relate to what today’s young athletes are going through.
Imagine entering your final year of high school and being told at the last minute that you can’t compete for a provincial championship. Or what it feels like to be the kid who made sacrifices their entire life to one day earn a scholarship and when that time comes, they’re informed the next season might not happen and their university experience will consist of them sitting behind a computer screen, taking online classes.
The realities in today’s pandemic world are unprecedented. No coach or parent can look at these athletes and say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ Neither can Adrienne Leslie-Toogood, the director of sport psychology for the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba. But the former University of Manitoba Bisons shooting guard said it’s important for athletes to not pretend that everything is fine during these challenging times.
"I think that bitter ends up resulting down the road if you don’t allow yourself to feel deeply. That’s the one thing we know in sport for sure, that we feel deeply. We celebrate, we work hard, we invest our heart and soul, so things can hurt pretty bad, too," Leslie-Toogood says.
"If you look at grief reaction, the reality is there is a huge loss there. The athletes that are going to navigate through that are going to have to be honest with themselves about the fact that they lost some things. Work through it and be upset and then kind of get to the other side of it. We run into more challenges when we act like we’re good when we’re not. I think it’s OK to grieve, it’s OK to be upset and it’s OK to be disappointed. Eventually, we’ll integrate that into our life story and one day we’ll reflect back and realize this was just a part of our life. It’s not everything."
"Root yourself in that beautiful beginner’s mind, that unknown, and let things unfold because you can’t control this and the more you try, the more you will not enjoy the path you’re on right now." ‐ Clara Hughes
Winnipeg speedskating and cycling legend Clara Hughes told the Free Press she’s taken some time to try to put herself in the shoes of an up-and-coming athlete in 2020. The six-time Olympic medallist believes it’s important for athletes to take a step back and realize the pandemic is out of their control and to use their energy to work on themselves.
"To be honest, I think we’re all in an unimaginable time right now. I think a lot of people are trying to make predictions, trying to lay out structure and plans, and I think more than anything is just to root yourself in a beginner’s mind of everything being new, everything being unknown, and finding the wonder in that," Hughes said.
"Remove yourself from being the expert in what you’re doing and being the person that has all the skills developed that knows everything. Bring yourself back to the place of not knowing where you’re going, how you’re getting there, what this whole thing is, what your future in sport holds and root yourself in play. Root yourself in that beautiful beginner’s mind, that unknown, and let things unfold because you can’t control this and the more you try, the more you will not enjoy the path you’re on right now."
There is no shortage of local athletes who have no idea what the future holds for them in their sport. The Free Press chatted with four promising prospects on how COVID-19 has affected them on and off the field.
Emerson Kidd — soccer
The youngest of the three Kidd sisters is far away from home both literally and figuratively.
While her friends back in the Keystone Province who suit up for the Manitoba Bisons and Winnipeg Wesmen have been told their seasons are cancelled, Kidd and the University of Texas at El Paso Miners (UTEP) are a couple of weeks away from beginning their training to gear up for the 2020 NCAA season, which starts at the end of August. But the differences between Winnipeg and El Paso go beyond soccer.
"It’s honestly crazy. It’s like normal," said Kidd, who returned to UTEP last week and is in the middle of a two-week self-isolation period.
"Everyone is wearing masks and stuff, but everything is open. It’s not like back home. No one is social distancing or anything like that. It’s totally different."
After an impressive freshman season at UTEP where she played the third-most minutes on the team, she had no choice but to return to Winnipeg in mid-March as the pandemic forced the school to close its dorms. Former NHL goalie Trevor Kidd’s daughter spent the past couple of months living at home and training with her oldest sister Taylor, who played four seasons at UTEP before graduating in 2016. Middle sister Kennedy played at the University of North Dakota from 2015 to 2018 and currently lives in Grand Forks.
In the fall, Kidd, who’s taking criminal justice and psychology courses, expects half of her classes will be in person and half will be online. Even though the 18-year-old defender from Winnipeg is living somewhere that’s lenient with the rules, she doesn’t plan to take advantage of it. She believes her teammates feel the same as no one wants to be the person to get sick and throw a wrench into the season.
"I feel like I’m still trying to keep my distance and go out only when I need to. I’m still taking this really seriously regardless of how other people around me are taking it," she said.
"I only go out if I have to get groceries or something. I’m excited to be back with the team and start training and playing again, but also I feel we need to maintain our distance and still make sure we’re keeping safe, staying healthy and washing our hands and all that stuff."
Kidd admits she feels pretty lucky that she even has a season to look forward to. UTEP plays in Conference USA, which has announced teams will play six matches instead of the usual 10 against conference foes this season and will split the teams into divisions to cut back on travel. The risk is still there and she knows it, but when play begins, it’s not going to weigh on her mind.
"I honestly think that I will forget about it just because when I’m playing a game, like if I brushed shoulders with someone, I never really think about it. I’m just like, ‘Oh we’re just playing.’ It’s definitely going to be different, but I really do think that I will forget about it all. Afterward, when the game is over, I’ll be like, ‘Wow, OK, I need to wash my hands’ and stuff like that, because who knows what I touched?"
Dami Farinloye — basketball
As the top-ranked high school boys basketball player in the province, the world should be Dami Farinloye’s oyster — but it’s anything but.
The 6-2 guard from Vincent Massey Collegiate has options but he doesn’t have any answers.
His original plan was to take his talents to the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) this fall and possibly suit up for Orangeville Prep for a year in hopes of showcasing his skills in front of NCAA Division I scouts. It’s the route that Kyler Filewich, who also starred at Vincent Massey, took last season and it led to him securing a scholarship at Southern Illinois University.
Like seemingly everything else in the sports world today, the status of the OSBA is up in the air. If the OSBA doesn’t tip off later this year (an announcement is expected in the coming weeks), the next option for Farinloye, who didn’t get a chance to win the a provincial title with the Trojans in his senior season as the plug was pulled on the tournament due to COVID-19 concerns, would be U Sports. The Bisons and Wesmen, as well as several other schools across the country, have expressed interest in him.
U Sports basketball has been scheduled to start in January, but an official decision won’t be made until October.
Farinloye, 18, is holding off on choosing a dance partner until there’s more clarity.
"It’s pretty frustrating, I’d say. Especially as the season wore on, the options started to open up for me and it was looking pretty good," he said. "Then the whole pandemic happened, which then closed some doors. For me, I’m just trying to be patient. As long as I’m patient and talking with my parents and talking with my coaches, I feel like whatever situation I end up in will be a good situation for me."
Farinloye is no stranger to overcoming obstacles in his basketball journey. In Grade 9, he failed to make it past the first cut of the provincial team. Instead of getting discouraged, it motivated him to work harder. The next year he made the team as a practice player and today he’s a can’t-miss prospect after being named MVP at both the Brandon Sun and St. Paul’s High School tournaments this past season. Basketball Manitoba named him its male player of the year. Farinloye believes the disappointment he faced in Grade 9 has helped him prepare for the current hand he’s been dealt.
"Thinking back to that time, at that point it felt like everything was over. I was so heartbroken. Once I got over it and didn’t feel the pain anymore, I used it to light a fire under me," he said. "I feel like it could be a similar situation once the pandemic slowly starts to blow over, I can use it as motivation in the future."
Rhyland Kelly — football
Sitting on the sideline for a year isn’t an option for Rhyland Kelly.
The Oak Park Raiders cornerback has heard rumblings there might not be a Winnipeg High School Football League season this year. For a guy with aspirations to play football at the next level, that’s the last thing you want to hear heading into Grade 12.
Since Kelly might be denied an opportunity to play football in his backyard, he’s going to the Clearwater Academy prep school in Florida. Despite the fact Florida has become a hotbed for COVID-19, the Miami Herald reported last week that the Florida High School Athletic Association is "optimistic" fall sports will start on time. The football season starts in late August.
"At first, I was kind of skeptical thinking how I’d have to get down there and everything. But more so now talking to the coaches and everybody down there, I’m more comfortable going," said Kelly, who admits he isn’t sure what coronavirus precautions will be taken on the field.
"They have policies going on with how kids travel and everything. They’re still practising social distancing and there hasn’t been anyone throughout the school, or the parents, that have contracted it at all."
Kelly, a 16 year old who stands at six-foot-three, has his visa and will be heading south next week. He won’t be the lone Winnipegger making the trip; St. Paul’s linebacker Nathan Carabatsakis will also suit up in Clearwater.
Kelly, who will be living with a billet family, was asked what his Winnipeg teammates have said to him about going to Florida.
"They’re just telling me how lucky I am and how they have no idea what’s going on here and how they’re looking forward to seeing me play. Now some of them are trying to get in contact with Clearwater."
Even with the risks involved, Kelly is comfortable with the decision. He was in contact with Clearwater before the pandemic hit, but with the uncertainty surrounding football in Winnipeg, the corner thinks going to Florida is in his best interests.
"I’m pretty excited," he said. "I was a bit nervous at the start. I was kinda scared to leave family, friends and everybody behind. But the closer the date comes to leaving, the more excited I get."
Rofiat Agboola — athletics
Rofiat Agboola wanted to experience a new environment, become more independent and meet new people this fall. Her impressive performances in long jump, triple jump, relays and the 200-metre at Kelvin High School were going to make that a reality for her as it led to her accepting a track scholarship at the University of Western Ontario in London.
But the 17-year-old hasn’t started packing just yet. The latest word she received was that there will be time to go to campus and meet the professors but classes will take place online. The track-and-field season also hangs in the balance and an official decision won’t be made until October. If there’s no season and classes are held online, Agboola, who’s going into the law program, will do her studies from home.
"I’m still very hopeful that everything can somewhat clear up and things can kind of hopefully start to get back to normal. If that doesn’t happen, I mean, that makes it less exciting to leave," said Agboola, a former competitive swimmer who switched her focus to track once she got to high school.
"It’s sad, but I still have hope. I still want to go out there, do great things, meet new people and all that stuff. I’m still very excited about all of that, but if all that can’t happen right now, that’s OK. Eventually, it will happen."
There’s also no word on whether there will be any track meets in Winnipeg this summer. With no carrot dangling in front of these athletes, Agboola said it’s a challenge.
"I will say it’s hard. It’s really, really hard," she said. "Being at home, you don’t really have enough motivation to get up and go for a run and all that stuff. Personally, I’m very invested in track. I love the sport. I feel like I’ve done very good so far and that’s given me hope to do better. Just because all of this is going on it doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit around and do nothing."
The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for Agboola, but she reminds herself that she’s not alone in this. She is one of many athletes who have no choice but to sit and hope a resolution comes sooner rather than later.
"It’s definitely something I’ve sat in bed and thought, ‘This really sucks.’ But it’s just been great that there are people I can talk to about it. We’re all in this together. We’re all struggling. We’re all in the same boat and there’s not much we can do. I guess that’s what makes it a lot easier as well is that physically there’s nothing we can do to change the situation we’re all in."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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