After disrupted season, Ohio State athletes return to play
Buckeye coaches and players are glad to be back on the court, track and mats
Jen Flynn Oldenburg jokes that one of the critical tools she consulted as the new women’s volleyball head coach for The Ohio State University was a Magic 8-Ball. From canceled seasons to postponed matches to unpredictable lineups, a fortune-telling toy might seem just as valuable to a coach as a whiteboard or a whistle.
Oldenburg joined coaches and players from Buckeye teams that are finally starting up their pandemic-paused seasons on a video conference call on Wednesday. She joked she would often turn to the Magic 8-Ball and give it a good shake when one of her players would have a question that she couldn’t answer.
“The biggest message for our team is to be flexible and adaptable,” she said.
Oldenburg’s experience at Ohio State in a pandemic is unusual but not unique. The former four-year standout for the Buckeyes returned to Columbus as the head coach on Jan. 17, 2020. In March, the Big Ten canceled the team’s spring season and in August the start of the fall season was postponed. More than 370 days from the date of her hiring, Oldenburg and her team finally took to the court at the Covelli Center for a competitive match – a win over Maryland.
The unpredictability of the season is shared by students and coaches alike in sports as diverse as volleyball, cross country and wrestling. Sophomore volleyball player Jenaisya Moore shared a common sentiment about not looking too far ahead in the season.
“I think when you focus too much on the future you can get caught in a circle,” she said. “We have to live in the moment. Focus on the now.”
For men’s and women’s cross country head coach Khadevis Robinson, the new season begins like the last season ended: at the Big Ten Championship in Indiana. Ohio State hosted the 2019 men’s and women’s Big Ten cross country championships 14 months ago – the last time any of the Big Ten cross country programs competed against each other.
Robinson’s teams will have no meets to build up to a title challenge, they will be running in winter weather as opposed to a normal autumn schedule and they must deal with the ongoing COVID testing and tracing that all Big Ten teams face as they work to compete safely. Despite it all, Robinson said there’s no where he’d rather be.
“If you stay close to the fire, you will stay warm,” he said.
The opportunity to compete for championships, to join their teammates on the court or track and to play in the sports they love is important to the physical well-being of these student-athletes. But it’s also important to their mental health.
“They are elite athletes who want to be playing,” Oldenburg said. “It’s a really big deal. It’s one of the reasons we fought so hard to get back to playing.”
The teams are sharing similar experiences now, but they’ve been shown the way. Wresting head coach Tom Ryan praised his football coaching colleague Ryan Day for the leadership and determination Day demonstrated in leading a team through a COVID-challenged season. The players and coaches on the call said they were inspired and informed by the efforts of the Buckeye football team as they adhered to the Big Ten’s health and safety protocols and continued to play at a championship level.
Despite the challenges, most view the ability to finally compete again to be a privilege.
“We’re some of the lucky ones,” Robinson said. “We get to be around people who are chasing their goals and dreams.”
In addition to men’s and women’s volleyball, cross country and wrestling, some of the Ohio State teams back in action this season include:
- Men’s and Women’s Gymnastics
- Swimming and Diving
- Men’s and Women’s Golf
- Men’s and Women’s Tennis
- Men’s and Women’s Hockey