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Thousands of VIU students are readying themselves for another semester of online courses, a restricted campus, and necessary isolation from their friends and classmates.

People reflecting to me on their post-secondary school experience often remark on the sense of community it brought them; how part of their identity was forged before turning fully to a career, family, or other avenue.

In a time when connections have been severed and identities questioned, sport—a part of school life that strengthens bonds with others and nurtures the self—is painfully absent.

VIU Mariners Athletics and Recreation announced a two-week pause on all activities back on November 17, 2020, but quickly extended the hiatus indefinitely through the holidays. On December 2, the BC government announced a province-wide halt on adult team sports, which has been revised to extend until February 5. For Mariners student athletes, this means no in-person practices with their team whatsoever. City sports leagues are also no longer an option.

The standstill begs the question, what are athletes—VIU athletes in particular—missing when what they know and love doing has been made impossible?

Cara Dunlop, captain of the Mariners women’s soccer club and new U4-U8 Club coach for the Nanaimo United Football Club, said the recent pause has been difficult.

“It’s hard trying to find your identity in the absence of the sport. Typically, my life revolves around my soccer schedule and without that, I’ve had a lot of time [to] fill that void with other outlets,” she said in a phone interview.

For Dunlop, that means playing tennis with her dad, going for runs with her brother, and spending time in the family’s garage-turned-gym. She’s also thrown herself into her love of coaching, passing on to young athletes what she’s learned through playing for the Nanaimo United FC Premier Women’s team and the VIU Mariners. She hopes to impart on them the passion for soccer that has been a part of her for so long.

“Growing up, I had a lot of inspirational coaches that ultimately led me to where I am today. So, I think being able to provide that for the younger kids in Nanaimo is incredibly inspiring,” Dunlop said.

She’s also taking coaching classes online to try to build her soccer knowledge with things she normally wouldn’t have the time for because of the hectic Mariners season. Dunlop has always had an interest in teaching children, and attributes her enrollment in VIU’s education program to seeing a general lack of willing sports coaches growing up, even though her own always put in the time and effort.

“In the education program, being able to evolve as a coach is going to benefit me when I get into the school system and I’m able to provide that for children,” she said. “I’m getting the experience now and it’s really enjoyable.”

Sports are a huge draw for people who want to experience a sense of community, none more so than student athletes transitioning from high school to university. Dunlop reflected on her own introduction to university life with the Mariners, and discovering that community right away.

“Finding a group of people that are all like-minded is really beneficial. Older people on the team in the same program act as mentors and help guide you through. It gives you a sense of belonging,” she said. “Going into university, I can’t imagine not having a group or a club or a team. It would be a bit daunting. It [gives] you a group to fall back on and ask for advice.”

Jade Richardson is the community engagement coordinator with Nanaimo United FC, and she’s grateful that Dunlop can join as a staff coach this year. COVID-19 has forced Richardson to shift her focus as she navigates a coordinator position that was originally meant to provide an in-person presence for families and athletes.

Now with a stronger online focus, Richardson’s goal is to keep the community connection between athletes active. In early December, she created an online community forum through the Nanaimo United FC Facebook page, so athletes in the adult programs could still interact with each other.

“Everyone can share what they’re doing,” Richardson said. “Are you doing at-home workouts? Are you going on runs? [They] can connect with not only their own teams, but with the entire community. That interconnectedness across the teams … is something we wanted to keep as a tangible thing even though we’re not training and playing right now.”

The alternative form of communication can even bring people closer in unexpected ways, she said, like seeing people’s dogs joining their workouts in pictures or videos.

“It’s a small, simple thing, but it brings a smile to your face and you feel like maybe you know that person a little bit more intimately than you did before,” Richardson said.

Emma Platner also recognizes the importance of maintaining social connection. She’s an assistant coach for the Mariners women’s basketball team. As she was a player only a few years ago, she knows what her group is missing out on—because she’s missing it, too.

“When you look at it from a mental health standpoint, we love interaction with people,” Platner said. “Usually we’re in the gym hanging out together five days a week. [Missing] that social interaction has been really tough. You make life-long best friends on a team, so I know the girls are coping with that, as well.”

Platner and the team have an online check-in every Sunday to make sure people are feeling okay and keeping up with their schoolwork. She’s been sending them weekly workouts, too, in preparation for when adult teams are given the go-ahead to resume group training.

Platner is amazed that her players are keeping it all together this year without the provided structure and routine that comes with being on the basketball team.

“In our culture and environment, we’re so supportive of each other. They’re finding a way to get it done, and honestly, it’s pretty remarkable. I’m very proud of our team,” she said.

Platner has been using the pause in sport to address another major part of her life. She is originally from Oregon, USA, but wants to stay in Canada. She’s been taking time to get the necessary paperwork together for her immigration lawyers so she can apply for permanent residency.

“[The pause] has made me realize where I want to build a life,” she said.

Sydney Fetterly is a third-year student on the women’s basketball team. Like her coach, she’s longing for the normal social connection of basketball and has been making time for self-discovery. Although it’s hard when her main outlet has suddenly been taken away.

“I found I was going a little stir-crazy because basketball was my escape for a while,” Fetterly said. “I realized it’s what other students are feeling, where you sit at home and are like, ‘Okay, I’ve been at my computer for eight-plus hours and I haven’t left my home all day,’ where basketball is a nice break from that.”

She, like many others during the pandemic, has turned to new hobbies for a jolt of excitement. In Fetterly’s case, it’s competitive Nerf gun battles with her roommates, racing her unwilling mom on walks, and finally learning how to cook better.

She’s undoubtedly missing her teammates and the competition practice brings. Hence, the Nerf fights. Fetterly is also getting into more serious weight training, sometimes going to the gym at five in the morning if she’s short on time.

The pandemic has forced many to scrutinize their lives and consider what makes up their character. Fetterly is one such person.

“Basketball’s been such a big part of my life that [now] I’m discovering new parts of myself that I wasn’t able to discover before. I’m finding out that maybe when basketball ends, I’ll be okay,” she said.

Richardson, who’s fresh off maternity leave, remembered her own experiences as a track and field athlete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association and her struggle with identity when her athletic career ended. She thought track defined who she was at the time, and spoke to friends in wonder when she realized she wasn’t a part of that intricate and specific world anymore.

“You think about young varsity athletes at 19, they work towards this for so long. Now it’s on hold and they’re like, ‘Oh, hold on a second. Who am I without soccer, without volleyball?’ Whatever sport it is. Maybe it’s kind of a mental refresh for them,” Richardson said.

“Your value is external to what you do,” she added, reflecting on young athletes who may be struggling. “Your value is in the people you care about and the things you do to make yourself a better person. I think we can all return to those roots, the basis of where our value lies. We have this opportunity to slow down and think about A—what do I want in life? And B—how can I get there? If you focus on those simple, small things … you can find what truly makes you happy.”

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