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Meg Kowalski : Reflecting on past year, uncertainty to play as a student-athlete

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The following article was written by Meg Kowalski for the Red & Black. To view the original article, click here.

We sat in the locker room awaiting practice on March 12, 2020, the day before our big rivalry match against Florida, when rumors started that the Gators had not yet left to come to Athens. 

We were all oblivious to what was going on in the world or that COVID-19 was even a concern. All I thought about at the time was winning an SEC regular-season title, earning an SEC championship ring and making a big run in the NCAA Tournament later that May. Little did we know that halfway through that day’s practice the NCAA would cancel the rest of our season and later sports activities as a whole. 

Shock and disbelief were the first emotions I felt once we were told the news. As a student-athlete at a Division I, Power Five school, your life revolves around sports. From the moment you wake up, your day consists of practice, weights or conditioning, treatment, planning the food you eat and even the amount of water you consume.

When the NCAA made its decision, a lot of student-athletes, including myself, found themselves left in a world of uncertainty.

Following the announcement, I returned to my home in Chicago set on continuing at least some of the regiments I have done in Athens. But I struggled to find places that allowed me to do so. Everything started to close. I will never forget practicing at a park on a tennis court by my house and a police officer making me evacuate because public parks were shutting down. It was surreal. 

I remember asking my coaches what I can do, and to my dismay, they told us not to worry about practicing and encouraged everyone to just stay safe. Never in my 15 years of playing competitive tennis did I think I’d hear a coach tell me not to train. I did my best to follow my coaches’ advice but the competitor in me wanted to keep working to improve my game. 

As weeks went by with what seemed like no light at the end of the tunnel, or any understanding of what our future would look like, I managed to find a court in the backyard of someone’s home 30 minutes away from my house. I trained with a 14-year-old almost every day. I played so much, my strings in both of the racquets I brought home eventually broke, so I had to restring them with two different Walmart-brand strings in my closet. It was a reality check. 

I went from hitting on an $8.5 million renovated tennis complex at Georgia with free, unlimited professional stringing, shoes, two legendary coaches and training with some of the most talented tennis players I have ever been around, to hitting on an old, cracked tennis court wearing worn-out shoes paired with a half-functional tennis racquet. I could not believe how fast things changed.

I was not sure how long it would stay this way but after talking with coaches and advisors, I was finally able to board a plane and make my way back to Athens to be with my team. 

Coming back came with its own set of challenges, the biggest being adapting to the “new normal.” Weekly COVID-19 tests, the Training Table being to-go only, no longer getting to study at the Rankin M. Smith Sr. Student Athlete Academic Center and countless among countless Zoom sessions. It really seemed like a bad dream I just couldn’t wake up from. We had more questions than answers and with discussions of football possibly not playing, it seemed less likely we were going to start. 

Luckily, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, then-Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity and everyone involved with this process wanted competition to go on as normal and safely as we could make it. It all came together for me when I took the courts at our first fall tournament. It seemed like all the sacrifices we made finally paid off. There were still lots of bumps in the road, but to be able to compete again with a “G” on my chest, even for just a brief moment of time, made everything feel normal.

As I sit here now, halfway through our conference season, back to the point we were when the shutdown occurred and with the SEC and NCAA Tournaments in sight, we’re finally getting to some sort of normalcy. Not a day goes by that our team doesn’t appreciate the opportunities given and the chance to be together again doing what we love most. 

We as a team are forever grateful to our support staff and, of course, to our amazing coaches who continually support us and have done everything possible to make this season happen. The renewed excitement I have from this temporary stop has only reignited the fire I first felt as a freshman walking onto campus for the first time and has only grown my love for this university. 

Skills

Posted on

March 30, 2021

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