This time last year, I was using this space to discuss the unfortunate situation facing college, high school and middle school cross country and track and field student athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, those sports — like most others — were shut down to help avoid the spread of the virus.
Now, a year later, those sports and others, after receiving a shot in the arm (literally), have pushed all that negativity in the rearview mirror and are moving forward.
One of the top Division II college running programs in the region can be found in the state’s capital city at the University of Charleston. Through the guidance of Coach Nick Bias, the college’s running teams are competing for top honors every time the student-athletes step onto the track or cross country course.
Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccines, things are pretty much back to normal, which, Bias recently told me, puts a smile on his face.
“Getting back to normal means we don’t have to stress about who has COVID or who has been contact traced and that lets us get the team camaraderie and that team culture we have developed over the years here at Charlestons,” Bias said. Just getting everyone back into a normal setting with training (without masks) and finding a normal routine again is awesome.”
When the Golden Eagles show up for a meet, heads turn. The male runners for U.C. have captured the last four Mountain Athletic Conference Cross Country championships and the last two Track and Field titles, while the girls squad captured this past spring’s Track and Field crown. The guys Cross Country team also have won the last two regional titles, placing a school-best 16th in the 2019 national DII Championships.
Every coach in every sport was thrown inside curve balls while trying to get their students through the pandemic. For Bias, it was one practice at a time.
“From the start it was very stressful, due to all of the unknowns with the virus. I think the biggest thing was making sure all of my athletes were safe. I wasn’t really that concerned with them at practice, because in general running itself was not super spreader for COVID. I was mostly worried about who they were staying with in the dorms, who they were going to class with, things that were out of my control. I could control the environment at practice, but after that they were on their own. There were times I didn’t know who I would have competing due to some athletes having to be quarantined. That caused the most stress. But in the end, we got through it and we are moving forward.”
Coach Bias’ squads are filled with a large number of in-state student athletes, along with runners from outside of the country’s borders. I wanted to know how the virus affected his aggressive recruiting style.
“The big thing with recruiting during the pandemic was just not having as many people coming on campus as much as I normally would. But, like other coaches, I used other avenues to reach out to prospects. I used Zoom and Face Time, you know, all of the virtual ways of communicating that became the norm during the shutdowns. For us, I feel like we still had a really strong recruiting class this year. The biggest challenge was the kids I recruited last year, internationally, some of them just couldn’t come to school last year, due to visa and passport restrictions, due to embassy shutdowns.”
So as that light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel gets brighter and brighter, it’s great knowing student athletes are finally experiencing some normality.