Student-Athletes Return to Competition, Themselves in Process

Photo courtesy of Swarthmore Athletics

As students have returned to campus and in-person classes, student-athletes have returned to competition, facing other teams for the first time in more than a year. For many student-athletes, this is much more than a mere return to normalcy. The return to regular season match play has made student-athletes face the pressures of competition as well as the process of transitioning back into it.

Two major changes student-athletes have experienced are renewed access to campus facilities and a resurgence in the team culture surrounding their sports. In an interview with The Phoenix, cross-country athlete Sam Brody ’24 explained the benefits of having a regular, in-person season.

“Having everyone on campus is great for the social atmosphere [compared to last year],” he said. “Last fall, when we’d show up to practice, we would just get there and run with a few people, which was [a] nice break from classes in my room, but it’s just a totally different experience this year.”

Swimming and track and field athlete Anastasia Erley ’24 has also seen improvement in regular practices. 

“Last year we had to wait because of COVID until we were even allowed on deck and then it was like ten people in the pool at a time and now we have up to like 25 people.”

The atmosphere and intensity at practices have also changed; Erley noted that things were more laid back last year.

Concerning competition itself, athletes expressed both excitement and ambivalence. Erley touched on the role of increased competition amongst teammates that returning to normalcy brought, given that some competitions only allow a portion of athletes to contend.

“I feel like people seem more nervous and anxious because there are meets where we can’t bring the whole team,” she explained. “I don’t want to say I’m competing against my teammates, but it almost feels like that at times.”

Erley feels, however, that the pressure is beneficial for the team overall. 

“I think the healthy competition is making us work that much harder in the pool and pushing us harder in tougher sets, so I feel it’s definitely good for the team’s overall atmosphere and performance,” she said. “People are definitely enjoying it more, because it’s like, ‘now I have a goal’ … It’s nice to actually compete against other people and have that competition again.”

Motivation to compete was a key aspect of this improved motivation, Brody explained.

“I found that both before in the summer [of 2021] when I was training and when I was here [last fall], I was just a little bit less motivated to really dive into my training because there was no competition. This fall, I’ve worked harder and been much more dedicated,” he said.

Last semester, other schools in the Centennial Conference allowed students to practice normally despite a lack of official seasons. The college did not, due to its limits on on-campus students making full practices impossible. In an interview with The Phoenix, senior soccer player Charley Ward ’21 noted that the lack of full practices in the Springactually benefited Swarthmore in several ways despite the seeming disadvantage.

“A lot of the off-campus guys were able to play for the same amateur team in West Chester, PA, which was super helpful in continuing our development. Also, a lot of our would-be seniors took leaves from Swat in order to play again this Fall, which they might not have done had we had a full, normal season in the spring,” he said.

Brody had a more mixed reaction, saying, “Returning to competition could be a bit of a mental hurdle, but I’m just looking forward to it now and appreciating it more.”

Some athletes have found that their relationships with sports have changed; for them, returning to the competitive season has been almost like reclaiming a lost part of their identity. Phil Rehwinkel ’24 rediscovered what he loved about tennis by coming back to competition.

“Tennis was a pretty big part of who I was, so not going out forced me to redefine who I was. Coming back to competition is like rediscovering that old part of me.”

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