University of Manitoba Bisons defensive back Arjay Shelley (#27) is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dave Mahussier MANDATORY CREDIT

Thousands of varsity athletes in limbo as universities grapple with COVID-19

Several Canadian universities have already announced plans to offer primarily online classes in the fall

Arjay Shelley is keeping fit and strong by pushing his mom’s black Subaru SUV around the parking lot at Port Moody Secondary School.

His mom Ambra sits in the driver’s seat and steers.

With no weightlifting equipment available, and no football team to train with, the defensive back for the Manitoba Bisons is doing what he can to keep in shape amid COVID-19.

“We’re doing some creative training,” Ambra Shelley said.

Training for a U Sports season that might not happen.

Arjay Shelley is one of some-20,000 student-athletes from 56 Canadian universities who are in limbo, trying to remain positive and proactive as the calendar ticks closer to what would normally be the kick-off of their Fall sport seasons, but now look in doubt.

“It’s hard for the young athletes to be keeping their motivation up without their team and their group and trying to find ways to work out when there’s not a lot available right now, and just trying to find a way to keep a positive mindset through this,” mom Ambra said.

Patience sometimes feels at a premium.

“The off-season feels like forever anyways, and now it’s just even longer,” Shelley said.

Shelley tries to remain disciplined. He gets out of bed early. He’s helping a neighbour build a fence.

The upcoming season would be the Canada West all-star’s CFL draft year, something he’s had his sights on practically since he started playing football at the age of six. He isn’t sure if he would return to Winnipeg if the season was cancelled, or stay home in Port Moody, B.C., take classes and work part time.

Shelley’s teammate, quarterback Des Catellier, had hoped to impress scouts at this year’s CFL draft combine, but the event scheduled for late-March was among the countless sports events cancelled amid coronavirus fears.

“One more year (of university eligibility) to put it out in the field, and then try and sign somewhere after that,” Catellier said.

What if one more year doesn’t happen?

“Oh man, to be honest, I haven’t thought about that much,” Catellier said, with obvious frustration. “I’ve been treating it like: we’re gonna have a season, we’re gonna have a season, we’re gonna have a season.

“That would very, very hard, honestly. This stretch of time is already the longest I’ve gone without playing football. To whole ‘nother year, no games, it’d be tough.”

Several Canadian universities, including Manitoba, McGill, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia have already announced plans to offer primarily online classes for the Fall semester.

“What does that mean overall for students, especially for international students?” Windsor men’s basketball coach Chris Cheng wondered. ”Are they still allowed to live on campus? Is food services still provided it for them? And so what capacity?”

There are plenty of questions. Can athletes still gather on campus if there are no in-person classes? And can there even be sports if in-person classes can’t happen?

Ambra Shelley’s optimism about a football season is fading.

“Now that they’ve announced that schools are mostly going online, it’s a little less likely … before we were thinking it was going to happen, but everything’s up in the air now,” she said.

Football and cross-country running are two sports with the biggest question marks, since they traditionally start in September.

“Cross-country, you run in a big pack of people, so it could definitely be kind of dangerous,” said Mitch Ubene, a mechanical engineering student and distance runner at the University of Guelph.

“I’d definitely be very disappointed (if the season was cancelled) because it’s my last year,” he added. “But if it has to be that way, then obviously I understand.”

Much of the focus amid so much uncertainty is managing players’ wellness, both their physical and mental health.

“They’re vulnerable to a lot of emotions,” veteran Bisons coach Brian Dobie said. “With such uncertainty looming, I think there’s a general shakiness in their psyche there that comes with the territory.”

Cheng said he keeps in close contact with his players, and holds Zoom meetings three times a week. He has a guest speaker once a week.

Ryerson women’s basketball coach Carly Clarke said she rarely addresses with her players what the season might look like, if does happen. Instead, the focus is off-season conditioning and finding creative ways to keep fit.

“And we’re just trying to be there and support, because there’s different levels of anxiety, uncertainty around everything,” she said.

Dobie, the program’s head coach since 1996, continuously drills it into his players that they were made for moments like this.

“That’s absolutely the emphasis that they are literally built for this, and that’s part of the beauty of sport,” he said. “They put themselves in challenging positions, they constantly fight adversity. And yet they don’t even realize the tools that they’ve accumulated.”

The message definitely struck a chord with Catellier. He compared the coronavirus lockdown to a long injury layoff, which many elite athletes will face at some point in their careers.

“(Injuries) are tough, you’ve been working for that moment, but you have to sit out, you have to watch your team play and you want to play,” said the six-foot-three quarterback.

“And then in the football season, you’re winning a game, losing a game, winning a game, losing a game. And even within a game you’re down 20 points and you got to fight your way back. There’s so many different moments where an athlete faces adversity.”

As sorely as he’d miss his final college football season if it was cancelled, Catellier said he’ll be OK.

“I love to go to the field and train and work out and do all that as much as I like to play. So, I’ll do that for a year,” he said. “It would not be ideal. Obviously I want to play football. There’d be a lot of stuff to figure out if we didn’t have a season.

“But I know I’d be able to handle it and I know our team would be able to move forward, and continue to work until the next time that we get the guys together on the field.”

Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press

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