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University return to sport: club Presidents react

After a remote Hilary, Cherwell asked Oxford University’s sports clubs about their plans for reopening.

“You can’t really get close to someone while you’re on a horse,” says President of Oxford University Equestrian Club Charlotte Stuart. “It’s a very COVID safe sport, which, I think the first time around while we were trying to get approval for training, it just took a bit longer than it needed to.” The team’s training grounds are 40 minutes away near Pangbourne where “a lot of us can transport ourselves individually, so it’s been so nice to be able to continue some sport and keep going.”

However, even for an outdoor sport like horse riding, the lockdown has taken its toll. While the Equestrian Club has typically only registered their first two teams for competition in the past, “this year we were hoping to register the threes to compete at BUCS [British Universities and Colleges Sport],” which unfortunately didn’t happen.

“We haven’t had many matches to look forward to,” Stuart says. “so I’d say it’s probably knocked motivation down a little bit.”

President of Oxford University Swimming Club Felix Gallagher has only had four weeks in the pool this year. After all indoor sports facilities shut under lockdown restrictions in October, “it’s been tough to get people involved,” Gallagher admits. Over the past six months he’s been running team fitness circuits over zoom but has noticed attendance drop. Online challenges where team members have 24 hours to asynchronously record their attempt at a burpee challenge have had more success. “I think everyone just got a bit zoomed out to be honest,” Gallagher says. 

Single lanes have been open at the Rosenblatt swimming pool since April 12th and Gallagher hopes the team can return to coached sessions from May 17th. After such a long lapse in practice, “the immediate concern is injuries, that people rush back into training and maybe don’t appreciate just how long they’ve had off and just how intense normal training is.” Gallagher is also concerned that “if [members] are not swimming at the same level they were before, they get disheartened, demotivated, and perhaps they quit the sport. I think we are a little bit worried that we might lose quite a few members.”

Gallagher was happy to see that the team’s zoom meetings this term were mostly frequented by the newest members of the group, some of whose only experience of Oxford University Swimming Club has been those first four weeks in October. Gallagher reckons the zoom sessions were “probably really beneficial in the sense that it was probably a bit less intimidating if you’re new to the club.”

Coronavirus decisions for Oxford’s sports clubs have been made by the Sport Federation, which students generally say has been forthcoming with its support. “They’ve made designated fast lane sessions for sports club members to have priority booking on… so they’ve been really brilliant about that and because it is when sessions normally are, it kind of fits into peoples’ routines a bit better” Gallagher says.  “They’ve been very helpful with our risk assessments for COVID and they’ve also sometimes provided extra money in terms of helping COVID relief for the club” says Oxford University Basketball Club Secretary Karl Baddeley. Gallagher remembers “early on in the first lockdown, they made a blues performance team Facebook group for all the blues athletes across all the different sports where they posted workouts and stuff you could do in your own time,” but he suggests, “maybe there hasn’t been as much communication on more of the welfare implications of not being able to see your team.”

In the rush to find COVID friendly activities, the Oxford University Walking Club experienced a huge spike in interest during Michaelmas term. President Isabel Creed describes the club as usually running “a very chilled walking system” with local walks open to anyone who gets themselves to the starting point on time as well as multi-day trekking trips around the UK that require more advance planning. When the lockdowns came, “we weren’t allowed to use minibuses and putting loads of people in a hostel was not really appropriate, so we haven’t really been able to operate [those longer trips]” Creed says.

“We were told that we could only have sixes by the university … which then meant that I only have 15 leaders, and not all of them were available each weekend.” As lockdown measures tightened further, Oxford University Walking Club had to move to 1:1 hikes and with a mailing list of over 1,000, people were inevitably disappointment when they were unable to book a place.

“We had an issue with people booking and then not turning up for the trips” Creed says. “People would let you know like 10 minutes before which, obviously, you can’t ring somebody at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and say, Oh, can you come in 10 minutes.”

Creed eventually had to implement a system where two skips without an excuse led to exclusion for the term, with the valid excuse being contact with Covid. However, “sometimes people [would] then just tell me they’re not feeling well, and it’s quite difficult to work out if they’re unwell or not.”

While Creed says “a lot of people [got] frustrated, especially some of our older members,” she is hopeful things will be better this term. For Trinity “we’ve managed to kind of get some more leaders doing stuff and we’ve worked out a way of getting more people to be able to come on a trip because regulations are slightly different.”

“For social walks, we’re just going to let people off in groups of six. At least one or two people in their group of six will know their way around Port Meadow or you can follow the group [ahead] that’s distanced.”

Creed is recruiting members for a Pennine Way trip that was rescheduled to this summer after being cancelled last year, and she hopes that their other events this term will be successful at raising money for the charities Mind and Beat. After what the Walking Club went through at Michaelmas, “I do worry, though, that we might end up getting oversubscribed.”

For the Oxford University Basketball Club whose sport is played primarily indoors, they have managed to do some of their trainings outside. “Weather is a massive issue, if it’s raining half the time during autumn or winter” says Secretary Karl Baddeley. “Also being outdoors, there is higher injury risk,” because players will fall on concrete rather than wooden gym floors. “We can’t play as intensely as we normally would indoors, so that definitely limits training.”

Baddeley also says for their strength and conditioning regime “we have to do a lot of bodyweight stuff on zoom, all just in our rooms, which is fine, but obviously, that’s limiting as well.”

For Regent’s Park College Rowing President David Crowther who is preparing his college’s team for Summer Eights in week 7, “I guess the biggest fear is that someone does get COVID because … then the whole boat has to isolate.” While he expresses some concern about fitness, “everyone has been through that and we can kind of plan around that whereas [with covid] we can’t necessarily stop it.”

Most teams are holding out hope for a varsity competition at the end of term but with the shock of lockdowns in recent memory, students understand that the situation could change at any moment. “Best case scenario, we can have a friendly towards week seven or something, maybe, and then the one we really hope to have is varsity against Cambridge, maybe at the end of week eight, we don’t really know,” says Baddely. “That would be helpful. That would be best-case scenario.”

Gallagher also hopes to organise a friendly varsity but “there’d still be restrictions on number of people we can have poolside, and there wouldn’t be any fans. So I don’t know then because Cambridge will be hosting it, I don’t know if that’s viable for them.”

After a difficult year, what’s at stake is less about winning and more about morale. “Obviously, it’s kind of very much up in the air at the moment about government and university guidelines,” says Gallagher. “But if we can do that, we think that’ll probably be a good way to keep people in the club”.

Image courtesy of OUEC.

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