USask’s Huskie Athletics saw its 2020-21 season cut short and then evaporate in the COVID-19 aftermath.
The lights at the PAC went out. No cheering crowds at Griffiths Stadium could be heard. The ice was taken out of Merlis Belsher Place and then eventually outfitted as a potential field hospital and vaccination hub.
University competition was put on the backburner. Many athletes could not play a game, let alone practice with teammates. This hiatus added another layer of stress beyond their online academic studies. We spoke with four Huskie athletes to get their thoughts on the pandemic, the effects on their sports, and what the future holds.
At one point last year, Yol Piok thought his Huskie football career had ended thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and a ruling from the body that oversees university sports in Canada.
Then U Sport walked back on its decision to allow athletes 25 years and older to participate in university football, a decision Piok welcomed with open arms.
“It went from, OK, my career is over to all right, I’m being grandfathered (back onto the roster),” said Piok.
Piok said the uncertainty around COVID, including the many changing federal and provincial restrictions, made training hard to wrap his head around. He said it felt from day to day, guidelines changed how and when his team could train.
“You kind of wake up every day and you’re not sure if they’ll say everything is now shut down and everybody goes back to their cocoons at home and we can’t work out together anymore.”
It’s that mental health aspect of the pandemic that concerned Piok. He wanted to make sure he and his teammates are able to handle the swings that come with changes to COVID guidelines.
It’s up to each of his teammates, Piok said, to still appreciate the opportunities they have to train and to be together. These are times to be respected and cherished, Piok said.
“You can tell with a lot of guys when they came in, (the pandemic weighs) heavy on them. But as soon as you start lifting (weights) and being together, you realize the specialness of being with each other.”
Piok said in some strange way, the pandemic may have actually had a beneficial effect on him and his teammates by bringing them together even tighter. Adversity is something that always brings teams together and times can’t be any tougher than they have been for the Huskies.
It wasn’t the way Janaya Brown wanted to end her Huskie athletic career, but she’s leaving with wonderful memories and friends for life.
The 2020-21 season, washed out by COVID-19, would have been Brown’s fifth and final year on the team. She has since graduated from the College of Agriculture’s Environmental Science program.
“It’s been a hard year. I think, initially, there was still hope that we’d still have something. But as the year transpired, nothing happened,” said Brown.
Brown does feel very lucky that her Huskie team was able to play in, and win, the U Sport national championship in Ottawa at the beginning of 2020 as many other U Sport sports were shut down and never had a chance to play for the national title.
“Part of me wishes that last year would have been my fifth year. But for me, that was my last experience and my last big shining memory,” said Brown, who has been a part of two national and four conference titles in her time as a Huskie.
A year ago, despite having their season cancelled, the team did have a handful of workouts and practices and was able to spend time together.
“I think going through COVID alone is terrible. I think loneliness is one of the hardest things that everyone is going through and having those workouts from September to November was a huge positive in my life that kind of kept me going and pushing me through when a lot of people didn’t have that.”
As time marched on, Brown, named a winner of the Huskie Leadership award, is able to look back and cherish those memories as a Huskie.
“The person I am today is very much different than who I was when I came in. I’m more resilient, more confident and I’m more sure of myself as a person and I know that comes from my coaches, my trainers and my teammates.
“There was just something so special about this team. Everyone there was there for the right reasons. We all wanted to win and every person on the team was willing to put in the work to achieve that.”
Not being able to train together as a member of the Huskie crosscountry team has not slowed Jenna McFadyen down.
It’s her love of running that has helped McFadyen make it through the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think this year has shown how much I actually enjoy and love the sport. The days you do take off or rest, you go a little bit crazy and you realize you really do like the training part and not just the competing part,” said McFadyen, who was named a winner of the Huskie Leadership Award in the spring after being nominated by her teammates.
As a student athlete entering her first year in 2020, McFadyen said she wasn’t sure how the team could stay together. She said her teammates have been very supportive and she’s witnessed how strong the team camaraderie was despite the COVID restrictions.
Team members often used the team’s Facebook page in which they could connect and post their training times for each other to see.
“We all can see it and we would all celebrate it together,” she said. “Being a rookie, you’d expect to be a nobody this year, really. But people went out of their way to meet you, even through COVID. It’s been just amazing.”
McFadyen said it’s been easy to keep a positive attitude because the team’s bonds are strong, a legacy she said runs deep.
“I just joined in with what everyone else has already been doing and support the culture that is there.”
Indeed, McFadyen, named the 2018 Bob Adams youth female track athlete of the year, already realizes supporting this culture will be part of her future once her academic life concludes.
“The people who did that for me that make me want to keep doing that for the sport. I don’t know who started it, but it’s just continuing to pass it along.
Nothing like a pandemic to throw a wrench into Bailee Bourassa’s Huskie hockey career.
“It really messed up my year,” said Bourassa, the 2017 Huskie rookie of the year. “I was very excited to finish my fifth year as a Huskie.”
While waiting for the world to return to normal again, Bourassa kept herself busy. She graduated with her nursing degree in 2020 and she’s continuing her education in the master’s program.
If that’s not enough, she is also working full-time as a registered nurse in the acute care pediatrics ward at the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital in Saskatoon.
But Bourassa, a Canada West second-team all-star in 2020, is like every other Huskie athlete in having their careers put on hold during a time of uncertainty.
“We didn’t even see COVID coming and it kind of really messed everything up for us,” she said. “It’s just been quite a different and unorthodox year for us.”
The 2021 CIS hockey U Sport season was cancelled because of COVID-19. As the pandemic grew, so did the restrictions placed on the team in terms of even practising and getting together.
“If we’re following the restrictions, we couldn't even get together as a team.”
Keeping the team camaraderie was very difficult also. Welcoming new team members was quite a challenge, she says.
“We did little things here and there that we tried to do to keep those connections going, but it’s so hard.”
Merlis Belsher Place (MBP), her home away from home as a Huskie hockey player, was off-limits since it was set up as a possible field hospital and then an immunization site.
Strangely enough, Bourassa even did a nursing orientation at MBP for immunizations.
Bourassa looks forward to getting back on the ice with her team when it’s safe, even with a heavy workload academically.
“I’m always used to being busy. If I wasn’t busy, I don’t know what I’d do. I’m more than excited if we can have a season and get back at it.”