Despite COVID-19 cases rising, Canadian student-athletes in the US return to campus

It’s a seven-hour drive from Maya Kobylanski’s home in White Rock, B.C., to Moscow, Idaho—a small town tucked beside the border of Washington State, and home to the University of Idaho. 

When Kobylanski committed to the University of Idaho last November, she assumed her parents would help her settle in as she moved away from home for the first time. They had planned on making the drive to the university together, down to Seattle before hopping on the I-90 east through the snow-capped Cascade Mountain range. They would have criss-crossed past the gentle foothills of Eastern Washington on WA State Route 26 into Moscow. 

The drop off was going to be like so many scenes that normally unfold on campus parking lots at the end of every summer. Kobylanski imagined parents hauling textbooks, suitcases, and shower caddies to their children’s dorm—treasuring those final moments before one final teary goodbye. 

Kobylanski also took comfort in the fact she had the option of coming back on long weekends with only a seven-hour drive between her and her family across the border.

Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Kobylanski, a first-year Exercise Science student and cross-country and track and field runner, visited Idaho last September and instantly fell in love with the cross-country team, coaches, and facilities. Knowing that she would attend graduate or medical school back in Canada after her undergraduate degree, Kobylanski looked forward to the unique experience of studying in the United States. 

Her first official collegiate race as an Idaho Vandal was supposed to be on Sept. 1, but on Aug. 13 she learned all of Idaho’s fall sports had been postponed until the spring due to COVID-19. 

At first, with the pandemic spreading rapidly in the US, Kobylanski assumed classes would be online—similar to how she finished high school in the spring. However, when the University of Idaho announced instruction would be a mix of online and in-person classes, she decided to make the trip south to start university on campus. 

“When I found out there will be a combination of in-person and online, I was still nervous, but trusted the university knew what they were doing when they made that decision,” Kobylanski said in an interview with The Pigeon

Since Kobylanski doesn’t have her own car, and her parents couldn’t cross the border, she flew from Vancouver to Pullman, WA—with a six-hour layover in Seattle in between—to meet a group of teammates, who then drove her to campus. The whole trip took nearly 24 hours. 

“It’s kind of funny,” Kobylanski said. “It took longer to fly [to my university] with all the layovers, but I got here eventually.” 

Initially, she said it was daunting to think about being unable to travel home until American Thanksgiving at the end of November. 

“Now that I’m settled, I’m alright with it, but at first it hit me that I’m here for a set amount of time and there are no visits [home]. When I come back, it’s two weeks in my house alone, and then I can see friends.” 

Although it’s hard to compare the neighbouring countries by population—Canada’s population of just over 37 million is less than the state of California, with a population of roughly 39 million—the US greatly surpasses Canada in COVID-19 per-capita death rates.  

In fact, the US leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, with over 200,000 as of Sept. 30. Canada has recorded a little over nine thousand deaths to date

New York and various southern US states became epicentres of the virus throughout the spring and summer respectively, but the New York Times reported earlier this month that college towns and universities are becoming the next COVID-19 hotspots

On Sep. 25, there were over 130,000 COVID-19 cases reported at over 1,300 different American universities. 124 cases were registered at the University of Idaho, and 263 have been recorded at nearby Washington State University—a mere 10 kilometres away. 

In August, the NCAA postponed all fall sport championships until the spring, with football being the only exception. College football teams compete in the “College Football Playoff” that is not run by the NCAA but by individual conferences instead.

While the Big 12, Southeastern Conference (SEC), and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) forged ahead with a September start to the fall season, the Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences declared last month they were postponing football to the spring.

However, despite the number of cases rising, and increased awareness around myocarditis—a condition linked to COVID-19 that causes inflamed heart muscles—for athletes, the Pac-12 and Big 10 reversed their decision earlier in September in order to play football this fall.

A 2018-19 report from the Institute for International Education found there were roughly 26,000 Canadian students studying in the US. That same year, 4,138 Canadians competed in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). 

Everything happened so fast for Jason Willow. 

This spring, Willow—an infielder and outfielder for the University of California Santa Barbara Gauchos baseball team—and his teammates were riding the high of a hot start to the collegiate baseball season. 

The Gauchos stormed out to a 13-2 start to the 2020 NCAA Division One season in March. They were on an eight-game win streak, including a victory over the number one ranked NCAA men’s baseball team in the US, the UCLA Bruins.

Then, suddenly, COVID-19 forced the NCAA to cancel the remainder of the season. 

“I mean, at the time, we were all so shocked about what was happening [with COVID-19] anyway. So, we weren’t all just focusing on baseball; the health of everybody else was definitely in our minds too,” said Willow. 

“But, at the same time, yeah, it sucked. Because we were catching some steam and it looked like it was going to be a good season.” 

Willow went home to weather out the pandemic over the summer in Victoria, B.C., but returned to Santa Barbara earlier this month. He says a lot of thought went into his decision to travel to the US.

Ultimately, Willow thought if he took extra precaution to be safe, he could be in a place where he had the opportunity to spend time and train with his teammates—individuals who have the same goals, dreams, and work ethic as he does.

The logistics of training are still to be determined. Willow, who has a majority of his courses online, but one in-person lecture, anticipates his teammates will be allowed to get together sometime at the end of September.  

“I wanted to be surrounded by the same group of guys who are all working to the same goals.” 

Grace Fetherstonhaugh hasn’t returned home since the pandemic started in March. 

Originally from New Westminster, B.C., the third-year Oregon State University track and field runner stayed in Oregon over the summer for fear of travelling and spreading the virus to her family. 

“My brother is at a bit of a high risk [person], he’s had a lung infection, so I was trying to figure out how I would get back without having to expose him before quarantining,” Fetherstonhaugh said.

Fetherstonhaugh, who competed for Canada at the 2018 IAAF World U20 championships, says she calls her family frequently and trains with her roommates—who are also on the Oregon State cross country and track team—that helps to establish a routine. Running and living with her teammates has also alleviated any feelings of loneliness.

“I don’t know what I would do without running right now; it’s just fun and something to gain some normalcy.” 

In the middle of July, US President Donald Trump announced plans to pass a controversial immigration policy that would have forced any international students with a fully online course load to leave the country. Following lawsuits from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the plans were dropped. 

Fetherstonhaugh was monitoring the situation closely, and feared if she went to Canada she would have trouble returning to the US.

“That [policy] was freaky,” Fetherstonhaugh said. “It seemed like something [Trump] was trying to do to push all classes to open up, which ended up not working out, luckily.”

Racing is Fetherstonhaugh’s favourite part of track and field running. It was tough to hear the news when the NCAA officially cancelled the outdoor track season—but she stayed positive. 

“Honestly, I was just like, ‘Okay, this is the way it is.’ We’re just going to get in a really good chunk of training for whenever it is we get a race,” she said with a small laugh over the phone. 

Fetherstonhaugh said that her coach is planning for team time trials—races against the clock, instead of other teams—this fall, which will help satisfy that competitive racing edge. 

For Kobylanski, starting university online hasn’t been a huge inconvenience. She doesn’t mind virtual schooling now that she’s been immersed in it, and said since she doesn’t know what “regular university” looks like, she’s managed the adjustment from high school well. 

With the cancellation of the B.C. High School Track and Field championship season in the spring, Kobylanski hasn’t run an official race since February. However, she looks forward to competing in time trials against her team this fall.

“The big thing that made me decide to come down here, as well, was the training with the team,” Kobylanski said. “If I were to stay back home and do it all online and train on my own that would kind of defeat the whole purpose and [I] might as well have stayed in Canada for university.” 

Meanwhile, she’s been allowed to train with her teammates—a group of people who will feel like family before she can see her real one again in November. 

Hopefully, this time, the trip back home won’t take too long.

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