No one knew it at the time, but men’s tennis and women’s squash played their last matches as varsity programs March 7 and March 8 of last year, respectively.
The 2019-20 spring seasons were canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic March 13, and most students left campus by March 20. On July 31, the athletic department released another unsettling update – seven sports, including women’s squash and men’s tennis, would be axed after this season.
But as the pandemic drags into 2021, some men’s tennis and women’s squash’s athletes said they opted to transfer or not return to campus. Athletic director Tanya Vogel said both team’s campaigns were called off because the roster sizes were too small to field teams, and women’s squash could only compete against Virginia after other leagues canceled their seasons.
“When we made the announcement in July, we knew there was a chance that some of the students might transfer,” Vogel said in an interview Friday. “I don’t think any of us knew what COVID was going to do to this country in particular. And because of that, so many of our students didn’t choose to come back to be in person, and I definitely support and understand that.”
Vogel said across programs, 80 to 85 domestic and international student-athletes either transferred or chose not to return to Foggy Bottom. Four players on the men’s tennis team transferred, and women’s squash’s freshman class and two former players are not listed on the team’s current roster.
Men’s tennis returns one player to campus
Graduate student Jakub Behun graduated in 2020 but took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility after spring sports were cut short last year. He said he was the only men’s tennis player on campus and the only international student-athlete in the program to travel back to D.C.
“It was just a really big commitment for them to fly over here,” he said. “Knowing that the season might happen, might not happen. We might be in quarantine a lot. And also, people weren’t feeling comfortable with their families sort of saying, ‘Why don’t you stay at home if it’s an option since the situation here is so much better?’”
While on campus, Behun said he still has access to the gyms in the Smith Center and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center. He said he didn’t have access to facilities back home in Slovakia due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But while the team is spread between the United States, China and Australia, Behun said the team is keeping in contact “as much as possible” by keeping up with workouts and meeting online frequently.
Gabriel Hurtado, a freshman formerly on the men’s tennis team, was one of the four players to transfer from the squad. He and freshman Garret Skelly left the team after the fall semester, and juniors Zicheng Zeng and Lawrence Sciglitano left the team prior to the fall term.
Hurtado said in an interview last month he had three days to sign with another program after officials announced July 31 that seven programs, including his own, would be eliminated. Now at UNC-Wilmington, Hurtado said he was sad he couldn’t compete as a Colonial, but the coaches helped him find a new program to continue playing.
“It was definitely a learning experience, and, obviously, I’m very sad that I wasn’t able to go to GW and be able to compete for them,” he said. “But things happen for a reason, I guess. And I just hope everyone’s OK.”
Three women’s squash players back in Foggy Bottom
Just three women’s squash players are back on campus, which is six people short of the usual nine-player ladder. Student-athletes said they made the decision to stay home and not compete because of the uncertainty of the pandemic and the fact that they would only be able to play against Virginia, the other D.C.-area program competing.
Senior Zoe Foo Yuk Han, who is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said she chose to stay home as the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States rose and border closures prevented travel. She was joined by senior Vedika Arunachalam, who also decided to stay put in her home country of India.
“It’s very upsetting, knowing that it’s our last season, and we’re not being able to play,” she said. “It’s definitely a decision that has brought everyone down, but then health always comes first. And it’s always a big decision that we have to make when it comes to our health.”
Due to HVAC repairs in Lerner, the women’s squash players and eight men’s squash players on campus have moved all training to Squash on Fire. But despite the 12-plus-hour time difference between players, head coach Anderson Good still keeps the team connected with weekly online meetings, players said.
Squash athletes will have another chance to close out their college careers. Foo Yuk Han and fellow senior Zuha Nazir said the College Squash Association granted another year of eligibility to squash student-athletes, but they would need to compete at a different school because the program is being cut at GW.
Foo Yuk Han, who became the first squash player on the men’s or women’s side to be named a First-Team All American, was on track to become No. 1 in career wins on the women’s side. But because of pandemic restrictions, she said she hasn’t been able to get onto a squash court since her storybook performance at the 2020 Individual Nationals last March.
She said she is still considering earning her master’s and playing a season at another institution, but she added that the pandemic has kept her plans “up in the air.”
Nazir said she is applying to medical school and doesn’t have intentions to play college squash again. But she added that because the sport was her “first love” since she picked up a racket, she will continue to play for herself and for fun.
“I remember when we first got the announcement in July, I was talking to Anderson about different ways and different schools that I could specifically go to so I could play one more year,” Nazir said. “As the time has passed and as COVID has gotten worse, I’ve realized that some parts of your life, you can just leave behind.”
Belle Long contributed reporting.