While many IUP winter and spring athletes have been impacted by the Coronavirus, none have quite experienced the epidemic like the international athletes. The IUP women’s tennis team, which is comprised entirely of international students, has faced the impacts of COVID-19 on multiple fronts.
Like all IUP athletes, the tennis players were taken by surprise and devastated by the sudden cancellation of the NCAA season. But they had to brush that aside quickly and turn their focus to a question few IUP students had to worry about: How do I get home?
Nine players, from seven different countries, all scrambling to get home before borders started closing.
The Crimson Hawks were in the middle of their spring break trip in Florida when the news broke. They had completed three of four matches scheduled between March 8 and 13. But on the morning of the final match of the trip, IUP head coach Larry Peterson learned the season was canceled.
“We were prepared to play our match on Friday,” Peterson said, “but our opponents, Lee University out of Tennessee, had packed their van and headed home that morning at the direction of their athletic department. It seemed that things were changing by the hour.”
Like so many athletes around the country, the news hit players and coaches hard and heavy.
“I could not keep my emotions inside,” said Katya Minchenkova (senior, international business), a native of Russia. “I was crying along with our coach, when I heard this news from him in Starbucks. I didn’t want to believe that our season was over. I thought it was never going to happen.”
Minchenkova’s teammate and doubles partner Idoia Huerta (sophomore, undeclared), who hails from Spain, was in disbelief.
“For me it was unreal that all spring sports got canceled, even professional sports,” Huerta said. “It took me a week to assimilate what just happened specially since I refused to accept it.”
For these athletes, there was little time for solace and reprieve. After receiving the news on Friday, March 13, the athletes had to clamor to find a way home amidst the confusion.
“We just got back from our spring break trip in Florida, and couple days later I was already at home,” Minchenkova said. “I did not plan to go home that fast but seeing that the virus was spreading at such pace, countries were closing their borders, and airports were shutting down, I decided to go as soon as possible. So did others on my team.
“I know now, if people want to come back to Russia from overseas, it is very difficult to do. So, I was glad that I made home safe.”
“On Monday (March 16), one of my teammates woke me up,” Huerta said, “telling me all classes have been moved to online and we have until Saturday to get home. I am always the one that has crazy flights with two or three days between my origin and destination and I am never scared or anxious, but this time I was.”
Minchenkova arrived safely in her hometown of Mytishchi, Russia, as did Huerta in Almenara, Spain. They said all their teammates were able to make it back home safely within one week of receiving the news.
Much like many Americans, this virus has affected these athletes and their families.
“Thankfully, my family is safe and healthy, but since our business is closed during this time, it has a negative financial effect,” Minchenkova said. “Hopefully this is going to end soon and go back to normal.”
With the initial craze of the news being broken over, players and coaches now have an opportunity to reflect on what this virus has taken away from them.
The Crimson Hawks were in full swing and competing at a high level. They were 7-2 before the cancellation, and they seemed to have a bounce-back season ahead of them.
“We were very positive about the opportunities in front of us,” Peterson said. “We had done so well in our preparation, and I was confident in our ability against regional rivals.”
After posting three consecutive 20-win seasons and advancing to the NCAA Division II Championships each year between 2015 and 2018, the Crimson Hawks stumbled last year, going 9-13 in 2018-19.
“I am incredibly proud of this team,” Peterson said. “We have come so far since last year. We built a championship environment of positivity, accountability and strong relationships. I am so proud that we learned from the past, made the right adjustments and got ourselves back on track to achieve our goals and dreams.”
And that’s part of what made it so tough to accept for the athletes.
“It was my last semester as a student-athlete,” said Minchenkova. “I wanted to do my best, keep being undefeated in singles, have an amazing and fun experience on the court in doubles with my partner, Idoia Huerta, and enjoy sharing wins and great memories with my team.”
Being international students during this time has made a unique situation for these athletes.
The Crimson Hawks also have players from Brazil, Colombia, New Zealand, Slovakia and Sweden.
“Being international students has made this situation easier in some ways but also difficult in others,” Huerta said. “It is true that we are away from our families most of the year and we are used to be away from them so respecting social distance is fine for us.
“Since I do not see my family or friends, now when I see them in the supermarket or anywhere in town, it makes it so hard to not get close to them and hug them. It makes it harder because it has been so long since I saw them.”
Many communities in America have shown their support for hospital workers and first responders with displays like candle lightings. Other countries around the world have done similar.
“In Spain there is a tradition now during COVID-19 where we go to our windows or balconies or doors at 8 p.m. every day to clap,” Huerta said. “This clapping is to thank all the health care workers plus all the workers in the primary sector that work for us to have food every day.”