by Don Groubert, OHSAA Certified Official

A letter to area track and field athletes, coaches and officials from local track official Don Groubert. Groubert is the track and cross country meet director/manager at Columbiana’s Ward Athletic Complex and coordinator of officials at Youngstown State University’s WATTS indoor track facility:

The news we waited for finally became a reality for all of us. On Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed all school facilities in the state and banned face-to-face education for the remainder of the school year in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, OHSAA made the announcement we were all expecting, but was still devastating news: All 2020 spring sports have been canceled.

There are no two ways about it, and I won’t sugarcoat it — this is a massive loss for you. For seniors, you’ve not only lost your final high school season, most, if not all, of you have probably also lost your last high school prom, your graduation, and seeing your friends every day at school. That’s not to say that the other classes will also miss out on other activities as well as the love of this sport, to learn and to create memories.

It is disorienting for us adults. We can only try to imagine what it must be like for you. I said I wasn’t going to sugarcoat this, and I’m not. But there are some things I’d like you to think about.

One of the things I hope this sport has taught you is the importance of only focusing on what you can control. You’ve had bad weather before meets and heard your coaches say countless times, “It’s windy/ raining/cold/ snowing/hot for everybody. So what are you going to do about it? Figure out how to deal with it and go warm up.”

You can’t control the fact that a freak pandemic of a virus nobody had heard of until a few months ago forced the closing of the schools, the cancellation of your season, and the loss of events that are normally the highlight of your school year.

So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to respond?
In a frame hanging on my wall, I still have the letter that a recruiting college coach wrote to me after a rough season my senior year, all due to an auto accident. This was written nearly 42 years ago, but it still resonates enough now, even during my coaching career, during my track officiating career and through my personal life, that it’s in a frame hanging on my wall.

It says, in part: “It seems to me that the best athletes are those who don’t just cope with pressure but those who seek it, enjoy it, and even thrive on it. Diamonds are not found in sedimentary rock; they’re found where conditions of extreme heat and pressure have created them. Just as great races or times or runners don’t develop in non-pressure races; they’re developed under conditions of pressure … will you let it crush you … or will you let it mold you?”

You can’t control what happened, but you are in complete control of how you respond to it after you take a day or two to grieve. And I want you to grieve. You need to grieve. You’ve had a huge loss. Don’t let anybody make you feel like you shouldn’t grieve. You’ve lost some very valuable things.

But there’s a huge difference between something being valuable, and something being important. But you only get a day or two to grieve. Then it’s time to start figuring out how you’re going to respond. Will you let this crush you, or will you let this mold you?

As hard as it may be, and even if you don’t agree with what is being done or why it is being done, I urge you to focus on the need to protect the community at large, including those highly vulnerable members. At some point, you’ve all probably been called upon to “take one for the team” and you did whatever it was to help the team, even if it was difficult or unpleasant.

As unfair and devastating as this seems, I ask that you at least consider the notion that this is another, more critical, time that you’ve had to “take one for the team”. We are all called upon to make sacrifices for various teams in our lives, be that team our family, our co-workers or employers, or the community at large. This is just one more way that difficulties in sports can help prepare you for difficulties in life. It’s one more reason why sports are so valuable. It’s also one more reason this so disappointing.

For most of you, this was truly your last season and you won’t be competing in college. Some of you will be continuing on in college.

I have a favor to ask: Don’t let this be the end. Don’t let this be the end of a healthy, active lifestyle. Don’t let this be the end of continuing to improve, of challenging yourself, of setting goals that inspire you to become something more than you are right now. Don’t let this be the end of finding friends who support you, who challenge you, who hold you accountable, who inspire you, and who make you laugh. Don’t let this be the end of finding joy in sports. Don’t let this be the end of going to track meets or being a fan of the sport. Don’t let this be the end. Let it be the beginning of the next phase.

For the seniors, no doubt most of you had goals and were looking forward to going out with a bang or, at a minimum, making memories with your teammates one more time. Now, that’s gone. Again, not going to sugarcoat how lousy that is. So, what’re you going to do about?

Find someplace positive, healthy, and productive to exorcise the frustration you feel about what you’ve lost. You’ll never be able to replace what you’ve lost, but maybe you can find a substitute for it. You know what they say about one door closing and another door opening. Find the door that you can open. Kick it down if you have to.

Take a minute and write down your best memories from high school track and be grateful you had those moments. You know what COVID-19 can’t take away from you? Those memories. Cherish them. Retell the stories, including the ones your coach doesn’t know about (or at least you think they don’t know about). I know I told many of mine when I was coaching!
I have one more radical suggestion and that’s to pay it forward. Think about volunteering or becoming an official or offering to help out coaching or managing someplace like a middle school or club team. Get certified as a starter or official. Become a member of OHSAA or USATF. Get involved in the sport in some other capacity.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. We coaches and officials are generally people who loved the sport so much we couldn’t let go. We missed it. We wanted to stay long after our ability to compete in our prime was gone. We love hanging out at meets and helping you find the same joy we found in the sport. Maybe, just maybe, being involved in some other capacity might help fill a little of that hole in your heart you’re feeling right now.

If you don’t want it to be over, don’t let it be. Find another role. Find another way. This sport gave you the tools to rise to challenges and to overcome obstacles. Use those tools. You earned them. They’re yours.

Don’t lose sight of what a remarkable privilege that is.

Finally, one last thing for seniors: THANK YOU.

Thank you for all of the thrills, laughter, goose bumps and tears you’ve provided. Thank you for all of the memories you gave us. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It’s been a great, wild ride. You didn’t deserve to have it end this way, but this sport has taught you how to respond to adversity and I have no doubt that you will. Thanks, and good luck.

To my fellow officials: Don’t underestimate the loss you are going to feel this spring. The loss of interaction with athletes, other officials, the feel of the track under your feet, the circumference of the circle, the length of the runway.

Reach out to other officials, text each other, stay in contact. We are all going to feel a sense of loss and just connecting will help us get through this hurdle that has been thrown in our path.

Stay strong, stay connected and we will meet again, either it be in cross country season next fall or indoor track next winter or outdoor track next spring.