This article is part of a series reflecting on the anniversary of Stanford’s shutdown due to COVID-19. Click here to read the rest of the stories.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have a season at all”
According to senior Jacklyn Luu, Stanford’s synchronized swimming team has one goal: “Winning a national championship.”
This goal isn’t unique to the 2021 season, or to the current roster. Because of the pandemic and a year filled with “ups and downs,” though, Luu and the rest of her teammates are particularly locked in.
At the start of 2020, synchro appeared to be cruising toward another run at a national championship. In 2019, the Cardinal had placed second to Ohio State by just ten points, and the team had set its sights on avenging the close loss and claiming a ninth national championship for the program.
On March 6 and 7 of last year, the Cardinal placed first at Western Regionals by nearly 20 points to set up the National Championships rematch. Luu placed first in the solo, trio and technical competitions. She had not lost a single solo competition all year.
And then — the pandemic hit, the rest of the season was canceled and that was the end of the 2020 season. Much like most other Stanford students, Luu and her teammates returned to their respective homes in March, uncertain of the future.
When practices picked back up in summer, the virtual training was highly unregulated.
“It was more on us, the team. There wasn’t any coach-initiated practice or land workouts,” Luu said. “Mainly since we didn’t know if we were going to have a season at all. So it was more upon us to think of ways to do virtual workouts over Zoom and try to have a buddy system to keep each other accountable.”
On July 8, this uncertainty turned to turmoil when the team was blindsided by devastating news. Synchronized swimming would be discontinued, along with 10 other varsity sports, following the 2020-21 academic year. Current and former synchronized swimmers and athletes from other programs have since spoken out against the University’s decision, but Stanford has yet to consider reinstatement.
“Knowing that we won’t be a varsity sport anymore has really motivated us to make this season our best one by winning a national championship,” she said. “And then on the flip side we try not to think about it so much, because it’s definitely demoralizing to remember how we got cut.”
Amid the ongoing battle between the University and the discontinued sports, Luu was able to return to Avery Aquatic Center in the fall for socially-distanced training, the extent of which is determined by Santa Clara County’s guidelines and COVID-19 tier. It wasn’t until the following quarter that she and the 12-person synchro team were approved through special circumstances housing to live on campus in two pods of six.
Initially, Luu could only practice with her five housemates, making it impossible to rehearse routines that required more people. (The team routine, for example, requires eight members.) Eventually, as the state of the pandemic improved in the Bay Area, the entire team was able to practice and compete together at Avery.
During the pandemic, though, the distinction between practice and competition has blurred as colleges have implemented virtual meets, meaning that everything takes place in the same physical location.
“We record each routine that we want to submit as an entry, and then we send it over to the host college,” Luu said, walking through the process of a virtual competition. “It’s judged asynchronously. The judges input their scores and send it over to whoever is the organizing school, and then the scores are averaged and calculated. And then whoever is the video master enters the scores into the video to make it look like our scores come right after we swim.”
A live stream of all the competing teams’ videos is then broadcasted, allowing teams to tune in and watch other school’s routines and the results of the competition in order.
“Even in this virtual format, I still get nervous because I know it’s going to be judged eventually,” Luu said. “In that sense, it does give me the same kind of nerves of competing live. It’s not the same, but it works given how weird COVID is.”
Besides athletics, the campus is almost entirely shut down due to the county’s restrictions, but Luu welcomes the “change of scenery” it has provided, particularly as the weather continues to warm up.
“It’s definitely easier to think and focus on synchro,” she said of the housing situation. “There’s no other social activities happening. And I’m living with my team 24-7, so we can spend all day together.”
Out of the water, Luu said living together has helped the team “in terms of being more in tune with each other,” effects that are “definitely translated to how we work together in the pool.”
Amid a pandemic, a cancellation and a plethora of uncertainty, Luu is using the negatives as extra motivation, while still finding the silver linings of the situation. It is a mentality not just for her, but the synchronized swimming program as a whole.
“We’re all very motivated to work every day in school and put our best foot forward each time we’re able to compete,” she said. “And I think that’s the mindset we’ve really dug into this whole season.”
Their mentality is paying off: So far, the team is well on its way to a championship, having placed first at the OSU Virtual Technical Invitational while competing against top level competition in Ohio State and Incarnate Word. Luu finished with a score of 78.6442 to pace the Cardinal. Although the exact date has yet to be announced, the 2021 National Championships are scheduled to take place sometime in April.
“It feels great to be back competing,” she said. “Just having the opportunity and the privilege to just come back on campus and train, as well as actually compete, even though it was virtual, has been really awesome.”
“We all wanted it so bad“
As a freshman in 2019, Brody Malone helped Stanford men’s gymnastics defy the odds to earn its sixth national championship against four-time defending champion Oklahoma. In addition, Malone earned every award imaginable: three-time NCAA Champion in the all-around, floor exercise and high bar; College Gymnastics Association Rookie of the Year and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Gymnast of the Year.
The following year, he and his teammates looked to defend their team title for the first time since 1993. Stanford was the number one team in the nation and the only team to break 420.000 that season. Then, their season was canceled due to COVID-19.
“When we found out our season was all done and over with, we got together as a team, and a lot of tears were definitely shed,” Malone said. “We all wanted it so bad: to finish the season, to go to Nationals and to try to defend our championship.”
Malone himself had even more on the line. The previous year, his prowess on all six events earned him a spot on the 2019-20 U.S. Gymnastics senior national team. He traveled to Lima, Peru, to compete at the 2019 Pan-American Games. He even had his sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But COVID-19 also forced the postponement of the Olympics and threw a further wrench in Malone’s plans.
“I would have been in a tough situation if the Olympics would have still been going on because my training facility at home in Georgia is not the greatest,” he said. “I didn’t think it was fair to force the athletes to compete or try to get ready for high-level competitions, especially the Olympics.”
Like all other collegiate athletes, Malone adapted to the new normal and did everything he could at home to stay in as good of shape as possible. However, he acknowledged one thing that he struggled with during his modified training schedule: consistency.
“In a sport like gymnastics or any other sport, you want to have consistency and know what you’re doing in training,” he said. “In my gym, we have a calendar that tells us what we should do every single day, week and month, and it’s frustrating to not have that.”
After being sent back home in March, Malone has moved between three different states to maintain a somewhat normal training and home schedule. Initially, he started training at two different club gyms in his home state of Georgia — his home gym and a different gym with better equipment. When his family moved to Tennessee later in the summer, he trained during the weekdays, staying with his girlfriend or grandparents, and drove during the weekends to see his family.
Then, he and a couple of his teammates were invited by alumni Grant Breckenridge ’19 and Akash Modi ’17 to train in Texas with a coach who knows a thing or two about the Olympics.
“Late last summer, a couple of alums — Grant Breckenridge and Akash Modi — invited me and a couple of other guys from the team to train at Cyprus Academy in Texas with coach Tom Meadows, who has been to multiple Olympics,” he said.
“[Meadows] welcomed all of us with open arms, and I cannot thank him enough for what he did for us,” he added.
A few months later, Malone returned home to Tennessee to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family and was supposed to head back to Stanford to compete with his teammates for the 2020-21 season. However, the spike in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season again forced Malone to return to Texas.
Now, the men’s gymnastics team is finally back on campus and ready to resume its campaign. After a year of uncertainty amid the pandemic, Malone is looking on the bright side. COVID-19 hasn’t changed his lifelong goal of being a part of the Olympics.
“I have used this extra year to build consistency in my routines, get more numbers under my belt and get more comfortable with the stuff that I’m doing,” he said. “I’m still shooting for [the Olympics], though.”
He’s also excited to be back with the team.
“I love the guys so much, and we have such a great training environment here at Stanford,” he said. “We’re all very goal-oriented in that we want to defend our national championship.”
“That’s what drives our gymnastics. That’s what gets us out of the bed every morning,” he added.
“One of the best decisions I’ve ever made”
When women’s cross country and track junior Lindsey Payne heard that the NCAA was granting an extra year of eligibility to all Division I athletes whose seasons were in the fall, regardless of whether they competed or opted out of the 2020-21 season, she had a decision to make.
Instead of returning to campus to train and compete with her team, Payne chose to opt out of her season and take the time to explore her world without collegiate athletics. Payne has been living in Los Angeles’s Arts District and has immersed herself more deeply in her classes and astrophysics research.
Her verdict? Taking the season off was “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it was truly for myself.”
Payne, a physics major concentrating in astrophysics, has spent her time working with a postdoctoral student in Stanford astrophysicist Risa Wechser’s lab since the fall on the planes of satellite galaxies problem. Previous research has shown that some galaxies, including the Milky Way, are surrounded by a swarm of satellite galaxies that orbit in a line in the same direction. While current simulations and models have found this pattern in galaxies relatively near the Milky Way, it is exceedingly rare elsewhere.
“I’m trying to ask, how does the environment that a galaxy lives in affect its satellite formation?” Payne said.
In addition to being able to spend more time on her research, opting out of the season has allowed her to take a heavier course load than normal: She is taking 19 units, one below Stanford’s maximum per quarter. While her workload is substantial, she said she feels as though it is worth it because it’s “useful and applicable to the real world … not all classes do that.”
And, in between juggling research and classes, Payne said she has still been able to get a taste for LA’s culture and explore the area, somewhere she is interested in living and working after she graduates.
Back on campus, Stanford has brought her team back and is allowing them to compete in a shortened season. Though Payne thinks Stanford made the right call, she doesn’t regret her decision to take the season off. In January, she also had a minor operation to remove a tumor from her finger, setting her back in terms of training and making it unlikely she would have raced the cross country season anyway.
“I think it is definitely worth it for the upperclassmen who are either graduating or going into their fifth years or applying to grad school, or trying to get recruited by professional teams,” she said, “because for them, they have had a year without clocking any fast times.”
Although the year has looked anything but normal for Payne, taking time to explore new things during the academic year has also been valuable in giving her “a glimpse of what life will look like post-collegiately when I’m done running.”
“It wasn’t a decision made out of spite, or frustration, or anger towards my team or the situation or anything, it was just made in my best interest,” she said. And while she strayed from the decision most of her teammates made, it has been a valuable and formative experience for her all the same.