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PERSPECTIVE: My swim season ended for COVID-19. Strangers on a plane comforted me.



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The IU women's swim and dive team huddles. Freshman swimmer Ryley Ober was training for the NCAA Championships before spring sports were canceled. Photo courtesy of IU Athletics

I sat next to an older lady at 6:30 a.m. March 14 while flying to Florida. We exchanged pleasantries and made casual conversation. It’s an odd predicament how a global pandemic can make for quality bonding with strangers.

I told her I wasn’t supposed to be on this flight. Two days before, I was training alongside 26 of my IU swim teammates for the NCAA Championship. Because I'm a freshman, and it would have been my first NCAAs. The upperclassmen described it as a meet like no other, and I was eager to represent IU on the 800 freestyle relay. 

We were in the middle of practice March 12, the Thursday before spring break, when an article broke the news that the NCAA Championship was canceled due to the coronavirus. The information quickly trickled throughout the team, and we were devastated. Thursday, I was training for one of the pinnacle meets in a swimmer’s career. Friday, I was booking a flight home with no return date.

In a lot of ways, it felt like everything had stopped, like life was suddenly put on hold. As my teammate Brendan Burns said to me, although we were all blessed to be healthy, it felt like someone had died.  Our normal routine was interrupted, and plans were canceled. On my near half-full flight home, I discovered I was not the only one unsure of what lies ahead.

While Lori Grimmett and I spoke, I learned she’s a teacher at Seeger High School in West Lebanon, Indiana, where she graduated in 1981. She taught special education for 28 years before switching to algebra. Her husband was in the army, so she worked for a year-and-a-half in Georgia before working the rest of her 32-year career thus far in Indiana. 

Now, Grimmett is flying to an extended two-week spring break. She’s contemplating how she will teach her students online after receiving a text at 11:30 p.m. on March 12, stating classes were canceled for the next day because a student was symptomatic for the coronavirus.

“We are a one-to-one school, but we are a rural community, so not everyone has internet,” Grimmett said. “So that may pose a problem.”

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb originally gave schools a 20-day waiver out of the required 180 days to use as needed, but a news release Thursday by the Indiana Department of Education stated it would work with individual districts and schools to determine the necessary amount.

For the school in Warren County, teachers are using the time to make school materials accessible to students via Google Classroom, discuss how to overcome the problem of limited access to internet and plan how else to best help their students. The Warren County Public Schools, through the WCPS Feeding Program, have set up 15 schools where parents may receive breakfast and lunch for their kids. Bus drivers are also bringing lunch to the community at designated locations.

A fellow spring break traveler in the middle seat between us chimed in about how the virus affected her. IU senior Emily Kirchhoff was worried that she and her peers won’t have a graduation ceremony. IU President Michael McRobbie announced Friday that the Spring Commencement Ceremonies are postponed. The dance major wasn’t even sure how she’ll complete her classes — perhaps by videotaping herself dancing or focusing more on reading and theory. Either way it won’t be quite the same as in-person classes, especially for something as interactive as dance.

"I was really looking forward to this last half of the semester to just take everything in,” Kirchhoff said. “I really loved my entire senior year, so I was looking forward to that.”

Kirchhoff grew up dancing, even doing it competitively in high school. Her high school teachers encouraged her to audition for colleges, leading her to choose IU. She said she left Wisconsin to come to Bloomington because it offered a chance for a fresh start where she didn’t know anyone. Now as a senior, she was traveling to Florida for spring break with her college friends.

“My friends were all freaking out which was making me a little anxious,” Kirchhoff said when asked how she felt about flying during the coronavirus pandemic. “But no, I wasn’t (worried).”

It was a casual conversation, strangers bonding over different but shared dilemmas. As flight attendants passed, offering inflight snacks and beverages for purchase, Grimmett offered to pay for whatever we wanted. Kirchhoff and I politely declined. 

Perhaps neither of us desired anything, or maybe we both felt bad about accepting such an offer from a stranger. It is a socially normal way to feel – that you shouldn’t accept an offer because it’s a burden on the offered. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe by declining the offer, we actually robbed this kind teacher of some joy. Paying for our $5 Dunkin' Donuts Iced Coffee or $4 snack mix would have been her way of blessing the strangers that she just bonded with, sparking some joy in the midst of uncertainty.

“I just care about people and because you’re in college I know it’s disrupting your life, you being a senior and not being able to go back and maybe not being able to have graduation, and you a swimmer and not doing your postseason, so I just felt compelled to offer,” Grimmett said. “You two look pretty sweet, and I know you both have a wonderful future ahead of you. That’s just me I guess.”

With the current health climate and spreadability of COVID-19, I have found it easy to be scared of strangers. But just because we should remain 6 feet away doesn’t mean we aren’t in this fight together. We have all been affected in different ways, and that is the bond we share.

This story was written as a guest entry by an IU student athlete. The IDS is looking for perspectives about how the coronoavirus has affected readers. Stories should not exceed 500 words and may be edited for length and style. Email submissions to letters@idsnews.com.

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