Every Princeton student remembers the moment in mid-March when the world ground to a halt. For some, it was the memo announcing that classes were moving online. For others, it was the cancellation of the NBA season or the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, or perhaps even Tom Hanks announcing he had tested positive for COVID-19.
For Sam Ellis ’22, who was a junior on the indoor track team at the time, it was something entirely different.
“I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the indoor national championships for track,” Ellis said. “I’d done my pre-race warmup, and I was having lunch with my assistant coach … when my head coach called.”
This was when Ellis received the news that the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 10, two of the biggest collegiate athletic conferences, had pulled their teams from the competition. The situation developed rapidly; while on the phone with his coach, Ellis heard from his assistant coach that the NCAA had canceled all competitions, effective immediately.
“Everybody was there at the facility … we were ready to go,” he said, “But I understand the decision.”
Ellis’ week got worse from there.
“I got to Princeton, packed up all my stuff, and made my way back home,” he said, “I’m pretty sure I actually got COVID from Princeton, but I don’t know where [on campus] … I couldn’t get tested at the time because I wasn’t high-risk, but my girlfriend got an antibody test one month later and it came back positive.”
Ellis and his girlfriend had already planned to quarantine away from his parents after their travel so they didn’t expose them. Ellis made a full recovery and returned to his home in Atlanta. Like many students, after a while in remote learning, Ellis wasn’t feeling fulfilled by online classes and coursework.
“I didn’t enjoy the online experience … and I was pretty confident I wasn’t going to be able to compete for Princeton,” he said. This is when he began to seriously consider taking a leave of absence between his junior and senior year. “I didn’t want my Princeton career to be over … I would never get to hang around campus or take classes in person again.”
Ellis was eventually granted a binding one-year leave, as was every other student who applied. He was not alone among his teammates in his decision to take a leave of absence. Similar to the men’s soccer team, the men’s running program has seen roughly half of its athletes take a leave of absence this year.
“For cross-country … we might actually have a majority of guys taking a leave of absence. For track guys, it’s the opposite,” he said.
With so many athletes on leave, fitness becomes a concern, especially considering that running is a sport which requires athletes to be incredibly consistent about maintaining peak physical performance.
“We have meetings once a week,” Ellis said. “Coaches aren’t allowed to give us training [instructions], though.”
In order to remedy these issues, a large portion of the team moved to Boulder, Colo. for at least part of last semester, according to Ellis. He explains that Boulder is an ideal place to train due to its high altitude.
“Places we would drive to … were at 7,000, 8,000, even 9,000 feet in elevation,” he said. “The training wasn’t super rigorous … it was more just trying to get miles in.”
Ellis said this type of training is called “base training,” which is designed to build strength and endurance so that a runner can train more intensively closer to race day.
Ellis didn’t live in Boulder full-time this fall; he instead opted to live there for two months this summer before he made his decision to take a leave of absence.
“We were hopefully training for a cross country season, but that didn’t work out,” he said. Many stayed until Thanksgiving week to continue training.
Aside from the time he spent in Boulder, Ellis has mostly trained alone. Ellis admits that this is something he has struggled with at times.
“I’ve definitely found it hard to stay motivated when my next race is so far in the future … it’s just harder because I don’t have anybody to run with,” he shared.
He plans to move to Phoenix in mid-January to live with some of his teammates and assistant coach Robby Andrews, who was an Olympian for Team USA in 2016.
“My ultimate goal is to make the Olympic trials in the 1500,” he said. “I’m pretty confident that that meet is not being canceled ... that’ll be in June, so I still have a lot of time to put in the miles.”
While he trains for the Olympic trials, Ellis has taken some focus off of the remainder of his collegiate career.
“I just [pressed] pause on my Princeton career … in March, and I’m hoping to come back next fall and resume.”
Despite being “paused,” Ellis says he has been keeping up with the University’s plans for on-campus academics and practices. He doesn’t feel optimistic about the chances of a full track season in the spring based on the new guidelines.
“There won’t be organized practice, at least for the first couple weeks … by the time they would be able to practice for a month straight, the season would already be halfway over,” he calculated.
While Ellis said he understands why the University is taking such precautions, he admitted that he still becomes annoyed from time to time with the fact that Princeton is unable to compete.
“I’m from Atlanta ... what schools are doing down here … is a lot different from what they’re doing in the northeast,” he said. “It’s frustrating to see my friends at Southeastern Conference schools back competing and training … but in the greater scope of the pandemic, I can’t really complain.”
Ellis also says that it would be refreshing if the University did more to communicate with athletes and coaches about what it has in mind for how athletics might look in the spring, especially with most students moving back to campus next semester.
“I wish Princeton would consider prioritizing athletics a little bit more,” he said, speaking in terms of communication about spring plans. “We don’t know anything about what’s going on, and the coaches don’t really know, either.”
He believes that the University should at least provide multiple detailed contingencies to athletes based on the development of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I know they’re waiting because things can develop so rapidly with a pandemic, but it’d be nice if they could say something like if this happens, we’ll be able to have a season … but if it doesn’t happen, we won’t,” he said.
Unfortunately, regardless of what happens this spring, Ellis does not have a season to look forward to. While he has spent a good deal of time training, he has found a number of other opportunities to fill his time, including working as a research assistant for a Princeton professor and coaching his high school’s cross country team, which he helped to a narrow second-place defeat at the state championships.
He has also become engrossed with another sport: disc golf.
“I had three discs in March … now I probably have 40,” he said. Ellis’ dad has since given him a backpack for his birthday to house his growing collection, much of which he has found on courses. “I’m not so good at regular golf, so I like this golf a lot better.”
While disc golf has been a fun hobby for Ellis, it clearly does not come remotely close to a meet.
“I think the best feeling is going to a huge meet … and running well … and then looking over and seeing my other teammates doing their personal best,” he shared. “The adrenaline rush you get when you step on the line … and having butterflies in your stomach … I definitely miss that a lot.”