Despite having their seasons cut short by coronavirus, UoB’s sports clubs are finding ways to help themselves and others while stuck at home
Omens are funny things. When something unexpected happens, it is often labelled as a random, freak occurrence. Yet when multiple strange events take place in sequence, the temptation to convince yourself that there is some sinister plot that humans have no control over can be as irresistible as it is irrational.
George Christian, president of UoB’s rowing club, could have been forgiven for thinking there was some higher power hell-bent on making 2020 a misery for his society.
‘The year as a whole has been very limited,’ admits Christian. ‘Our senior squads who train in Worcester have been heavily affected by severe flooding between November and March.’
It seems a lifetime ago now, but last winter was the fifth-wettest on record in the UK meaning rowing, a sport dependent on the elements being kind, was disrupted significantly.
It wasn’t just the biblical rainfall that caused problems, as strong winds prevented UoB Rowing from competing in a BUCS event in Newcastle. A few weeks later, the club’s senior women travelled down to London for the Tideway Eight Races, only for their race to be cancelled courtesy of an unusually fast Thames stream.
Of course, this was only the beginning. Just as the weather began to turn, the rowing season was cut short when the coronavirus pandemic forced BUCS to suspend all events on 16th March. A month later, all activity for the rest of the academic year was cancelled. Christian is diplomatic, stating ‘there just isn’t anything that we can do about the season ending,’ but admits that ‘it’s been really hard for the boat club.’
While few clubs at UoB are at the mercy of the weather to the extent that rowing is, they all shared Christian’s anguish by the middle of March, when the threat of COVID-19 became all too real.
Cricket and archery’s outdoor seasons have been ruined. The cancellation of Big BUCS Wednesday thwarted the netball and women’s football first teams’ pursuits of a championship. Karate, after a successful year financially, was preparing to hold training sessions in third term for the first time.
All sports clubs, be it competing for a title or simply playing the game they enjoy, have seen their plans and aspirations decimated. The cancellations were ‘understandable with the pandemic and global situation,’ concedes UoB Archery‘s publicity officer Cass Senn, but were nevertheless ‘very disappointing for our members.’
The worst consequence of the pandemic, though, has nothing to do with sport. ‘The biggest disappointment was not being able to say goodbye to everyone,’ reveals Rich Egdirrio, publicity officer for Ballroom and Latin Dance Society (BALADS). Football captain Colette Bell can relate to this sentiment, as her club’s AGM and season awards evening will take place only virtually. These events are what Bell and her fellow final years ‘look forward to all year as a way to say goodbye to the club we have put so much time into.’ Likewise, karate members missed out on one final Sports Night and their end of term dinner, which, as president Joseph Estruch describes, are among ‘the highlights of our year.’
In the big picture, with thousands of people dying of COVID-19 every day, the fact that UoB’s sports clubs were unable to finish the year on their terms may seem unimportant. However, although slowing the spread of the virus is certainly the greatest challenge facing society, it is not the only challenge.
‘Mental health is the silent casualty during this crisis,’ fears Egdirrio. Everyone has seen their lives severely disrupted by the pandemic and members of sports clubs, just like the rest of us, are at risk of feeling disheartened, as part of their identity has been snatched away.
Yet sport, though currently restricted by social-distancing measures, is crucial to keeping people positive and connected. Clubs across UoB have recognised this, and are determined not to let the pandemic get the better of their state of mind.
‘We are all still a team and want to make sure everyone knows that we are there to help if someone needs it,’ says Senn. In recent weeks, archery has been running online bow drill sessions (which strengthen the muscles required when drawing and shooting), allowing members to hone their skills at home, even with limited space and equipment. More importantly, Senn believes the sessions ‘allow our members to have a catch-up and some laughs.’
The two-fold benefits of virtual training are evident across the UoB sports clubs. Contact sports such as karate are tricky to practice in the age of social distancing, but Estruch is remaining positive, using the time ‘as an opportunity to work on areas we wouldn’t typically focus on during lessons.’ He hopes that the emphasis on strength and conditioning ‘will mean we’re at a huge physical advantage once we return.’
As well as structured sessions, the club has launched their BeWell Campaign, which encourages members to look after their mental health by being active. Initiatives such as ‘25k in Five Days’ and ‘Staying Sane Saturday’ have helped the team stay in contact. ‘Keeping everyone together is paramount to the club,’ insists Estruch. ‘We’ve put a lot of work in establishing a strong community culture this year and it would feel unnatural to discard that in the current circumstances.’
The cricket club, with their sport dependent on open space and specialist equipment, have had their innovation tested to the limit. In response, they have found a way to compete against other clubs, taking on a different university every Wednesday in a ‘race’ to collectively cover the distance between the two campuses. Again, the aim goes beyond conditioning, with men’s captain Will Kerr believing ‘the event has helped us to keep the competitive spirits flowing as well as providing an incentive to keep fit and get running.’
With such a strong communal spirit, it is little surprise that so many clubs have also jumped at the opportunity to aid the wider society. There have been fundraisers-galore across the university, with sports teams going above and beyond to help several good causes.
As devastating as the pandemic has been, Christian believes that ‘it is important to capitalise on a bad situation,’ and raising money for charity is certainly a superb way to fulfil this mantra. The rowing club’s ‘5k Any Way’ initiative generated £710 for Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, before the start of May saw the ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ campaign begin. The challenge, which involves members from 10 UoB sports clubs, involves teams attempting to cover as much of the planet (figuratively, of course) as they can, and every squad has reached their donation targets already.
The race across the globe has not been the only collaboration for charity between sports clubs. Rather than wallow in the sadness of their annual tour to Poreč being cancelled, the women’s football and netball clubs teamed up to see who could collectively run 1,872km first. Why that number? It is the distance from Birmingham to the Croatian town.
Together, the two teams have raised nearly £2,000 for the NHS, a cause that they were very keen to help. ‘It was important the money went to the NHS, with so many of the club’s family members and alumni working so hard within the NHS right now and doing us proud,’ said Bell.
The eagerness to raise money for those at the forefront of battling coronavirus is also visible in other clubs. Karate held an open quiz last Wednesday for QE Hospital, donating to local frontline workers just as the rowing club has done. Estruch prioritised philanthropy even before the pandemic, and says his club is ‘honoured to give something back to the NHS.’
Meanwhile, UoB Lacrosse ran, walked, and cycled the 6,801 km from campus to Birmingham, Alabama, where the 2021 World Lacrosse Games were meant to be held. In the current climate, captain Ali Marriot and kit secretary Tara Broekhuizen were keen ‘to do something to raise money for our incredible NHS.’
Clubs such as BALADS have ensured that other groups combatting the impacts of COVID are not forgotten. Through a virtual Dirty Dancing themed dance class, the society raised money for Selly Oak Community Response to COVID-19, a volunteer scheme on UoB’s doorstep that is supporting the vulnerable during the crisis. ‘We thought it would be a good idea to raise awareness and funds for a local organisation that is providing aid to those in the area around the university,’ reveals Egdirrio.
The last couple of months have put the importance of sport into perspective. In society, athletes are often depicted as role models, but the pandemic has reminded us that they are not the true heroes. That being said, sport, with its power to create collective joy, can offer assistance to the health workers, volunteers, and everyone else who we should idolize. Through their fundraisers, UoB’s clubs have proven their value emphatically.
Remember though, coronavirus is the biggest problem facing society, not the only problem, something Kerr and UoB Cricket perhaps recognise better than anyone. After a member of the club was diagnosed with Leukemia at the start of March, Kerr and president James Hastings had planned to hold a fundraiser together in aid of charities fighting cancer.
It soon became clear that completing their campaign together and in-person would be impossible due to the pandemic but, by showing the same resilience as other UoB sports clubs, the pair have found a way to raise money. Hastings is running 8km every day in May for Teenage Cancer Trust, while Kerr will be walking 100km continuously for Leukemia UK next month – in his Air Maxes.
‘Leukemia is an illness that sadly I have been aware of for a while,’ says Kerr, explaining his willingness to take on such an intimidating physical challenge. ‘I don’t think people, myself included initially, really understand how tough it is going to be – walking? Can’t be too hard surely!’ Kerr quickly realized what he had let himself in for, especially when his choice of footwear is considered. ‘The blisters aren’t a pretty sight.’
Like all UoB sports clubs, cricket’s fundraisers are a team effort. ‘The stuff James is doing and the money he has raised is incredible’ says Kerr, albeit ‘not really surprising to those that know the type of lad he is, and the type of boys we’ve got in the club.’ For both himself and Hastings, the squad’s ‘constant messages of support, money donated and calls whilst out training all help no-end.’ At a time where public health is in the national spotlight, the cricket club’s campaigns serve as a timely reminder that there are several illnesses other than coronavirus that must not be forgotten.
And perhaps the most overlooked health benefit of raising money for charity is the impact on the well-being of those who take part. The campaigns are ‘a great tool to keep the club spirits high while ensuring the activity of the club doesn’t die down’ believes Christian. Similarly, netball president Georgia Pexton is thankful for the race to Poreč, as ‘it gives them [her team-mates] structure in the day and something to get out of bed to do.’ When stuck at home, it can be easy to feel a little lost, so fundraisers have the capacity to help those who are giving just as much as those receiving.
If anything, the sweeping cancellations have only increased team spirit in UoB’s sports clubs, as squads rally together to find new training methods, protect their mental health, and make huge donations to charity. Now, as the UK takes its first tentative steps out of lockdown, the resurrection of university sport feels ever so slightly closer – a good omen at last.
Of course, there is still a long, long way to before the next match, race, or bout, and there could be more tough days ahead, with Bell acknowledging that many are ‘really struggling to adapt to this different way of life.’ However, she, like surely every other UoB club captain, is adamant that her team will return stronger. ‘We are still one big club who support each other no matter what.’
You can still donate to all the fundraisers referenced in this article: