For Seniors, the College Season's Sudden End Is a Uniquely Brutal Heartbreak

From basketball to swimming to spring sports, NCAA seniors abruptly learned they had played their last college game.
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INDIANAPOLIS — Seeing very clearly where things were headed, I called my son Clayton at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Wanted to make sure he was O.K.

He’s a senior swimmer at Georgia, and his college career was coming to an abrupt, premature, heartbreaking, stunning end. His last meet as a Bulldog was supposed to be the NCAA championships in two weeks in Indianapolis, but the handwriting was on the wall. The cancellation was coming.

Clayton is smart but stoic, never giving up much emotionally, so the conversation was brief and fact-based. Over the course of the last couple days, as the coronavirus reaction turned into a wildfire that consumed everything in its path, he could foresee the likely outcome. He’d prepared for it a little bit.

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But he noted that his coach was still thinking the meet could go on. He was maintaining some slim hope for as long as he could.

And now hope has been extinguished. At 4:16 p.m., the NCAA hit send on the release announcing that all its winter and spring championships were canceled.

I’m sorry, son.

I’m sorry for every other NCAA championship-bound senior in every other winter and spring sport, all of whom had their college careers ended Thursday in a completely unimaginable way. I’m sorry for the ones you’ve heard of, like Cassius Winston and Sabrina Ionescu, but also for the ones you haven’t. I’m sorry for the wrestlers and the runners and the rowers and the softballers, all of whom worked (and worked, and worked) to get to this point. And, yes, for all the senior swimmers we've gotten to know and love and cheer for.

You all deserve a better sendoff than this.

As we suddenly sped toward this moment earlier in the week, a friend pointed out what a great lesson this all is in accepting the unpredictability of life. There is so much we cannot control. No matter how hard we may try to create an ideal path, plans go awry. No matter how much you want your kids to experience happy endings, they’re never guaranteed.

There is wisdom to be gained from living through the raging randomness of a pandemic. But man, this lesson absolutely sucks in the here and now.

Every athlete’s career comes with an expiration date, and the lucky ones can delay that for a long time. My kid was lucky enough to swim past the expiration date for most of his high school peers and competitors. But March 12, 2020, wasn’t supposed to be his expiration date.

He wasn’t done being a Georgia Bulldog. Not yet.

He will keep swimming through the Olympic Trials in June, which is awesome, though he’s not a strong candidate to make the United States team. The NCAA championships were going to be his last big hurrah.

For the uninitiated, swimming works differently than almost every other sport. Swimmers train to peak just once or twice a year, putting everything on those few days of performance. In previous years at college, Clayton had trained to peak at Southeastern Conference championships, hoping to swim a time fast enough in his best event, the 400-yard individual medley, to qualify for the NCAA meet a month later.

He was the last kid out of the NCAAs, nationally, as a freshman. Then he made it his sophomore and junior years, but peaking in February meant he would not be at his best in March. He finished 17th in the 400 IM at NCAAs last year, missing All-American status by one place and missing a chance to swim in the finals by 11 one-hundredths of a second. That was tough.

Given all that, he wanted to go out right his senior year. He swam an NCAA qualifying time in November, an achievement that meant he could train hard through the SEC meet for once and be peaking right on time for the NCAAs. The whole plan was in place.

Until a virus turned the world upside down.

All three of our kids have been college swimmers. The oldest, Mitchell, competed at Missouri from 2013-17. The youngest, Brooke, is a junior at Stanford — she lost the end of her season as well, and my heart aches for her senior teammates who lost their last meet to the virus. Their parents, all close friends, are feeling the same sadness I am today.

But here’s the thing about Clayton: he loves the sport the most of the three kids. He has notebooks filled with goal times and actual times—not just his, but his teammates’. He would like to become a teacher and coach after graduation. He’s had a wonderfully fortunate life in a thousand different ways that are more important than swimming, but I’m feeling this gut punch for him in a most acute way today.

It’s perfectly appropriate for every sports fan to experience a sense of loss today. The NCAA basketball tournament has been a vital part of the American sporting fabric for damn near as long as any of us can remember, a three-week celebration that sucked in millions of casual fans alongside the hardcore ones.

It has been contested for 81 consecutive years. Through World War II, when so many things were being called off. Through the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and so forth. Through racial unrest and economic uncertainty.

President Ronald Reagan was shot on the day of the 1981 national championship game, and that night they played basketball in Philadelphia—Indiana defeated North Carolina for the title. The Big Dance has endured everything. Until now.

Coronavirus killed March Madness, and that hurts. We can all commiserate over that.

But give a good thought to the college seniors in every sport, even the obscure ones. They all worked hard to get where they are. They all deserved better than this ending.