The United States has been the preferred location for many of Ireland’s student athlete, looking to achieve their sporting ambitions whilst obtaining a degree, for the best of a century.

It was the path chosen by Olympic silver-medallist Sonia O’Sullivan and major-winning golfer Graeme McDowell, as well as thousands of other Irish people who took the opportunity to study in America’s luxurious universities, often avoiding the exorbitant tuition fees, as a result of their athletic talent.

The current crop of scholarship students find themselves in a unique set of circumstances, in comparison with the vast swathes who preceded them, as they are competing and studying in the midst of a global pandemic. The College Tribune spoke to four Irish students on sports scholarships in the US to hear their perspective on life stateside as a student-athlete in the context of COVID-19.

Julie McCarthy Student Athlete. Photograph: Kristen Bradshaw
Julie McCarthy. Photograph: Kristen Bradshaw

It was during the practice round of a tournament in Georgia when Julie McCarthy, a senior year Accounting major on a golf scholarship at Auburn University in Alabama, began hearing of COVID-19 hitting the US in March 2020. The tournament was subsequently cancelled and McCarthy’s team travelled back to Auburn. “Then everything happened so fast, within a few days we heard that the university was shutting down and all lectures were going online,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy flew back to her family in Swords in late March once any student-visas issues were sorted. Since returning to Auburn in August, in-person classes have been optional at half-capacity while the golf team has been in a bubble in which they are tested twice a week. Last semester, four of the team tested positive which disrupted plans for their first tournament. The team are advised to only socialise within the bubble and to avoid restaurants and other busy places at peak times.

McCarthy admitted that they “can still do things (socially), but it’s on a different level now” compared to pre-COVID when, confirming the stereotype, much of the students’ social events consisted of red cup parties and beer-pong tournaments. “I wish I could say differently but there was a lot of that!” Outside of these measures, McCarthy said things have been “pretty much normal here, absolutely everything is open”. The 22-year-old will graduate next May as Auburn has given students an extra year back due to COVID.

The experience of Stephanie Ryan during the pandemic starkly contrasts that of McCarthy’s. The 22-year-old student-athlete squash player at Drexel University in Philadelphia was in a packed bar for Erin Express in March. “It is basically St Patrick’s Day celebrations,” she said, “but for three weekends straight,” with COVID barely being mentioned.

Soon after this, classes were all put online the week before Spring Break and Ryan was due to start a co-op in April with a financial services company on Wall Street.  “In the space of two weeks it went from not hearing about restrictions to not knowing whether I could even get into New York,” she said.

With this uncertainty, she made the early trip to the ‘Big Apple’ to stay with her brother until her own apartment opened up. Ryan worked remotely for six months which she found very tough at times as she was living alone in a new city during a lockdown, but said the company was very supportive. The once uber-busy NYC was empty which made Ryan feel anxious about going for long walks.

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In May, there were more reasons to feel unsafe as some protests turned to rioting and looting in Manhattan. “I thought I’ll stay inside just to be careful,” Ryan said. After Thanksgiving, Philadelphia became a high-level contagious city and has been in and out of lockdown since. “Wherever I was always seemed to be the worst hit county!”. All of Ryan’s Computer Science classes are taught online at Drexel and she is yet to play squash since last March despite testing protocols being put in place throughout the college. “The worst part of it is we’ve all worked really hard over the years, and now I probably won’t play with my friends for my last year or even have a graduation,” she said.

The Freshers’ Perspective for a Student Athlete

“Coming over here, honestly, I didn’t think I’d last”. This is how Jack Casey, a 19-year-old originally from Newbridge, felt before making the move across the Atlantic to start a new chapter of his life at Keiser University, Miami on a football scholarship. However, there are many international students who are in the same situation as himself and he met a good group of friends who made the transition a lot easier than anticipated.

The left back has been a mainstay for the Keiser men’s soccer team this season, who went unbeaten until the final of The Sun Conference. In October, the team experienced their only hiccup in relation to the pandemic as eight of the team tested positive for COVID, including Casey who experienced symptoms for the first three days, meaning all training and matches were cancelled for two weeks.

Jack Casey. Photograph: Milton Graham
Jack Casey. Photograph: Milton Graham

The players must wear masks at all times indoors and are “tested every so often, but not all of the time”, but other than that it is business as usual, according to Casey. His Sports Management lectures are in a mixed format, with in-person classes twice a week. The restrictions in Florida are “much more laid-back than Ireland,” with even nightclubs being open in the ‘Sunshine State’. Casey’s friend group enjoy going to restaurants and the driving range in their free time and he said “It (COVID) hasn’t negatively affected my social life too much, but I can see how it’s affected people back home”.

Hollywood has made us associate life in US colleges with frat parties, beer-pong and American football games in front of thousands. We certainly don’t picture it starting with two weeks of quarantine which coincides with receiving your Leaving Cert results. However, this was Ali O’Dea’s first experience at Elon University, North Carolina. “It was hard being alone and seeing all of your friends back home celebrating,” O’Dea said.

Since this period, O’Dea has thoroughly enjoyed her tennis scholarship as everyone on her team is “super welcoming and like-minded”. The college has done a lot to ensure the safety of athletes during the pandemic, as O’Dea is in a bubble with her teammates and must produce a negative antigen test three times a week in order to play matches.

She was deemed a close contact last semester which resulted in another period of isolation and any positive cases must go through cardiovascular testing before competing again. Similar to Auburn and Miami, O’Dea said that most places are open and there is yet to be a lockdown in Elon; however, there is a 10pm curfew in place. Within the bubble they “can do small bits of socialising but nothing like college expectations,” O’Dea said. The majority of classes at Elon are in-person, but with the tennis team’s packed schedule O’Dea often finds herself watching lectures through Zoom on the bus to and from matches.

Ali O’Dea. Photograph: Elon University
Ali O’Dea. Photograph: Elon University

The effects of the pandemic on students in Ireland are apparent to all, there are few parts of the college life that have not been radically altered in the last year. Many students, who find themselves in the never ending Groundhog Day of lockdown where socialising is reduced to a three minute breakout room in a Zoom lecture, will look to some of these stories from America with envy.

However, the student experience in the States is far from a harmonious one as there is little consensus between states on restrictions. Political, cultural and economic polarisation in the United States have been rife over the last decade and the COVID-19 response has been no different. In many ways the differing circumstances of the student-athletes during the pandemic acts as a bellwether for this division.

Callum Buchan – Sports Writer