Training Together Worlds Apart

Princeton women’s lacrosse players Grace Tauckus, Taylor DeGroff, Sam Fish, Ellie Mueller, Meg Curran, and Mary Murphy explore the Grand Canyon.

Princeton University Student-Athletes Benefit from Pods During COVID

By Justin Feil | Photos Courtesy of Princeton University Athletics

Bridget Murphy expected to be a passenger when her mother picked her up from the airport in November, but mistakenly climbed into the car on the driver’s side.

“I got in thinking it was the other side of the car and I just started laughing,” recalls Murphy. “I said, ‘This is going to take some getting used to.’”

The Summit, New Jersey, resident had just returned from Canterbury, England, a town with roughly twice the population of Trenton that attracts thousands of visitors annually to its medieval culture, lively nightlife, and renowned shopping and dining. Murphy lived, studied, and trained in Canterbury with the four other freshmen on the Princeton University field hockey team while they began college remotely during the fall semester. Murphy was nervous to live with people she didn’t know well, but the group clicked instantly upon arrival in August.

“We weren’t forced to do anything together, but we loved doing everything together,” says Murphy. “We spent a lot of time together because we wanted to and because we’re such a close-knit group. This trip really bonded us as a class.”

Murphy reunited with her classmates on campus this spring semester along with most of the enrolled Princeton University students for a more traditional college setting, but over the fall they were not alone in forming their own de facto pod. Princeton University sent all students home in March of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the school announced that students would not return to campus during the fall 2020 semester due to continued precautions, and the Ivy League canceled all fall and winter sports, groups of Princeton student-athletes buoyed their physical and mental health by living, training, and spending time together throughout the country as well as abroad.

“From being on a huge team that’s been really close, and then not being together all of a sudden for multiple months, I know some guys were struggling at home — whether from a loneliness standpoint or academic standpoint or baseball and taking care of their work for baseball — so to be together was huge,” says Sy Snedeker, a senior baseball player who lived with four teammates in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Student-athletes from across a range of Princeton sports originally tried to organize getting larger groups together in one place. “It sounded a little too good to be true because it was,” says Taylor Beckett, one of Snedeker’s Myrtle Beach housemates. “It’s tough to get dozens to all agree on one place and all move in one direction.”

Princeton field hockey freshmen Robyn Thompson, Grace Schulze, Bridget Murphy, Liz Agatucci, and Gracie McGowan at Sevenoaks Hockey Club in England.

Instead, smaller pods formed like the field hockey freshmen in England, and the baseball players in Myrtle Beach just a few doors down from some PU women’s athletes. Nine men’s soccer players lived together in Mission Viejo, California; a dozen women’s lacrosse players split two houses in Park City, Utah; football players teamed up in Dallas; men’s cross country runners moved to Boulder, Colorado; women’s ice hockey players met up for training in the Toronto area; and a trio of women’s basketball players continues to live this spring in nearby Lawrenceville.

“Living together is great,” says Julia Cunningham, who will be a junior on the women’s basketball team when she returns to Princeton next fall. “You have two people going through the exact same thing as you. They can relate to all the emotions and feelings that we had from the beginning of the year when we decided to take a gap year.”

The student-athletes ranged from incoming freshmen like Murphy’s class, who had yet to even live on campus, to students like women’s lacrosse player Kari Buonanno, who had her first year at Princeton cut short by the pandemic, to upperclass students taking a gap year in order to retain a season of athletic eligibility and/or return to in-person learning like junior women’s ice hockey player Sarah Fillier, as well as baseball seniors like Beckett and Snedeker looking to make the most of the dusk of their college experience together. They looked to the new arrangements for a sense of normalcy, for motivation, for accountability, and for camaraderie.

“It was pretty nice to take advantage of some pretty crazy and unprecedented times and try to make the most of it,” says sophomore men’s soccer player Ryan Winkler. “It was pretty cool to constantly be in and around a bunch of likeminded people. Everyone was either working or taking classes during the day and then we all stopped, would go out and play soccer, then come back. It was a pretty cool experience to live with a bunch of teammates.”

Princeton women’s lacrosse players Jordan Marcus, Grace Tauckus, Kyla Sears, and Kari Buonanno.

Living Together

The women’s lacrosse pod in Utah combined returning sophomores and seniors rather than one or two grades closer in age. “This was kind of a special group in that we were taken off campus right before Kari’s grade would have had their first season, so we didn’t really get the immersed away trips, locker room, postseason games experience,” says Kyla Sears, who will be a senior next fall. “This was something really special that will help them come back on campus and feel as immersed as they would be if they’d had their first full season on campus.”

Living together entailed more than the regular dorm life. On their own away from home and campus, they had to take care of the daily chores and rental upkeep together. “At Princeton, living in dorms, you don’t get that house living experience,” says Buonanno. “It was new for me. I think it was new for all of us. So cooking meals together, washing the dishes, doing all those little things was actually fun.”

The Myrtle Beach baseball crew fended for themselves throughout the week but capped each weekend with a Sunday night “family dinner” when they took turns cooking for their house plus fellow Princeton students who lived down the street and any teammates who might be visiting. The dinners became a weekly highlight. “We’re in a house with a nice kitchen so we all took it upon ourselves to become little chefs and work on our cooking game,” says Snedeker. “That definitely improved for everyone while we were there.”

In Myrtle Beach are, standing in the back row from left, Princeton baseball seniors Sy Snedeker, Taylor Beckett, Jake Boone, Connor Udell, and Keith Gabrielson. In the front row, from left, are Princeton field hockey senior Emma Street, women’s lacrosse player Olivia Pugh, and field hockey senior Julianna Tornetta.

Training

Keeping up training while away from school, teammates, and coaches for more time than usual was a concern for every athlete. The five baseball seniors are all enrolled and back on campus this spring semester with the hopes of having at least a shortened non-conference baseball schedule after the Ivy League Council of Presidents announced in February that there will be no league competition or championships. All share hopes of playing an extra college season in graduate school or starting professional baseball careers beyond Princeton. Jake Boone got a jumpstart when he signed a professional contract last summer. Working together in Myrtle Beach kept them on track. They lifted and worked out at their local YMCA and found a local baseball facility to hit and pitch in — sometimes close to midnight.

“The owner of the place left us a key under the mat,” says Beckett. “We could come late at night when his lessons were done, and no one was in there and our schoolwork was done and get our workouts in. It was awesome from a coronavirus perspective as well to have access to a facility that we had to ourselves and not to a crowded place.”

Unable to work out with their team on the nearby campus because they are not enrolled, the women’s basketball players have kept each other motivated and competitive in the local gym where Ellie Mitchell and Maggie Connolly work. Women’s lacrosse players paired with alumna Theresa Sherry, who is coaching a club program in Park City, to work out, or organized their own competition.

“As much as we love it, and we love to play, it’s hard not to toe complacency when you’re off for more than a year,” says Sears. “Just being all together really drove us when we went out and played together.”

In England, the field hockey players took advantage of training not just with each other but practicing and playing with the Sevenoaks Hockey Club team of fellow freshman Robyn Thompson, who grew up not far from Canterbury.

“In the U.K., we train with ladies, not just age groups,” says Thompson. “They were pretty shocked to be with ladies that are 30 years old or 40 years old. It was definitely different for them. It was nice for me to have a lot more girls my age at training.” The women also trained on some nights with men’s players.

With no fall season, the men’s soccer players held workouts and competed in small-sided scrimmages among themselves, after which they charted each individual’s wins on a whiteboard in the house. “That was a really fun way — healthy most times and maybe unhealthy other times — to really inject some competitiveness into the games,” says Kevin O’Toole, who will be a senior after this gap year. “It was a really fun time and a great experience to put some incentive into the games.”

Maggie Connors, a junior ice hockey player taking a gap year, drove five days from Newfoundland to live with a pair of fellow college players in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke where she could train with other high-caliber college players, including Princeton teammates Sarah Fillier, Kayla Fillier, Claire Thompson, and Dani Calabrese. “It felt a little bit normal because I could train and skate with people from all over the NCAA and be able to live away, which I hadn’t since March,” says Connors.

The last time that Connors and the ice hockey team had competed, she assisted a goal by ECAC Most Outstanding Player Sarah Fillier as the Tigers rallied for a 3-2 win over Cornell for their first conference championship in program history. A week later, the pandemic cut their season short before they could start the NCAA tournament, and with this season also canceled, it left many unsure of when to return. Sarah Fillier is taking this year off from school and could add a second straight year away if she fulfills her lifelong dream of making the Canadian Olympic team for 2022. “Once I started training with Hockey Canada and having Maggie and Claire with me, and in the spot I am now, I feel like this year is going to benefit me whether I go to the Olympics or go back to school,” says Fillier. “Being in such an elite training environment on the ice and learning from all these great athletes, there’s no way you can’t benefit.”

Princeton ice hockey player Sarah Fillier has been training in the Toronto area while preparing to try out for the Canadian national hockey team for the 2022 Olympics. (Photograph by Frank Wojciechowski)

Working/Studying

Student-athletes kept up with their studies and work regardless of where they settled. “It’s hard to find a Princeton student-athlete slacking off,” says Sears. “I always find that in every situation.” Sears and Buonanno continue to work jobs remotely while finishing their gap year. Fillier is working now with the same hockey organization that she grew up playing for in Georgetown, Ontario. Connors, a politics major concentrating in international affairs, has used the gap year to explore another interest. She worked for Fettch Technologies, Inc., a start-up that facilitates same-day delivery with an application. “I wanted to do more than keep my training up and being fit and improving my hockey ability,” she says. “I wanted to gain some work experience and do some things that I wouldn’t normally be able to do if things were back to normal.” Now back in Newfoundland, she is assisting Special Olympics.

Working in a gym gives Connolly and Mitchell workout benefits. Cunningham, too, belongs to the gym, but is using her gap year to fulfill requirements toward attending physician assistant school. She thought she would have to wait until she graduated from Princeton to get to them. “On campus is always so hectic and there’s always a lot of pressure to do your classwork or to go to practice and play well,” says Cunningham. “This environment is a little more laid back and we have time to focus on things we want to work on that maybe we wouldn’t have had time to work on with the class load and the athletic responsibilities that we have while we’re on campus.”

In the Myrtle Beach house, the senior baseball players all began working toward their theses, while at the other end of the academic lifeline the Princeton freshmen in Canterbury started college attending online classes from across the Atlantic Ocean. “It was definitely a lifestyle change,” says Murphy. “I’m very much a morning person, so having my first class at 2 o’clock — which was a 9 a.m. class here — was a big switch, but we managed to work it out.”

Winkler and O’Toole took the same computer science class to find out more about coding. O’Toole secured an internship, and Winkler continues to work for the start-up company Blue Umbrella. “I’ve been working there since August,” says Winkler. “It was a good experience and helped keep me busy while others were in classes.”

Princeton baseball seniors Connor Udell, Jake Boone, Sy Snedeker, Taylor Beckett, and Keith Gabrielson at their Myrtle Beach house.

Exploring

The locations each pod selected were part of their big draw. On weekends, the lacrosse players branched out from Utah on visits to Zion National Park; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Idaho; and the Grand Canyon, where they challenged themselves with an ambitious hike. “People were passing us that had gone rim to rim,” says Sears. “We were saying, ‘Are we Division I athletes or not?’ You get down eight miles, and you think you have to go eight miles back up. I’ve never walked that far on flat road in my life. It was crazy.”

In addition to being a hot spot for baseball, Myrtle Beach offered one of the world’s foremost golf centers. The baseball players spent weekends checking out different courses, often laughing at the expense of Connor Udell, who hadn’t played before. “I posted a Snapchat story every time we were out on the course, and it was basically Connor just playing golf,” says Snedeker. “I’m giving a play-by-play of his golf and he’s shooting 130s, 140s, 150s, and it was so entertaining.”

Women’s ice hockey players met up with each other and alumnae to enjoy Toronto when the weather was nicer in the early fall. The men’s soccer players also visited the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, and they made time to hike together in Yosemite National Park, a highlight of their time together in California. They also tried surfing. “We were trying to figure out how to get up on a surfboard, which took the majority of all of us the entire time just to stand up once or twice,” says O’Toole. “That was super fun going out and trying to be like every other Californian out there.”

Exploring Canterbury brought its own charm to the field hockey freshmen. The historic city had a little of everything, and the women also took the train to London and saw Big Ben, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square amidst shopping and sightseeing.

Health Benefits

Living so far from home together served to benefit the field hockey players in multiple ways. They got close quicker than they could have imagined and worked through the challenges of their unique first college experience together.

“We talk about how much we grew as people having to live on our own for four months and not having our parents there and not being at Princeton and for them being in a completely different country and everything being online and not having the hockey we would have had at Princeton,” says Thompson. “I think the biggest thing I took away from it was how lucky we are to have had that and not to have been alone that semester.”

Princeton University coaches have been quite concerned with the mental as much as the physical side of their players’ health. The remote pods seemed to help bring a sense of normalcy. “If I had just lived on my own at home, it would have been way different,” says Connolly, who will be a junior following her gap year. “It’s great to just be around your teammates and be able to have a little of bit of the normal life that we were having before, in the fact that we can work out together and shoot together. Definitely mental health wise it’s been awesome to be able to live with them and have a little consistency with what we’ve been doing the past couple years.”

The pods kept players connected and brought them closer than they could have expected. Many players don’t get to live with each other on Princeton’s campus, and with only Zoom team meetings to connect with otherwise while away from campus, they found other ways to bond and keep each other motivated and healthy.

“It was hard,” says Buonanno, “but for the mental health stuff, being with teammates — being able to play lacrosse with a group vs. being home and playing wall ball when you can and trying to sneak onto a turf because everything is closed — being out there was really, really awesome. It was great for me and great for everyone.”

Even though they were thousands of miles from the campus, players felt connected to the University, connected to teammates and their teams while living, training, and working side-by-side wherever they were. “We took a small part of Princeton with us, which was really great,” says Beckett. “We took our group of four or five guys and a couple of the field hockey girls, and our interactions with each other were just like we’d have at Princeton. We joked about the same stuff, talked about the same stuff, played our sport together. That felt very normal. It was like we were at Princeton in a different place.”