Since earlier this year, we have been put in the fog of uncertainty, not knowing what our plan will be looking forward to the months ahead. While football tested positive as some games and practices resume, the landscape of most other sports, including men’s gymnastics, is still largely unclear.
Though the Pac-12 announced in September that sports may be resumed in the coming winter, uncertainty is still in the air due to the sustained increase in COVID-19 cases around the country. For the men’s gymnastics team, preparation started late this October with some strict caution for the health and safety of the athletes and staff alike.
In addition to safety protocols, extra attention is paid to the equipment in the gym. The chalk gymnasts use for grip, for example, is now one of those areas with some risk of spreading the disease.
“In an environment of sports, it’s more challenging (to stay safe),” said head coach J.T. Okada. “We have to think about very small things, like now each of the gymnasts uses their own chalk bag. We don’t want them sharing.”
Team members are returning to Berkeley as the team training resumes. On top of the numerous updates needing to be made for next season, there may be an additional challenge for the team due to limited access to the gym during the lockdown.
Caleb Rickard, one of the team captains this season, stayed in Berkeley, where he was quarantined with his teammates for months. During the lockdown when the access to the gym was limited, he focused on keeping connected with the team all the while doing everything he can to stay fit at home.
“First few months were a little difficult because we were on our own,” Rickard said. “We got together with teammates I live with and did group conditioning and group workouts.”
Gymnasts such as Rickard, who were away from the gym for a while, faced unexpected challenges when they returned to Berkeley for their first practices.
“They realized that when they are not constantly swinging on the bars and rings, their hands get soft,” coach Okada said. “So they had to rebuild their hand strength. Clicking on keyboards were all their hands were used for.”
On the other hand, gymnasts such as Darren Wong, who is the other team captain and resides in Vancouver, Canada, were somewhat blessed with their training environment. Thanks to the lesser impact that COVID-19 had on Canada compared to the United States, after a relatively short time, Wong’s local gym reopened for consistent access.
“The moment I came home (to Canada), after two weeks of quarantine, I was able to train right away,” Wong said. “I’m very lucky that I have that. School is sometimes very hard and I use the gym as my outlet.”
Another challenge this season was how to incorporate new freshmen. Though the team welcomed a big class of nine newcomers this year, transitioning to the new environment has not been the easiest. Despite varied conditions of training and locations, captains and coaches sought different ways to connect virtually, including weekly Zoom meetings with all the team members and staff.
Going forward, “virtual” could be a keyword for all sports amid the fight against COVID, and men’s gymnastics is no exception. Coach Okada confirmed the possibility of virtual meets, where each team competes in its own gym while judges score through watching the performance online. Despite the technical issues they may face initially, this new format may bring various benefits, minimizing not only the health and safety concerns but also travel budgets. The cost efficiency of the new format is certainly a plus, especially for Cal men’s gymnastics program which strives for self-sufficiency.
“Basically we (compete in a) performance sport, so if judges are in the same perspective, they can judge from home virtually,” said coach Okada. “Virtual competition is a great idea especially during this pandemic, but it also saves money. We might be able to compete even internationally.”
For many sports, especially Olympic sports such as gymnastics, this year alone has been a great challenge — with the COVID-19 pandemic, Olympic postponement, competitions canceled and practices hindered, some teams were endangered of their survival. Nevertheless, change comes in times like this, and Cal men’s gymnastics will certainly not be the only program to adapt. After the fog of uncertainty clears, we may see the Bears reborn next season.
Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].