Johns Hopkins Athletes Rebound from COVID Restrictions

Student athletes talk about how the pandemic affected their seasons.

When COVID-19 closed the campus in March 2020, it wasn’t just classrooms that remained dark, but also gyms, fields, and locker rooms. More than 400 Johns Hopkins Krieger School athletes were among the students sent home, abruptly separated not only from their peers and mentors, but from the close-knit community of teammates who often spend hours together every day. While some sports returned in modified fashion in spring 2021, this fall semester offers the first regular season in two years. What was the pandemic like for students whose very identities are partially shaped by their dedication to their sport? We share excerpts from conversations with athletes from a few of our Blue Jay teams. 

Watch the Athletes in Action

Chid Nnake

Chid Nnake

Major: public health
Minor: entrepreneurship and management
Sport: Basketball 

How did you stay connected as a team? 

One thing we did was read a book together about how effective teams work. It was called Legacy, and it followed the New Zealand men’s rugby team and what makes them successful. That was a very interesting week and we took a lot of lessons out of that. Then, a couple other teammates and I consistently texted in the group chats, trying to have fun, hosting team builders like a team Jeopardy! or team trivia. And we have so many social media platforms that we can communicate across, so we would send things that we find funny or informative, and just catch up there. 

What new perspectives opened up for you? 

Since I’m a public health major, this entire pandemic has opened my eyes into what health disparities look like and [provided insights into] different marginalized communities. At the same time, there were also racial tensions coming to the forefront, so a couple teammates and I founded our Black Student Athlete Association. The way I think about it is that on the basketball team, everyone brings their own skill set and individuality to the team and being able to use that synergistically leads to your team goal.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken out of basketball, especially through COVID-19 where people are isolated: We really need to come together as a team, make sure everyone’s intersectionality is being noticed and implemented, because that’s how we make change, whether that be health, education, or anywhere in between. 

Did basketball help you navigate the pandemic? 

At first we played on outdoor courts, and over the summer we could access the gym. Having something to look forward to, like “maybe today I’ll get better in this part of my basketball game,” that’s something that helped me get through it. Basketball is kind of a mental break from everything, and when I’m focused on basketball, I’m very focused on basketball. And it gives me a way to bond and connect with others. 

Photo of Chid Nnake courtesy of JHU Athletics

Basketball Highlights

Preseason polls pick the men’s basketball team to win this year’s Centennial Conference. You can see the team play at the Goldfarb Gymnasium on Nov. 23 versus Gettysburg, or another of their 14 home games.

Abby Birk

Abby Birk ’22

Major: public health; medicine, science, and the humanities
Sport: Field Hockey

How did the pandemic affect you as a Johns Hopkins athlete? 

There’s less pressure now. After we lost in the Final Four in my sophomore season, we wanted to come back and do so well, but with that came a lot of pressure. Now, although we still have those very high expectations for ourselves, there’s less pressure in that we don’t know any other team’s record or how they’ve been handling this. I think I got a little wrapped up in stats and awards last season, whereas now I’m just so looking forward to being on the field and being with my teammates and playing as a team.  

What new perspectives opened up for you? 

Being a student athlete at Hopkins was a huge part of my identity, so losing the athletic component of that identity shifted my perspective on what I was doing and what I valued. I got involved in some virtual research and that was a great outlet. I’m a very active person, so I had to come up with different things to do, and one of them was yoga on Zoom. It was fun physically and also mentally because there’s such a meditation component to yoga. 

What are your thoughts on the upcoming season? 

I’m so excited. We have a really talented group of girls and a really dedicated team and coaching staff. We’re in a unique position in that two of the classes, all they know is winning a conference championship and going to the Final Four. And then we have two classes who have never played a collegiate field hockey game. As hard as it might be to mesh those two groups, I have the utmost confidence in our team putting in the work on and off the field to have the most successful season we can have. 

Photo of Abby Birk courtesy of JHU Athletics

Field Hockey Highlights

Field Hockey’s season is over, but it was a great one. The team was undefeated in the regular 2021 season, and have won 28 consecutive games on Homewood Field as of press time.

Diarra Oden

Diarra Oden ’22

Major: public health
Minors: English; pre-med 
Sport: Basketball

How did you stay connected as a team? 

We normally have something called Summer Sisters where you’re paired with one or two other girls and hold each other accountable for things like how your workouts are going. Our whole team had Zoom conversations about what was going on in the world, about race and the civil unrest. We also had meetings with alumnae that were facilitated by my teammates. So we experienced a lot of personal growth and tried to find team cohesiveness outside of the court. 

What new perspectives opened up for you? 

It was very difficult not having basketball in my life and I realized that I relied on it way more than I should as an outlet when I’m stressed. But it’s not the center of my universe, and it was a very eye-opening experience to have my life without basketball. Just knowing that there is a life outside of your sport was really big. 

What was difficult? 

Something that was difficult for all athletes is that we find solace in each other. I’m not only very good friends with the girls on my team, but with people on the women’s soccer team, the men’s basketball team, the men’s soccer team, the women’s lacrosse team. Not being able to mingle with other sports and support one another was difficult. 

Photo of Diarra Oden courtesy of JHU Athletics

Basketball Highlights

The women’s basketball season is just getting started. Catch them live in the Goldfarb Gymnasium at one of 11 remaining home games.

Joe Paul

Joe Paul ’22

Major: international studies; history
Sport: Wrestling

How did you stay connected as a team? 

We set up team Zoom meetings for pretty much the whole year. Our coach set up trivia nights, we did virtual challenges, and we even had alumni hop on. Even though it was virtual, it kept people together. 

How did the pandemic affect you as a Johns Hopkins athlete? 

As a team we talked about this: One little benefit is we weren’t on campus, so we had to spend more time with our family. It made me appreciate my family time, and I realized that I need to do a little more on my end to make sure I stay close to my family and come home as much as I can. As an athlete I don’t think it’s drastically affected me. My mindset and how I approach training and competition are still the same.  

How did wrestling’s absence affect your life? 

Wrestling doesn’t define me, but it structures my life. I love having structure with practices and competitions. It’s nice when people all have the same athletic goal and we can hold each other accountable. We also study together and make sure we prepare for tests. Those are things that if I didn’t have wrestling and didn’t have the guys on the team, then I’d have to do it all by myself. 

What are your thoughts about the upcoming season? 

The crazy part to me is I really haven’t met half of our team. I was a sophomore the last time we were all together as a team. There’s a lot of responsibility for the older guys to set the tone and make sure that we still have a good team culture. So we have plans to get everything going on the right foot. And I’m very much looking forward to it. 

Photo of Joe Paul courtesy of JHU Athletics

Wrestling Highlights

The wrestling season is just starting up, but the next home meet isn’t until 2022. Watch the team in the Goldfarb Gym on Jan. 21, against Elizabethtown.

Natalie Aston

Natalie Aston ’22

Major: behavioral biology; psychology
Minor: entrepreneurship and management 
Sport: Volleyball

How did you stay connected as a team? 

We did a lot of team Zooms and team mindfulness. The team did video sessions with our coach to keep our volleyball eyes fresh and learn things—watching games or professional players. We had workouts from our strength coach, but some people didn’t have gyms and went to running to stay in shape, and that’s what I did: We got a pandemic puppy, and I went on runs with him.  

What new perspectives opened up for you? 

I had to learn to be creative and put myself out there a little bit more and do some things that I wouldn’t have expected. Virtual tutoring wasn’t really a thing for me before the pandemic, but my parents helped me reframe it as an opportunity to help others. Also, just realizing that there’s no need to be in a rush.

Once you don’t have the classic routine, you realize, I don’t have to follow this traditional path, and I can keep growing by finding things that interest me, and that it doesn’t have to be exactly how you calculated freshman year. Spending time with my grandparents was especially important, bike rides with my dad, walking the dog with my mom. Just finding other activities that I enjoyed, because I know that volleyball will always be a part of my life, but it’s not going to be as big as it is right now. 

What are your thoughts about the current season? 

This season’s going to be fun. The blend of girls is the most amazing group, and coming all together finally—not just over text—has been the best thing. We’ve had a lot of genuine quality time together, and we’re looking pretty good. 

Photo of Natalie Aston courtesy of JHU Athletics

Volleyball Highlights

This year’s volleyball team was undefeated in the regular season, setting a new Division III record of 62 wins in a row (so far!).