Maria Gutzeit | Our Athletes, All Ages: Let Them Play

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As I lay in bed this past Friday, icepacks on my neck and a heating pad on my back after a high-speed car crash on the freeway totaled my car, a thought crossed my mind. I wondered if I was going to be up for riding my bike the next morning. 

If you don’t know me well, this might be odd. If you do know me, you know it’s what I do. I ride slower and shorter than in the decades I spent racing all over the county. It is what I have done since I was 16, when I cycled around Lake Michigan in tennis shoes and running shorts on my dad’s “10-speed” with a youth group. This isn’t about me, though. This is about why it’s important to support our youth athletes under COVID-19.

First came the news that the 2020 Olympics were postponed. Then we watched as our kids’ sports practices were cancelled. Some, like my daughter’s swim team, made great efforts to keep athletes updated and engaged. We had video chats and long Zooms with no answers. Eventually we did have some virtual dryland workouts, which left her with a smile. 

In between we fit in dog walks, bike rides and rowing machine sessions. She’s a good kid, and thankfully she is at an age to listen to parents encouraging her to maintain some sort of base. Thanks to the city of Santa Clarita they are now back in a tightly controlled outdoor lap swim. Many other kids are not so lucky.

I remember the days when I knew precisely when the “big” races were. Seasons were mapped out. Savings and vacation accounts were depleted to attend key races that we knew about months in advance. If we got sick, or injured, the stress was on. Athletes are die-hard planners of the peak. Now they face uncertain starts and stops, looming competition on dates unknown, others who may be ahead of them in other states, and cancelled scholarships on top of a life-threatening pandemic. 

I feel deeply for them. I hope they are OK.

Some folks cheered our local sports fields being shut down due to new virus restrictions, saying, “Geez, just play catch in the back yard with your kid, who cares?” 

I say, frankly, you are just wrong. To those who have sports in their blood, it is as important as eating or sleeping. 

Yes, we have a pandemic. And yes, there are known ways we can function, primarily outdoors in California’s great climate, with masks and social distancing. Yes, it is bad if some folks (mostly adults) can’t contain themselves from socializing and partying. 

But just as businesses can open with conditions, we should let the athletes who need and want it, practice. Kids can wear a mask and distance just as well as folks at the grocery store. They can and will do it in order to play.

I did ride on Saturday. I was sore and beat up, but I felt better than I did the whole rest of the day. It’s always been like that. 

Saturday evening, we watched the excellent Michael Phelps documentary “The Weight of Gold.” It poignantly outlines the costs the athletes put in to be the all-American hero, with scant reward. It also focusses on the mental health struggles and multiple suicides that have resulted after their end goal, the Olympics, is over. Phelps illustrates how well athletes, including himself, hide depression. The salve is often more performance, more workouts. 

Is every athlete depressed? Certainly not. Most are very driven. They feel the need to move, to be on the bike, in the water, on the ice, or in the field. Some folks love certain TV shows, or attend concerts, or dote on their pets or dedicate themselves to their career. 

Athletes give all of that up for their love, which is sport. Like any hero, it’s not right to cheer them on then toss them aside when “more important” things come up. What does it say when shops can be open but twice-a-day workouts and preparing for national events are just dismissed as equivalent to “playing catch?” 

Whether they’re 10 and playing on a club team, or 14 and ramping up for college or 25 and trying to hang on for an unplanned extra year before the Olympics, we need to find a way to let our athletes play now and we must be there for them when they can’t.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.

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