Socially distant struggle: young athletes "stolen" by Covid rules

Isaias Torres and Adner Ramirez faced off to help their coach demonstrate the day’s drills – arm grabs and slaps – with a quiet intensit...

Isaias Torres and Adner Ramirez faced off to help their coach demonstrate the day’s drills – arm grabs and slaps – with a quiet intensity that set the tone for the Grand Street Campus high school wrestling team. Soon the 20 wrestlers were paired up, working on hand fights and then eliminations, staying focused, not even stopping when a mask slipped or jumped.

Like any athlete participating in a “high-risk” sport at a New York City public school, wrestlers on Grand Street should be vaccinated and those who participate indoors should wear masks during practice and competition. These restrictions appear to have reduced the number of participants in the city – this team would normally have 10 to 15 more students. But the biggest concern is the policy prohibiting the city’s students from participating even in tournaments where unvaccinated athletes are allowed.

It essentially prohibits city athletes from participating in high-level competitions on Long Island and Westchester County, which is a testing ground for the best wrestling programs, and state championships, which culminate in the season. The city has also canceled next month’s prestigious Mayor’s Cup because students in Catholic and private schools in New York City may not be vaccinated.

Grand Street coach Stephen Perez said for wrestling the masks are almost absurd. Students are vaccinated (not to mention young and fit), and masks can move and interfere with breathing during games. The policy has raised questions, such as what happens if a mask comes off during the action. “There is no downtime in the fight,” Mr. Perez said. “What does a referee do? “

But for a program as successful as Grand Street’s, closing the door to outdoor tournaments could cause lasting damage. “The politics are excessive and we are hurting the children,” said Perez, who was named the 2017 Public Schools Athletic League wrestling coach of the year. “Our best wrestlers need this level of competition to improve. And college coaches, including Division I schools, attend these big tournaments and state championships. Students are being robbed of an opportunity. What message are we sending to our children? “

(In the meantime, the city’s basketball and indoor track teams will be able to compete in their state championships as they are held in New York City; in these cases, students in suburban and northern schools the state will only be able to participate if they are vaccinated.)

Mr. Perez, 33, who teaches physical education and mentors freshmen in a leadership class at the Brooklyn school, has been his wrestling trainer for nine years. He knows what wrestling can mean for teens navigating New York City life. He grew up in the Bronx and then in Queens, where he started wrestling at Francis Lewis High School. He fell in love with the sport which took him to tournaments as far as Alaska and even Russia, and which was a springboard for his educational journey. He went on to become an all-American junior college at Nassau County Community College, which led to wrestling and a degree at SUNY Cortland in upstate New York.

He is aware that the fate of wrestling tournaments during a pandemic must be kept in perspective, especially now that the Omicron variant has scrambled plans for sports, schools and everything in between. But he worries about the future of his students. He points out that the wrestling hall wall is adorned with photographs of former city champions and wrestlers from all states, many of whom went to college thanks to their time on the mat. Ahead of the pandemic, Grand Street won two back-to-back city championships, producing stars like Jayden Cardenas, who placed fourth in the state in his weight class just weeks before the 2020 lockdown. As his trainer and mentor , he went to SUNY Cortland.

This year, with turnout dropping at many schools, Perez also fears opponents will eventually forfeit. matches simply because they don’t have enough wrestlers, which compounds the problem for his team of being deprived of strong competition out of town.

Brendan Buckley, Executive Director of Beat the streets, a struggle-focused nonprofit that focuses on youth development, says no one is looking to bend the rules on vaccinations, but he agrees that city policy seems unfair.

“The boys and girls who struggle have worked so hard and deserve the opportunity to compete,” said Mr Buckley. “Sport is one of the things that motivates them to be successful in school, and it is taken away from them. And that could certainly have a negative impact on their future.

The best wrestlers on Grand Street remain dedicated but are obviously frustrated. Mr Ramirez, an 18-year-old senior who competes in the 172-pound category, finds the mask requirement ridiculous but not enough to deter him. He also put aside his hesitation about the vaccine so he could be part of the team. “Wrestling changes you physically but also mentally,” he said. “You have a stronger concentration, which also helps with schoolwork. “

During practice, the team is extraordinarily focused, working hard and says “sir” in their responses (often in unison) to the coach. Still, Mr Ramirez said he’s having a harder time staying focused as he feels aggrieved in terms of competition in his final year.

Wrestling was also a motivator for Mr Torres, who commutes from Queens to Grand Street and struggles seriously since college. Her family has long predicted that wrestling would be her ticket to college. (He struggles at 126 pounds.)

At the height of the pandemic, Mr Torres said: “I had tunnel vision and put all my work into preparing for this year.” He added, “I know college coaches go to tougher tournaments to see experienced wrestlers in good competition. I wanted to be ready.

Tournaments are crucial, Buckley said, because the city’s schools don’t have the money from private and suburban schools, and the uneven curricula within the huge system mean the competition can be inconsistent. “They can attend these tournaments that have some of the best kids in the country against each other, and it’s really a big deal if you take one out and have the chance to say to a college coach, ‘Hey, here’s that big win,’ he said. he declared. “Long Island wrestlers are doing it and we want our kids to have the same opportunities. Even if they don’t win a varsity scholarship, they can earn a spot on a varsity wrestling team.

The restrictions on outdoor tournaments seem particularly illogical to Mr Perez. His athletes are vaccinated, but he knows that outside of school hours they hang out with peers and parents who are not.

“We’re already going upstate with our families, so what’s the difference? Mr. Torres spoke of the potential for exposure.

The Public Schools Athletic League did not respond to interview requests; a spokesperson for the city’s education department responded to the emailed questions with a general statement, which read in part: “We knew it was essential to safely bring students back to sports that ‘They love this year and we’ve made it safely through our partnership with health experts to develop comprehensive high-risk sports tips that allow students to participate with reasonable safety precautions.

The email didn’t address specific issues – like what happens if a mask comes off during a match, or if there might be a way to change the policy to allow New York wrestlers to participate. at the state championships.

Major suburban tournaments begin this month, and the State Championships, in Albany, are scheduled for the last weekend in February. For now, no team from New York will participate.

The athletes are so eager to compete that they are willing to go one step further to gain permission to wrestle in these outdoor tournaments. Mr Ramirez says they would drop the Long Island and Westchester tournaments just to try their luck in the state. And he and Mr Torres both said wrestlers would gladly be tested for the virus after each tournament and would not return to school until they tested negative.

“I would even wear a mask to take on opponents who didn’t have to,” Torres added. “I’ll do all of this for as long as I can fight.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Socially distant struggle: young athletes "stolen" by Covid rules
Socially distant struggle: young athletes "stolen" by Covid rules
Newsrust - US Top News
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