When Elise Thorner feels overwhelmed by the global upheaval caused by COVID-19, the Langport, England, native thinks about her last competition prior to the cancellation of the NCAA spring season.
Before the global pandemic forced schools to close their doors and implement virtual coursework, and shut down major athletic events, Thorner—an incoming sophomore on the University of New Mexico track and field team—contributed to the Lobos’ distance medley relay (DMR) victory at the on February 29.
The camaraderie she found in the nationally-ranked women’s team at New Mexico was on full display when Adva Cohen (1200 meters), Abigail Bendle (400 meters), Thorner (800 meters), and Weini Kelati (mile), ran 11:12.27 together and qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships.
“It makes all the hard moments of training by yourself, the horrible tempos they make us do, all worth it because you achieved something as a team,” Thorner told Runner’s World. “It wasn’t just me running an 800 meters and winning. All four of us did it together, and I’ve never had that before.”
But because of the coronavirus, Thorner hasn’t felt that same sense of teamwork since. On March 12, the day prior to the start of the NCAA championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships amid growing coronavirus concerns. And on March 13, when New Mexico suspended in-person instruction to reduce the spread of the virus, Thorner flew home to be with her family in Langport, England. There, she finished her first-year coursework online and continued to train for the fall cross-country season, for which she assumed she would be traveling back to the U.S.
But that hasn’t been the case. In the months that followed the initial outbreak in the U.S., the number of coronavirus cases continued to surge domestically and abroad, imposing unprecedented travel restrictions and causing a myriad of ongoing complications for Thorner and many other international student-athletes. And there are still a number of unresolved questions for new student-athletes expected to arrive on campus as freshman in the fall.
According to the NCAA’s dataset from the 2018 season, 11 percent of the participants in Division 1 track and field were international student-athletes. The majority of international athletes who competed in track and field that year came from Kenya, Canada, United Kingdom, Jamaica, Germany, Australia, Bahamas, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and New Zealand.
One of those athletes is Tom George, a redshirt senior on the University of Missouri track team, who was looking forward to completing his fifth year of outdoor track eligibility this spring after finishing second in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters at the SEC Indoor Championships on February 29.
But when the NCAA canceled spring sports across the board, George—who hails from Gloucester, United Kingdom—took the opportunity to return for a sixth year. With online classes and no races on the schedule for the spring, George said he made the decision to stay in the U.S. and complete his coursework after his twin brother, elite runner and Arizona State University alum Alex George, was told by the school’s international student office to remain in the country, anticipating travel restrictions.
In March, U.S. President Donald Trump suspended entry into the United States from most of Europe, a measure to contain the spreading virus. As of June 15, the Trump administration has banned most travelers coming to the U.S. from the European Schengen area, China, Iran, United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, and Brazil.
But just a few weeks before the start of the fall term, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) almost forced thousands of international students out of the country. On July 6, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would not issue visas to students enrolled in schools that are fully online for the fall semester, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not permit international students to enter the country for the fall 2020 semester.
Institutions across the country had already announced that no classes would be held in-person, so this meant that students who were enrolled in a fully online program would have to leave the country or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction, or risk deportation.
“To remove people who don’t have COVID and who aren’t in breach of their visa or anything, just seems kind of xenophobic and a bit poorly thought out,” George, who is set to begin a graduate program in medical pharmacology and physiology this fall, told Runner’s World. “I’m fortunate enough that if my classes were to go fully online, I could fly home and be okay, but I’m sure there are people who don’t have the means to make that happen or just physically can’t. So they’re put in a weird limbo. They’re violating their visas, which means in the future, they won’t be allowed to get another visa. [The situation puts] people in an impossible situation.”
An exception would be offered to students attending schools with a hybrid program of online and in-person courses. So many universities rallied to protect their international students from the administration’s new policy and implemented a hybrid model of online and in-person instruction, which would allow international students to remain on campus in the United States.
But on Wednesday, July 8, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced they sued the Trump administration in federal court, seeking to block ICE’s new policy. On Tuesday, July 14, Judge Allison Burroughs announced the schools had reached an agreement with ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. As reported by NPR, Burroughs said the U.S. government will rescind its policy.
Even if the athletes return to campus, the state of NCAA competition is precarious. While New Mexico’s Mountain West Conference has yet to announce its plans for fall sports, several conferences—including the Pac-12, Big-10, and SEC—have opted for a conference-only schedule for most fall sports. On August 5, all fall championships for Division III sports and Division II sports were canceled; the future of fall Division I fall championships have yet to be decided.
With the U.S. travel restrictions in place at the time of his first interview with Runner’s World on July 10, Joe Franklin, the head coach of the cross-country and track program at the University of New Mexico, said he didn’t know how his international athletes would return to campus for the fall term, which begins August 17. (The team has eight international student athletes who went back to their home countries after the spring season was canceled and in-person coursework was suspended—three athletes and an incoming freshman are in countries with travel restrictions.)
“We are just telling kids to be patient,” Franklin told Runner’s World. “We’re not overly stressed right now just because things are literally changing on a day-to-day basis, hourly basis almost. We just want kids to be able to get in.”
Maurica Powell, director of track and field and cross country at the University of Washington, is navigating the travel restrictions in Australia and New Zealand with two returners and two incoming freshmen on the women’s cross-country team.
Mel Smart and Carley Thomas—both incoming sophomores at the University of Washington—flew home to Perth and Sydney, respectively, after the NCAA spring season was canceled. But in the weeks that followed, the number of coronavirus cases continued to surge in the U.S. and abroad.
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As of August 5, Australian citizens or permanent residents cannot leave the country unless they have an exemption to travel, which requires an extensive application process, as Powell learned. But after a month of sharing supporting documents, coordination with the athletes, and conversations with an immigration attorney, Powell learned Smart and Thomas were both granted exemptions in July. They were both on campus by August 2.
“There’s just no precedent,” Powell told Runner’s World. “I don’t think any of us [NCAA coaches] have ever dealt with this. We’ve all got visas for kids and we all know the [form] I-20 process, but dealing with travel restrictions has been really hard.”
Now, Powell is navigating the process of helping her incoming freshmen receive student visas so they can travel to the U.S. and start school in Seattle. As of July 31, Kirstie Rae, a native of Wellington, New Zealand, and Sophie O’Sullivan, a middle-distance standout from Melbourne, Australia, were still awaiting visa appointments in their respective countries after cancellations.
With the rapid, ongoing changes caused by the pandemic, Powell is focusing on the factors she can control as a coach to her athletes.
“The challenge here with these kids is helping them wrap their minds around the present, getting better every week, and trying to move forward with their lives the best they can,” she said.
For the first time in weeks, Thorner felt hopeful in the process of trying to rejoin her team. In the early morning of July 16, she received a text with good news shared by her coaches at New Mexico.
The U.S. Department of State announced it would grant national interest exemptions for certain travelers, including students, from the European Schengen area, United Kingdom, and Ireland. The agency also announced a phased resumption of visa services after suspending them in March.
“To come home and not know when you can go back, it was really difficult to take,” Thorner said. “I didn’t really know what I was training for because there’s no competition. There was no group to train with so that was difficult. But now knowing there’s a finish line, it feels positive.”
Since the exemptions were announced, Franklin said the team’s international students have been approved to travel and return to the U.S. from their respective countries. He said all of the international student-athletes will be back on campus by mid-August.
“Students are always excited to get back to school, but this is a completely different level of excitement,” Franklin said. “I could tell by talking to them, they want to get back with their friends. They know that life is going to be very different, but at least they can sit six feet away from their friend and have a cup of coffee instead of sitting by themselves.”
Taylor Dutch is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
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