Losing a last chance: diaries from MIT’s track and field national qualifiers 

Four MIT seniors recount the abrupt end to their sports season, semester, and MIT career

Across MIT, the unfortunate, but necessary precautions regarding the COVID-19 outbreak have devastated countless communities on campus. The MIT Track and Field team is no exception.

Just hours before departing for NCAA DIII Indoor Track and Field Nationals, MIT informed its national qualifiers that they would not be permitted to attend the meet. Four MIT seniors (class of 2020) who qualified recount losing their final semester and the opportunity of a lifetime. Their stories, gathered from their journal entries and reflections, are woven together below from March 10, six days before the campus evacuation, to their last day at MIT. 

Marissa McPhillips qualified in the mile and distance medley relay (DMR). She had previously qualified in the DMR three times, mile twice, and 800 and 1500 meters once. 

Jenna Melanson qualified in the 3000 meters race. She previously qualified for track Nationals four times. 

Alec Reduker qualified in long jump, triple jump, and high jump. He previously qualified in high jump four times and long jump once.

Margaret Trautner qualified in the mile, 800 meters, and DMR. She previously qualified for track Nationals in the 800 meters four times and the DMR once.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020: MIT notifies students to leave campus by the following Tuesday. 

Reduker: Woke up to rumors. It didn’t feel real. I didn’t want to believe it. We all knew what was going to happen though, after Harvard did it. I don’t know how to describe the mood on campus. It was the only thing anybody talked about. I was so mad, but didn’t have anybody to be mad at. I couldn’t believe that my last semester with my friends was just gone. Things would never be the same. It’s so cliche, and I feel so overprivileged that I’m worrying about it. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty okay. I was still dead set on going to Nationals at this point. 

Trautner: I found out that we were all being forced to go home within six days. No Senior Ball, no Senior Spotlight in my sorority, no Senior Week. I held it together for hours — through the impromptu celebration on Killian, through the cancellation of my exam that night, through our last track workout, and through the last house dinner I helped prepare. Then I called my mom. The “waterworks” showed up in full force, and I cried for the next two hours until I finally sank into sleep. But we were going to leave for Nationals at 1 p.m., and even though I now knew it would be my last meet, I was beginning to be okay with that. After all, I fully intended to make it one for the books. 

McPhillips: We could WIN. With our distance runners in the 3K and 5K, our jumpers, and our pole vaulter, we were ready to do some damage at Nationals. We had four runners, a quarter of the field, donning the MIT uniform in the mile. All that hard work was going to pay off. 

There was so much potential.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020: On the intended day of departure to North Carolina for NCAA DIII Indoor Track and Field Nationals, MIT prohibits its athletes from competing. 

Reduker: Woke up around 9 a.m. I had been trying to fix my sleep schedule for Nationals so I was getting up earlier and earlier every day. Got the text, and I was shocked and confused and tired. 

McPhillips: The first thing I saw was the messages in our Nationals group chat: Coach Taylor had sent an email about our trip to Nationals being canceled. Canceled? CANCELED?

My teammates had been scrambling to figure out where to go, who to protest to, what to say. I nearly fell out of bed, rushing to change my clothes, still drowsy from the Nyquil I took before bed. Somehow, I made it out my door in 15 minutes, breakfast smoothie in hand, sprinting towards the Z Center to infiltrate the senior staff meeting at 9 a.m.

Trautner: For hours, we clung to hope. We had plans: take a bus instead, book our own flights, anything. While we waited for Coach Taylor to come out of the meeting, I even started packing to leave. 

McPhillips: I told myself no matter what I would hold it together. I was strong, and we were going to Nationals. We were going to get there no matter what.

Reduker: I had this idea in my head until I saw Coach Taylor walk out of the meeting to speak to us. Seeing him upset, hearing his voice quiver — that was when it hit me. I felt so helpless; if Coach Taylor couldn’t make it happen, then I knew that it was really finished.

McPhillips: He started explaining that the decision had been made, and there would be no changing it, as much as he tried to fight. Our trip was cancelled. Additionally, all spring seasons would be canceled. Outdoor was lost. 

Why can everyone else from Tufts to Bowdoin to Williams to WPI go to nationals? Why is it just us that can’t? 

It felt like a punch in the stomach. It felt like every cliché you can think of to describe a broken heart. Because that’s exactly what happened. Our hearts broke.

“We’re a family,” Coach Taylor said, “and you’re my kids … my life’s blood.”

Reduker: I didn’t realize how much I loved these people until today. I saw them almost every day for four years, the little five minute conversations you have in the locker room add up. The one thing that we all shared is passion. We were all there because we weren’t afraid to give it everything. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020: Aftermath.

Trautner: I woke up this morning, and I wished I hadn't. For a few blissful seconds, I didn't remember what had happened. As my eyes focused on the walls of my room, the events of yesterday came rolling over me.

Reduker: I can’t even begin to explain how hard I worked for this. Every time I go to bed, every meal I eat, every time I don’t want to work on an essay, I think about high jumping. I have cried over track, and I have also had the single most happy moments of my life in track. 

Melanson: I was trying to keep in mind that MIT was already cancelling research conferences. Many professors and graduate students doing research have dedicated at least equal, if not orders of magnitude more, time into their research, much of which is very important to the world at large. If MIT is going to cancel their events and conferences, that’s at least the same, if not more, than my athletic experience. 

Trautner: The race plans I had didn't go away. My desire to win didn't go away. Just now they will never have a chance to exist outside of my dreams. I raced every race as if it were my last, and I had the time of my life doing so. I just wish I'd known this was the end. 

Friday, March 13, 2020: MIT informs students to leave two days earlier than previously indicated, Sunday instead of Thursday. 

McPhillips: On Thursday, the NCAA cancelled every athletic competition remaining for the rest of the year, including Indoor Nationals. As much as I hate to say it, it did make me feel a little better. Selfishly, a lost opportunity for everyone felt fair. MIT ended up making the right decision. I was glad we sobbed on the Z Center floor instead of an airport, on a plane, in a hotel room, or on the Nationals fast track itself. 

Melanson: When MIT stopped us from going to Nationals, I was initially angry because I felt they did not understand what they were taking from us, what it’s like to be an athlete. Until you’ve competed at that level, you don’t know what it’s like to dedicate a very large part of your existence to something. At any given moment of the day, the odds of me thinking about running and racing are decently high. But in retrospect, they made the right choice. We would have flown to North Carolina for a meet that wasn’t happening. 

Trautner: My teammates and I managed to smile at each other, and we felt a bit better. Then our phones all buzzed as we got the MIT Emergency Alert text: “undergraduate move-out by Sunday,” followed by an email detailing that the situation was heading straight for disaster mode. Immediately people leapt to call families and adult friends in the area. Rumors began sparking up all over the place: “There has to be a confirmed student case.” “I heard 300 students are in self-quarantine.” “Boston Logan airport is going to shut down.” “I think Massachusetts will close its borders.” 

Reduker: At first, we were all sad because we had to leave, and now we were all scared about the emergency that was happening. I want to be home, but I’m scared of getting my family sick.

Trautner: I went into the Z Center to clean out my locker and return my gear. Turning in my singlet was heartbreaking. Perhaps realizing I don't need my spikes anymore was harder. When I returned to my sorority house, peoples’ parents were showing up in masks to move their daughters out. People are panicking; when I stopped at Target last night to buy shipping tape, the shelves of canned food and dry goods were cleared out. 

This is so much bigger than a disrupted track season.

Saturday, March 14, 2020: Goodbye. 

McPhillips: The seniors ended up walking to the Mass. Ave. bridge to watch the sun set. It was beautiful. I can’t really explain what I felt on that bridge as the wind threatened to blow us into oncoming traffic. Nothing else mattered but the people I was surrounded by. The love for my teammates extends beyond track, beyond MIT, and I can’t wait until we’re all together again. Though I feel like I have unfinished business, I am thankful for everything I’ve gotten to do in my time here. 

Trautner: Watching the sunset together for the last time, we ended up laughing instead of crying. It was one of those moments where the only reason you can be happy is that you know your sadness is shared by those around you. Everyone is scattering across the country — most are going home, but some are avoiding home because their parents are older. 

Reduker: This is my last night at college; it’s the first time that’s set in. My room is empty now. These are my last few moments here. I won’t get to say all the goodbyes I wanted to, there’s just not enough time. 

Melanson: To be extremely cliché, one of the things Coach Taylor told me at Nationals last year, a lesson I’ve been slapped in the face with again this time around, is that you can’t always count on the future. Sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that are right in front of you. 

Trautner: I was never really into celebrations before, graduation ceremonies and the like. But now I realize that celebrations make the harsh life transitions more of a launch than a fall. Celebrations allow us to reflect and figure out how we will stay true to ourselves through the next phase of life. Change without celebration is jarring. ​