Game on: Yale Athletics’ big comeback
On a recent sunny April afternoon, Reese Stadium echoed with the clang of lacrosse sticks and the deep rumble of packed stands — students cheering on their classmates, alumni reliving their days on the field, children clamoring under the bleachers in search of stray balls. There was not only an Ivy double-header (the women taking on Brown, the men the University of Pennsylvania), but also a dedication of a sleek new athletic facility, the Tsai Lacrosse Field House, and a celebratory Alumni Day; fittingly, the Bulldogs swept the afternoon.
Under the electric blue sky, with the cheers of the crowd echoing across the turf, it was easy to forget that just two years ago these playing fields fell dormant, the ordinary rituals of life shut down by the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic.
For spring sports like lacrosse, the pandemic meant an abrupt end to a season barely begun; for senior student-athletes, it brought collegiate careers to a crushing close. But few could have predicted what would unfold over the next year in the Ivy League: the cancellation of competition not just through that spring, but for the fall, then the winter, and then the spring again. Each time, the difficult decision was guided by public health measures that supported the Ivy consortium’s teaching and research missions while seeking to keep campuses and neighboring communities as safe as possible.
Yet now, more than two years since the arrival of COVID, Yale Athletics has come back stronger than ever. This year, with all teams back in action, the nearly 1,000 Yale student-athletes and their coaches have racked up wins, set records, and competed at the highest levels in their sports. They’ve spearheaded social justice and advocacy campaigns, helped promote mental health resources for student-athletes, and excelled academically.
“Everyone thought it would take us years to get back on the level of those who were able to compete,” said Victoria M. “Vicky” Chun, the Thomas A. Beckett Director of Athletics. “But you know what? We immediately came back competing at the very high level we stopped at, and we are succeeding. And that is all due to the incredible student-athletes that we recruit at Yale.”
On a crisp November day in 2019, Yale and Harvard met at the Yale Bowl in what turned out to be a truly eventful staging of The Game: with the Bulldogs down 15 to 3 going into halftime, protestors flooded the field, causing a lengthy delay. When the teams finally retook the field, they were battling both each other and time itself as the gathering dusk threatened to overtake the game. And then, in double overtime, Yale took the lead and held off the Crimson to win, 50-43.
For Chun, who in July 2018 became the first woman and first Asian American to lead Yale’s athletics department, that spirit emblematized what drew her to Yale in the first place. Like any former competitive athlete (she was a standout volleyball player at Colgate), the urge to win games has never waned, but she also recognized a bigger story.
“Even during my playing and coaching days, I didn’t cry at games, even when I was a player, but when we beat Harvard in 2019, with the protests, with no lights — everything that could have gone wrong really went wrong,” she said. “I was so thoroughly exhausted, but I loved that our students and student-athletes did not give up, even in the darkest of nights. It was incredible.”
By the following March, Yale Athletics was wrapping up a successful winter season: women’s hockey narrowly missed a bid at the ECAC finals during a record-setting season; women’s gymnastics was prepping for their ECAC Championship; fencing had advanced seven qualifiers to the NCAA Championship; and five members of the men’s swimming and diving team had qualified for national competition. With the Ivy League basketball tournaments on the horizon, Yale cagers were looking to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, with the men having already clinched the Ivy League championship.
Then, on March 10, 2020, with public health experts calling for greater preventative action against the novel coronavirus, the Ivy League basketball tournaments were cancelled, along with all out-of-season practices and competitions. On March 11, the Ivy League cancelled the spring athletic season. On March 12, the NCAA cancelled the rest of collegiate winter and spring championships.
“It was like finding out that for Christmas you’re going to get this brand-new bicycle, and then you find out there’s no Christmas,” recalled James Jones, the Joel E. Smilow Class of 1954 Head Coach of men’s basketball. “That’s what it felt like.”
After the first disorienting days, disappointment turned to resolution. “I remember talking to our department over Zoom and I said, ‘We need to come out of this better than before. How do we do this?’” said Chun. “We keep calm. We take rumors lightly, and we focus on what we can do. Let’s see how we can get better.”
The enduring mission of Yale Athletics helped maintain focus. “Our priorities are our student-athletes, our coaches and staff, the university as a whole, and our alumni,” said Chun. “Once we have those priorities leading us, it’s actually not difficult to navigate even the most difficult setbacks.”
With the approach of the 2020-2021 academic year — and in collaboration with colleagues across the Ivy League, the Yale COVID Response team, and the university policy group — Yale Athletics followed phased parameters to guide in-person practices and training, based on campus conditions. The year began at “Phase 0” (no in-person athletics activities) and had the potential to progress, public health conditions permitting, to “Phase III” (up to 12 hours a week of in-person practice or training). Yale student-athletes remained at Phase II or lower the entire year.
Without the benefit of typical practices, coaches and students alike strove to stay connected — and in top form. “We had Zoom calls with the group,” said Mark Bolding, the Susan Cavanagh Head Coach for Women's Ice Hockey. “We challenged a couple of [the players] to come up with their favorite workout, so we had Tess Dettling doing some stick handling in her home in Illinois, and Grace Lee, who’s a crafty stick handler, taught the group a couple of tricks.”
With more than 30% of returning athletes across 35 varsity teams choosing to take a leave of absence from Yale, coaches knew that finding a way to connect virtually, while logistically difficult, would be essential for maintaining a sense of cohesion and building a team mindset. “While we were unable to gather in person, our women stayed connected through Zoom, phone calls, and occasional visits to each other,” said Erica Bamford, the Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Women’s Lacrosse. “Our student-athletes have been consistently structured with school and sports since a very young age, and they used this time as an opportunity to explore other interests as well as focus on building relationships with their teammates.”
With many of the athletic spaces idled, the Athletics staff seized on the opportunity to make facility improvements, an effort amplified by the exceptional contributions of alumni.
“In terms of financial and emotional support from our alumni, the past two years have set all kinds of records,” said Chun. “We didn’t even ask — we wanted everyone to just get through this. But when it came to the student-athletes and the coaches, the alumni said, ‘How can we step up?’”
That included a generous gift from former men’s lacrosse player Joseph C Tsai ’86, ’90 J.D., and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, which enabled the construction of a state-of-the-art home for the lacrosse and soccer programs. The Tsai Lacrosse Field House opened May 31, 2021 — “on budget, on time, through COVID,” noted Chun. The nearly 35,000-square-foot facility, adjacent to Reese Stadium, includes athletic medicine facilities, locker rooms, and strength and conditioning areas.
Other upgrades include refurbished locker rooms at the Kiphuth Exhibition Pool, for Yale’s swimming and diving teams, as well as a brand new video board and lights in the John J. Lee amphitheater. “The first time I walked into John J. Lee I thought I blinded myself,” said Jalen Gabbidon ’22, the men’s basketball team captain. “The lights used to be so dark, and I wasn’t expecting the new ones. I thought I needed to wear sunglasses.”
With improving public health conditions, the widespread availability of vaccines, and plans to bring the entire student body back to campus, Yale Athletics greeted the Fall 2021 season with a renewed sense of optimism. Teams had come together again, practices were in full swing, and competitions were back on.
For students, the return held equal measures of excitement and anxiety. “The transition back to being student-athletes was hard for so many of us,” said Chelsea Kung ’23, a member of the women’s tennis team as well as president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). “We spent a year just being students and not having to maintain that balance of both competing at the highest level and also advancing in an extremely challenging educational environment.”
Easing that transition were expanded wellness resources for student-athletes, including programming at the Good Life Center and weekly mental health counseling hours — resources born out of the advocacy of the SAAC’s YUMatter initiative, a mental wellness campaign begun in the fall of 2020.
Then, once the competitions began, the highlights began to roll in: Kayley DeLay ’22 finished in the top 10 of the NCAA cross-country championships. The co-ed sailing team took the program’s first Match Racing National Championship. The football team entered its final game in striking distance of another Ivy League championship.
The winter season brought some vindication to the teams that had seen their seasons cut short of championship play in 2020.
In March, the men’s basketball squad once again seized the Ivy League title and headed to the NCAA playoffs. (They fell to the No. 3 seed, Purdue.) “It felt like we picked up where we left off, even with all the emotion of missing an entire year of basketball,” said Gabbidon, who helped launch a start-up company during a leave of absence last year. “Those are the unforgettable moments, the camaraderie that comes with overcoming challenges.”
“True success lies in becoming more than what you are,” said Jones, who since 1999 has coached Yale to more than 350 wins. “Being able to exceed your ability, to bring parts together and make the whole greater than individuals. When you can do that, that’s when I think you have a great success.”
Women’s ice hockey built on the successes of 2019-2020 with the best season in the program’s history, advancing for the first time to the NCAA Frozen Four where they fell to Ohio State, the eventual national champions.
“The benefit of COVID is that it kept them close, kept them tight,” said Bolding, who was named this year’s ECAC hockey coach of the year. “The success has been really fun to watch – to see the older players smile more and have fun coming to the rink. Yes, we want to compete and win, but we also want to make sure hockey’s fun.”
Elis competed further afield, too, with 17 current or former student-athletes participating in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, held over the summer of 2021, and three alumni hockey players competing in the Winter Olympics, held in February in Beijing. Most famously, current student Nathan Chen ’24 dominated the figure skating competition in Beijing, becoming only the second American man since 1988 to win the individual gold.
While Chen took a leave of absence in the run-up to the Olympics, he spent two years at Yale while also competing in (and winning) major national and world competitions — an accomplishment made possible with the unflagging support of Yale Athletics.
“Some of my friends who are competitive athletes also decided to pursue the academic and athletic life, but for them the logistics were not as simple. Yale was extremely accommodating,” Chen said last year. “As soon as I decided to attend, the athletic director, Vicky Chun, told me, ‘Anything you need, come to us, we can help you.’”
For her part, Chun was struck by Chen’s humble attitude both on and off the ice. “He always covers his divots” — the holes left in the ice when he executes his jumps. “That’s the kind of person he is.”
“I remember telling Wayne [Dean, the longtime Yale Athletics administrator who died in 2020, just months after retiring as deputy athletic director], this is my dream: That he’s going to compete in the Olympics, he’s going to win gold, he’s going to have an awesome time,” said Chun. “And if we can play even a small part in that — his happiness — that’s what we need to do. Even if he didn’t win gold, we need to be there for him. And my dream came true.”
This spring season has felt especially redemptive for Yale student-athletes, as teams return to action after a full two years away from regular competition on their home fields. Women’s lacrosse is enjoying its best season in program history with a perfect 6-0 Ivy League record as of late April, while strong starts for men’s lacrosse and baseball bode well for hosting the Ivy Championships in May. Track and field will host their championship meet on May 7 and 8. Women’s rowing is undefeated so far, and women’s sailing and men’s golf both won Ivy League Championship titles.
“Our student-athletes and coaches returned to the field with a renewed and deepened sense of gratitude for the opportunities at Yale,” said Bamford, the women’s lacrosse coach. “Our season thus far and the program’s first-ever berth into to the Ivy Tournament is evidence of that gratitude and dedication.”
And there will be more celebrations to come, including some postponed due to COVID-19. Last year, Yale Field, which has hosted Bulldog baseball since 1928, was renamed in honor of former President George. H.W. Bush ’48, who captained the Yale team during his senior year. The stadium’s exterior façade was painstakingly restored — with hand carving of its distinctive arched openings — and the interior enhanced with upgraded team areas and restrooms. The official naming ceremony will happen this spring.
Despite the disruptions over the past two years, Chun said, Yale Athletics has kept a positive outlook: any setback can be turned into an opportunity.
“Lots of initiatives have bubbled up in the last 24 months at Yale and within Yale Athletics,” said Bolding, the women’s ice hockey coach. “There’s been a lot of change and depending on where you sit, you either like change or you wrestle with it. For us, it was a no-brainer — Vicky’s been fantastic supporting our group and empowering these women.”
For Chun, the reemergence of athletic competition has meant getting back to the heart of her role as athletic director. “I’m not the stoic AD on the sidelines, I’m usually the maniac fan,” she said with a laugh. “They’re just incredibly talented and smart students. They give me energy every single day.”