OTTUMWA — Even two weeks ago, when the only event affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus was the Iowa State indoor track and field meet, Jim Nickerson had a feeling things were about to change.
“My opinion is we have a long haul ahead of us,” the 29-year head coach of the Ottumwa boys track and field team said on March 11.
Just five days later, the gravity of the situation truly hit home for the Bulldogs. The Iowa High School Athletic Association, Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union and Iowa High School Speech Association announced last Monday there will be no practices, activities or coach contact with athletes for four weeks as high schools across the state announced a four-week cancellation of all activities following the recommendation from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds that all schools close for four weeks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
As of this week, the earliest date for high schools to resume normal class and activities is April 13. However, prior to April 10, the schedule could be assessed based on information from the governor’s office, the Iowa Department of Health and the Iowa Department of Education.
In short, the chances of any area high school student athlete participating in track and field, soccer, tennis or golf is at best 50-50. Never before have current high school student athletes faced a situation like this where an entire season could be entirely wiped out.
For now, all seniors like Ottumwa sisters Alli and Grace Bookin-Nosbisch can do is wait and hope they have one more chance to represent their hometown at Drake Stadium in Des Moines sometime before heading to college this fall.
“All we can do is stay positive,” Alli Bookin-Nosbsich said. “We’re definitely concerned, but all you can do is have a positive mindset. It hasn’t been canceled yet, so we can’t put it in our minds that we’re not going to run again this season.”
The Bookin-Nosbisch sisters, along with senior classmate Carollin Mellin and junior teammate Meghan Coulter were hoping to produce even more memories on the big blue oval where the teammates brought home the first state title in the history of the Ottumwa girls track and field program last May. Besides looking to defend their 4x800 Class 4A championship, the teammates were hoping to challenge for a title at the Drake Relays in late April.
The Drake Relays announced late last week a postponement due to the coronavirus. Drake University announced plans to reschedule the event, working with local, state and national officials to find a date that ensures the health and well-being of participants and fans.
“I’m really hoping it doesn’t get canceled,” Grace Bookin-Nosbisch said. “This was our year. It still could be our year. Things were looking to be headed in the right direction.
“We shouldn’t go into this not thinking it won’t happen. There’s still plenty of time and we have time to focus in on preparing as if we’re going to have the meet no matter what.”
Preparing, however, is a difficult challenge with coaches unable to lead practices, high school facilities closed and recommendations from health officials to practice social distancing for several weeks at least in order to ‘flatten the curve’ when it comes to the spread of COVID-19.
Nickerson, who is in his final season as Ottumwa head boys track coach, may not get another chance to guide a Bulldog athlete to glory. While that notion is heartbreaking, Nickerson is one that realizes there are bigger things at stake in the world than winning or losing a race.
“I know we’re not supposed to panic and there’s nothing we can do about it other than what’s being done now,” Nickerson said. “Our last meet was (the Dickinson Relays) at the UNI-Dome. There were a lot of people there. You don’t think that was a concern of ours? Of course it was.”
“We want the safety of our kids to be the first thing we’re concerned with. If that means we miss meets, we miss meets. If you have to shut down things, you shut down things. Our health is more important that anything else in life. We encourage the kids to be safe and be prepared for the future.”