Abbey Weitzeil prepares to compete at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The end of February might as well be an eternity ago for how much the world has changed since then, and that’s certainly true for many athletes.
For Olympic and college swimmer Abbey Weitzeil, the end of February brought about the Pac-12 Championships. Her University of California Golden Bears finished second, and although she was dealing with some elbow and shoulder issues and didn’t finish out the meet, she was looking forward to being ready to go for her final NCAA Championships in early March.
“It didn’t even cross my mind that (the Pac-12 Championships) would be my last meet of my college career,” she said.
Weitzeil is one of a handful of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes whose senior seasons were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Olympic champions and UCLA gymnastics teammates Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross received the news before their Pac-12 Championships. Meanwhile, Grace Norman, a Paralympic medalist in both paratriathlon and track and field, was looking forward to a strong final season of outdoor track at Division II Cedarville University in Ohio when she found out it wasn’t to be.
A.J. Digby, also a Paralympian in track and field, will use the final year of eligibility the NCAA granted its spring athletes to compete again next year for Division III University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, but was nonetheless devastated that he and his teammates wouldn’t be able to see this season through.
While everyone understands the reasoning, it’s still been a disappointing time for athletes looking forward to seeing the payoff for their hard work and enjoying their final chances to compete in college.
Less than two weeks after the Pac-12 swimming championships, Weitzeil and her teammates were in the weight room trying to go about business as usual until they were told otherwise amidst mounting cancelations in the sports world. Coach Teri McKeever came in to deliver the bad news.
“She was crying and was like, ‘I’m sorry,’ and we all started crying,” Weitzeil said. “It was a terrible thing to hear. We were excited and so ready. As seniors we were ready to close our college careers and we thought we had a chance at winning. I was ready individually to do some cool stuff, I believe. It was a shock.”
Weitzeil, who won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter medley and silver in the 4x100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, isn’t leaving Cal without some significant accomplishments.
She won her first NCAA title in 2019 when she took first in the 50-yard free, her time of 21.02 seconds lowering her own U.S. record. She lowered that record yet again in December 2019, swimming the 50 free in 20.90. In 2019 Weitzeil became the 12th Golden Bear to be named Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year, and she holds school records in both the 50-and the 100-yard freestyle (46.35 seconds).
At the same time, however, Weitzeil said she had bigger goals for this year.
“I’m so happy I hit one of my goals, breaking 21 in the 50 and I’m glad I was able to do that before the NCAA championships were canceled, but I also had crazy other goals for myself,” she said. “I really wanted to win two or three individual titles (at the NCAA championships) and I think I could have had a shot at that.
“That was one goal. Another was to re-break 20.9 and go a lot faster than that and make the record even faster. I wanted to go 45 (seconds) in the 100 and swim as fast as I could there. I wanted to win the 200 and go 1:40. I had time goals in my head, and I wanted to contribute to the relays. There were a lot of personal goals and stuff I wanted to do to leave my mark.”
Like Weitzeil, Norman also had goals that she hoped to achieve before leaving Cedarville.
“I was looking forward to a strong outdoor track season,” she told TeamUSA.org in an email. “While in college, I had yet to have a full outdoor season with strong performances. I had set goals for myself in the 1,500-meter and the 5K. One of the main goals I had set was breaking the 18-minute mark in the 5K. I was also wanting to break my own world record in the 1,500-meter for the Paralympic track and field category.”
Norman, at just 18, was a two-sport medalist at the 2016 Games in Rio, finishing third in the 400-meter T44 on the track while winning gold in paratriathlon, which was making its Paralympic debut. She was in Florida preparing for the U.S. Paralympic qualifier for paratriathlon when she learned she wouldn’t have a senior season.
“College is such a short amount of time in a lifetime and to have one of your seasons taken was very hard for me to process,” said Norman, who will graduate in May. “I understood the motive and respect the decision, (but) it still does not make it easier to swallow that my senior season will never happen. I had an incredibly strong indoor season finishing as the top miler for Cedarville University and was excited to improve my marks in the outdoor season.”
Also like Weitzeil, Norman still has plenty of accomplishments to look back on despite not having the full breadth of opportunity she hoped for as a senior. She ran cross-country as a sophomore and senior, both years running top seven to make the varsity team, and during this year’s indoor track season she was the miler on her team, clocking in at 5:06.1. Throughout her college career, she said, she’s been the fastest female amputee to ever run her distances in the NCAA.
“Throughout my time running for Cedarville and in the NCAA, I am very proud of being able to help bridge the gap between the disabled and able-bodied athletic community,” she said. “I have been able to prove to those around me that just because I have a prosthetic does not make me any slower than the person next to me with two feet. I have been able to reach so many people with my story and accomplish much more with one foot then I ever could have with two.”
Both Weitzeil and Norman are now preparing for life post-college and will shift their focus to competing in the Olympics and Paralympics, respectively, in 2021.Digby, meanwhile, will use the opportunity to have another year of eligibility to work toward his masters of education in athletic coaching. The double-amputee sprinter and 2016 Paralympian announced his decision in a lengthy post on Twitter in which he shared his disappointment that his team wouldn’t be able to end the season at nationals and thanked everyone around him for all their support over the years.
“There is unfinished business to take care of, and I cannot wait to get to work for next spring,” wrote Digby, a nine-time All-American and five-time national champion, in the post. “I’d rather end my career walking off of that track hurting after a 4x400 than walking away hurting in the heart.”