Resiliency is the name of the game for UC Santa Cruz Athletics and Recreation

The department has scored wins in many of the challenges of the pandemic by supporting students remotely, pivoting to online programming, and developing innovative ways to empower student-athletes and student support staff

A collage of the five sports that won conference championships last year
Women's volleyball, men's swimming, women's cross country, men's cross country, and women's soccer—the five teams that won conference championships during the 2019–2020 season—want to do everything they can to retain those hard-earned titles.
Athletics and Recreation’s brand new identity, established June 2020
Athletics and Recreation’s brand new identity, established June 2020, exudes the characteristics of pride, inclusivity, and excellence.
Emily Mitchell works on dribbling drills
Emily Mitchell and a few of her teammates who live locally are finding ways to still practice together, while remaining socially-distant and outside. Above, Mitchell works on dribbling drills. Below, Mitchell's teammates warm up by shooting around. Pictured from left to right: Amanda Inserra, Ashley Kowack, and Kaylee Murphy.
Mitchell's teammates

At the end of a hard workout, Emily Mitchell and her teammates on the UC Santa Cruz women's basketball team can take a moment to catch their breath together—but there are no high-fives or fist-bumps. 

With workouts and team meetings moving to Zoom during the pandemic, things look a little different for UC Santa Cruz Athletics and Recreation this year. But despite the challenge of COVID-19 and the need for physical distancing, it’s been a year of adaptability, growth, and achievement for the department, coaches, student staff, student-athletes, and the campus fitness and recreation communities. 

Athletics and Recreation has persevered through the shutdown of in-person operations and the postponement of athletic seasons, while upholding the themes of leadership, community, and merit in all of their programming—success that's been fueled by passionate students and staff. 

“Students are a central part of our department,” said Sue Harriman, director of Athletics and Recreation. “We often seek feedback from them on important issues before making key decisions because we want to find ways to further enrich the student experience.”

The mission of Athletics and Recreation stands beyond ensuring students attain physical wellbeing; it’s a department that enhances the student experience through athletic and recreational activities, along with leadership and community-building opportunities. 

Varsity student-athletes remain adaptable and resilient

Athletics and Recreation is composed of multiple program areas: NCAA Division III athletics; FitLife (group and personal fitness); Adventure Rec; intramural sports; sport clubs; boating; Physical Education courses; and a variety of camps, clinics, and workshops.

Varsity athletics includes more than 300 student-athletes competing in 15 different sports. With the completion of the department’s new brand identity in June 2020 and UC Santa Cruz athletics celebrating 40 years as members in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the Athletics and Recreation brand exudes the characteristics of pride, inclusivity, and excellence.

“Our athletic teams won five conference championships and four 'coach of the year' awards this past 2019–2020 academic year,” said Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Recreation Dino Pollock.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, fall and winter sports teams have been most affected by canceled conference play and championship opportunities.

“Competition is a huge motivator when it comes to training athletes,” said UCSC's men's and women’s head swimming and diving coach Matt Crawford. “Without that and having no feasible way to train together as a team, it’s really hard to maintain that level of focus and team cohesiveness.” 

Last year, the men’s swimming and diving team won their conference championship. This year, they’re having to resort to individualized, on-land training until they can come together again in the pool. The ultimate hope is “for both teams to have some semblance of a season this academic year,” stated Crawford. 

Women’s basketball player Mitchell (College Ten ‘21, literature, education minor), who is also co-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), shares the frustration her fellow Slug fall and winter student-athletes are feeling.

As everyone on Mitchell’s basketball team awaits the news of when they will be able to practice together in a gym once again, they are getting creative on ways they can stay engaged while apart. 

Some of those ways include “an accountability partner program, where new basketball recruits are teamed up with veteran teammates; holding workouts with each other over Zoom; attending weekly online meetings with our coach; and coming up with fun ways to compete virtually,” said Mitchell. 

Although many of her teammates are not in the area, the few that are local, including Mitchell, have started practicing at outside basketball courts together, while wearing masks and maintaining safe distances apart.

S.L.U.G. leaders

While athletic teams hold onto hope for what the new year will bring in terms of seasons, Athletics and Recreation realized that strong leadership is of particular importance during this unprecedented time.

With the switch to online programming this spring, one of the challenges the SAAC—which addresses interathletic relations, community service, and campus relations—has been faced with is developing ways in the virtual world for student-athletes to practice their leadership skills. 

Athletics and Recreation staff and student-athletes have collaborated to meet that challenge with the initiation of the S.L.U.G. (Student-athletes Leading Up to Greatness) Leadership Academy, a 10-session, experiential learning program kicking off this winter quarter.

The curriculum, which builds on UCSC’s Principles of Community, covers topics on emotional intelligence, group dynamics, interpersonal communication skills and strategies, and civic responsibility, preparing the 23 student-athletes selected into the program to be leaders in their sports, in the classroom, and in their local communities.

Fitness and Adventure Recreation go virtual 

In addition to varsity athletics, Athletics and Recreation adapted quickly on multiple other fronts when the UC Santa Cruz community pivoted to remote operations.

The department’s group exercise program, which offers a variety of classes such as kickboxing, Zumba, yoga, and HIIT, switched to a fully online format this past spring—and, much to the department’s surprise—the virtual classes have garnered an overwhelming, positive response from the campus community. 

“We don't have a complete picture to know if virtual group exercise is more engaging than in-person group exercise offerings, but our reports are showing that virtual GX classes are keeping students engaged with their personal fitness during the pandemic,” said Clint Angus, associate director of Athletics and Recreation. 

“We are certainly looking forward to more opportunities to make our programs accessible to the UC Santa Cruz community, whether that's in person or remote. We want to make it happen for our students,” added Angus.

Another recreational program known as Adventure Rec, which promotes outdoor adventure experiences for students, has been offering virtual workshops this fall. From the “Getting Started in the Outdoors” series and behavioral first responder certification courses, these workshops are intended to prepare students for future Adventure Rec trips. 

Staying determined while looking toward the future 

For varsity athletics, the ultimate hope for the remainder of the academic year is for each team to have some sort of season, which may or may not include in-person practices and competition play depending on COVID-19 restrictions.

Women's soccer, women's volleyball, women's cross country, men's cross country, and men's swimming—the five teams that won conference championships during the 2019–2020 season—want to do everything they can to retain those hard-earned titles.

“In spring sport news, we're excited to see the women's and men's tennis teams continue their journey to success after being recognized for two national team scholar-athlete accolades this year,” said Embele Awipi, sports information director.

Regardless how this academic year concludes, Banana Slug student-athletes will not let the pandemic slow down their momentum.

As Athletics and Recreation staff and students prepare for the new year, they see the potential for new opportunities to arise that will further enrich the student experience, including the West Field House floor and facility renovation; the development of Physical Education courses for credit; and the expansion of the group exercise virtual library, personal and small group fitness training, Adventure Recreation orientation programs, and innovative intramural programming.

As Pollock put it, “The future is bright, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what comes next for our department.”