Processing an unexpected end to the UC Davis women’s water polo season

Processing an unexpected end to the UC Davis women’s water polo season

Photo Credits: Jerry Kohler / Courtesy. Senior Emily Byrne (5) of the UC Davis women's water polo team in action.

Senior standout Emily Byrne discusses cancellation, plans moving forward

Following the decision to cancel all sporting events due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus, student-athletes are having to adjust to remote instruction for the first time while still processing the suspension of their seasons. 

Emily Byrne of the UC Davis women’s water polo team is a fifth-year transfer from Loyola Marymount University who began playing water polo when she was 12 years old. The utility from Orinda, California has dedicated a large amount of her life to the sport ever since.

Byrne has had an impressive career as an Aggie. Last year, she earned a Big West Conference Honorable Mention and finished the season as the program’s No. 5 all-time in drawn exclusions, with 168 through her almost three years competing at UC Davis.

When the cancellation was announced, the women’s water polo team had a handful of games remaining in its 2020 season, including the Big West conference tournament set to begin on April 23. The entire team — along with several other programs at UC Davis and many more across the nation — now has to cope with the loss of its season and the inability to practice, including senior athletes who face the especially disheartening reality of this being the end to their final season as college athletes.

“I think some of us were really devastated,” Byrne said. “[For] myself personally and for most of the seniors, it was just heartbreaking to have something you worked so hard for taken away in a matter of seconds.” 

Byrne recalls finding out about the end of her season by waking up to messages from friends and relatives. Within the next two hours, Head Coach Jamey Wright had gathered the team for a final meeting to allow them the chance to cope with the news together. 

According to Byrne, Wright’s primary concern was the emotional well-being of the team. He wanted to hear from players while they processed the news, though he was just as devastated as the rest of the team, she said. 

“We are all a family, and to be told you can’t spend time with your family anymore is just a horrible feeling,” Byrne said regarding the final team meeting, which took place before the guidelines about gathering in large groups had been issued. 

There is a great deal of sacrifice, both physically and mentally, invested in being a college athlete, and there is no way to make those sacrifices without being “absolutely in love with your sport,” Byrne said. This is why watching her season come to an end in such a way was especially difficult for her.

Although athletes and coaches have the ability to prepare themselves for tough games and difficult losses, there is no way any athlete could have prepared for something so life-altering as this current pandemic. 

Byrne provided a metaphor for the loss of her team’s season, saying it felt almost like “having a limb severed off of you immediately with no warning,” because the amount of dedication that goes into a college sport makes it a part of who you are.  

The Aggies had just played their first Big West matchup against UC Irvine the week prior to the cancellation and had six more matches scheduled in the weeks leading up to the conference tournament. 

Regardless of the fact that the Aggies were defeated by Irvine 14-8, according to Byrne, UC Davis captured a good amount of “small accomplishments” that the team had been working toward in practice. It was hoping to build upon those successes through the rest of the season. 

The team also had a match scheduled for April 4 that would have been played in Hawaii. With the Big West tournament also scheduled to take place in Hawaii, the cancellation essentially took away the team’s chances of traveling to the islands together on two separate occasions. Because not every athlete on the current roster travels with the team for road games, earning a traveling spot is typically seen as a big deal for most players. Being able to travel with the team and experience that sense of comradery on the road is a big opportunity on its own even if you do not end up playing in any matches, said Byrne.

For the seniors on the team, traveling to Hawaii twice would have been a memorable experience for their final season. In Byrne’s case, her family had already booked hotels and flights to watch her perform in Hawaii, and she wishes she had been able to provide them with the finish she knew they all were hoping to see. 

“Your family puts in a lot of sacrifice as well for you to play the sport,” Byrne said. “This season for me was more about giving back to family, it wasn’t so much about myself.”

Seniors were also presented with a very difficult decision after the NCAA announced its decision to allow certain student-athletes to extend their eligibility. Originally believing they were saying goodbye to their sport, college seniors now have the opportunity to decide if they want to return to compete for another year.  

But this does not mean that every athlete who wants to return can do so easily. This decision is especially difficult for those who have already made other post-graduation plans, such as job opportunities or graduate programs, which they have already applied for. There are also financial considerations that some athletes have to account for before in making such a big decision.

Although some of the women on the team are trying to adjust accordingly, in order to compete at UC Davis for another year, Byrne has already made the decision that she will not be returning. 

Being an undergraduate student for the last five years, and having made adjustments to her major courses over those years in order to maintain the ability to play in her fifth year of college, Byrne has decided it is time to focus on what comes next for her. 

“I’ve been making sacrifices for the sport for 11 years now but there comes a point where you have to stop sacrificing your life plan for a sport,” said Byrne. “I just didn’t want to continue sacrificing my academics for my sport — as much as I love it.”

Student-athletes do have the option to take their eligibility with them somewhere else, however, so Byrne believes she may not be looking at the end of her water polo career just yet. For her, the ideal situation would be to move on to a graduate program that also allows her to play water polo, giving her the ability to recreate the senior season that she missed. 

Although missing out on the end of your season is a very difficult thing to process, Byrne remains positive while looking back on the most memorable moments from her time as an athlete. She recounts this season’s match against Michigan as the team’s “peak of performance” in which everyone contributed to victory over a team that was ranked No. 7 in the nation. 

As far as her favorite career memory, Byrne often looks back at when she scored the game-winning goal against Pacific in sudden-death overtime during her redshirt-sophomore season. She describes the reaction of her teammates and fans as something akin to a fairy tale. 

“I still think about that now and realize this is why I play,” Byrne said. 

Byrne’s new day-to-day life without water polo consists of class three days a week, but she wakes up early each morning to maintain a regular schedule. Water polo players and swimmers in general are placed in an especially difficult situation, as workouts in the water are limited because athletic pools are shut down during this time. 

“I love the pool, it’s an outlet for me and a source of comfort, so not being able to get in a pool during a time like this has been another mental block for myself that I’ve had to push through,” Byrne explained, adding that she has been swimming since she was three years old. 

As far as staying in shape, Byrne is eating well and developing creative ways to work out at home in case she does end up going back to playing the sport she loves. 

One of the ways the team is keeping in touch throughout this time is through Zoom meetings, which helps the athletes communicate and continue to support one another. The coaching staff has also been working to have different people speak to the team during these meetings. Byrne has been reaching out to alumni athletes for support as well, to learn how they managed to say goodbye to their sports.

“People don’t really understand what we’re going through,” Byrne said. “Unless you really listen and see our perspective, or if you are or were a student athlete and know what goes on behind the curtain before our games.”

Regardless of the unfortunate ending that the UC Davis women’s water polo team — among many other teams — endured this season, Byrne stays positive by reminding herself how much love she has had for this sport through her entire life. The amount of energy invested into each season is almost always going to be worth it, even if you do not get the most ideal outcome. 

Written by: Rain Yekikian — sports@theaggie.org