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In spite of the pandemic, BYU Athletics had one of its best years. Here’s how it happened and what’s next.

The program had a good plan for dealing with COVID-19, but behind the scenes has waged a constant battle against misinformation. Only a quarter of BYU athletes are currently vaccinated.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says he is thrilled that his program had one of its best years ever, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but says there is still work to be done. In this case, getting as many Cougar athletes vaccinated as possible.

Across the board, BYU Athletics had one of its best years ever.

Football had a historic season — its best in a decade. Soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, softball, men’s and women’s golf, gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s cross country and the track and field teams all competed in their respective NCAA tournaments.

The women’s cross country team brought home the national title and Anna Camp-Bennett recently claimed the NCAA title in the women’s 1500 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

But all of that almost didn’t happen.

So, how, in the midst of a pandemic, was BYU able to put up one of its best performances across nearly every sport? It focused on its student-athletes, while listening to science.

It also didn’t hurt that BYU had the talent to back up its administrators’ support.

“I just think it’s a credit to — we had good teams,” Athletic Director Tom Holmoe said. “So, whether it was going to be COVID or not, we were going to have good teams. We had really good leadership and really good players. Our coaches and players just put it together and they wanted to have success. … This was really real and they wanted to be good.”

Back when the pandemic was declared, and sports were canceled shortly thereafter, the student-athletes may have been sent home, but the athletic staff wasn’t. They went to work on figuring out what the next steps were.

Carolyn Billings, the director of sports medicine, had been following the news and science of COVID-19 for a few months before it had a direct effect on BYU and college athletics. Billings, who’s worked at BYU since 1995, said she remembers the night Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 like it was yesterday.

That one positive result led to the suspension of the NBA season and had a domino effect all over the sports world and across the country.

“You know, I think it had to kind of come that way,” Billings said. “It was certainly real, as soon as it hit the Jazz, the impact it could have on people. We all just didn’t know. And that’s what I always had to remind so many people. We only knew about this virus for three months prior to that, so we had to make really conservative decisions at the time because we just didn’t know [and] we had to keep people safe.”

After BYU moved to remote learning and sent all of its students home in mid-March, it was one of the first athletic departments in the nation to allow its student-athletes back. The school opened up its athletic training facilities June 1 for voluntary workouts.

Then, the BYU football team was among the first to start its 2020 season — and the only team playing in the West for a while.

Billings said it was at the start of May that the department realized they may be able to make all of that happen. The athletic trainers had studied enough and come up with protocols, and the department put together a COVID-19 committee, which consisted of Billings, Chad Gwilliams of Compliance and Matt Nix, who works with facilities.

The committee, which met a minimum of three times a week, went over scenarios and concerns, and worked on problem-solving each issue they thought of, while ensuring the health and safety of their athletes.

“We submitted a proposal to Tom Holmoe, who sent it up to President’s Council to get approval of how we would do it,” Billings said. “And we had to show how we were going to meet CDC guidelines, how we were going to meet state and county guidelines, NCAA guidelines and then we had to meet whatever protocol of risk management BYU wanted us to do.”

Although the work was put it on the administrative side, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Dozens of student-athletes have contracted COVID-19 over the last year, with a lot of them happening last summer. One of the toughest obstacles Billings faced last year was social media, where misinformation was constantly being shared.

It was even confusing for Billings at the beginning as well, as the longtime BYU employee had to look past social media posts and look for original sources to best inform herself. Then, Billings said, it felt like the pandemic got political, leading to skewed information based on political affiliation.

What was happening online bled into real life. Suddenly, Billings found herself trying to educate not just her student-athletes, but their parents and everyone else about the best way to combat COVID-19.

“Everyone seemed to go and find something that fit their dialogue, so it was very hard to reason with people,” Billings said. “I was just trying to express what we were trying to accomplish and what the medical facts are, and everyone would dispute it. And it was parents of athletes, it was athletes, it was coaches, it was fans — it was everybody. And you could just sense the frustration. By August and October, everyone was just tired of it and frustrated, and that just became the biggest challenge of negotiating through this whole last year.”

It was also difficult to try to persuade young adults to take the pandemic seriously when the early information said that age group wasn’t being affected as nearly as much as the elderly and high-risk adults, Billings said.

Although some athletes had already contracted COVID-19, the severity of the pandemic, particularly as it affects collegiate sports, didn’t really hit until the football team had a small outbreak and was forced to cancel the Army game. With no other BYU sports playing at the time, it served as a perfect example for the rest.

Now that COVID-19 is no longer raging as badly as it was a year ago, and BYU, like other institutions, has learned how to manage to play through the pandemic, Billings’ focus on how to best protect her student-athletes has shifted.

Instead of protocols and precautions, Billings is encouraging student-athletes, coaches and staff to get vaccinated. But the same issues are arising as previously.

Billings said there are a large number of student-athletes who are refusing to get vaccinated, citing concerns about becoming sterile, becoming magnetized, having a tracker put in or have concerned parents, or just don’t want to deal with the possible side effects.

As of two weeks ago, only about a quarter of all BYU student-athletes were fully vaccinated, according to Billings. But that number has practically come to a halt.

At this moment, there’s no BYU mandate requiring student-athletes to get vaccinated, but there is such a rule at other West Coast Conference schools. So, for now, Billings is waiting to see what the new protocols and rules the WCC and NCAA will mandate for the upcoming school year.

Holmoe believes the way to prevent a similar situation from last March or even to what happened in the fall with football is to continue to be responsible. The longtime athletic director said the department is again looking at their situation and numbers to see where they are as a means to figure out the next step.

“What you’re discovering is that everybody still has different feelings about it, and we’re trying the best we can to try to take the course that we think is best for everybody,” Holmoe said. “I’d love to see everybody get vaccinated, but I know that not everyone is going to get vaccinated. So, we’re working on policies and procedures at BYU, in athletics, to try to do the best we can moving forward under the circumstances. But you can’t force someone to do it.”

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