Sprinter in a Strange Land: The Athlete Experience of Travel
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Willamette’s student athletes are notorious for missing classes, tests and other learning activities. Countless roll calls have been delayed by bewildered professors who distinctly remember having more students. What you may not know is that those athletes are honor bound to fulfill a commitment much more important than any old midterm exam. Those athletes are going to sit on a bus for several hours, run around on a big rectangle for an hour or so, and then hop right back on the bus.
Simon Kidder (‘24) is all too aware of the time spent traveling. As a member of Willamette’s Men’s Track and Men’s Soccer teams, a shocking percentage of his life has been devoted to sitting on a bus for tens of thousands of meters so he can get out and run four hundred. He explained that the track team’s meets are almost always within Oregon’s borders, “which is nice because you don’t have to travel that far,” but he did mention the 2022 Northwest Conference meet, a two-day event in Tacoma, as a rare and exhausting exception.These numbers pale in comparison to his travel for soccer. After describing a five day trip to San Antonio, he took a moment to think before confirming that it was the longest trip he had taken for the sport. The grim reality of Kidder’s situation did not seem to affect his outlook. “Yes, those overnight trips take out a lot of time, but they’re also just so much fun—the bus rides with the team and that social aspect. Just getting to hang out with the team for a long time.”
Katherine Thornton (‘24), another member of the track team, echoed the sentiment. When I asked how she preferred to spend downtime on the track bus, she said she typically tried and failed at both sleeping and homework before resorting to team interactions “like talking, playing games, hanging out, playing rock paper scissors for two hours…” she continued, listing other games that could be played “with minimal equipment,” including ninja, chopsticks, zip-zap-zop, mafia, and other fourth grade classics. Creating Spotify blends was another preferred activity. She even cited playing “Egyptian rat slap” as one of the best memories she made in her time on the track & field team.
But these trips are not all fun and games. Thornton described the difficulty of sleeping in a hotel room as an obstacle to consider before competing. Apprehension can build after arriving at a rival school, and the unfamiliar environment may affect the player’s mindset. Kaiona Apio (‘24) once achieved their personal javelin record on Western Oregon’s track “just because the runway was a little similar” to the one at McCulloch Stadium. Apio continued: “it definitely shouldn’t affect you mentally. You should be stronger than that. But I do really remember that Lane’s track is blue.” Although the blue track did not come up again in our interview, the implication was clear.
In their respective interviews, Apio and Kidder both recalled one specific trip, nicknamed the “Whits Trip.” This weekend-spanning odyssey gets the journeys to our two least convenient rivals over and done with in one fell-swoop. It begins with either Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington or Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. From Salem, the bus ride to Whitman takes over five hours. Whitworth approaches seven. The team leaves early on Friday morning and returns to Salem late on Sunday evening, or even early on Monday morning, in extreme cases. The athletes interviewed for this article unanimously agreed that Willamette professors don’t hesitate to make accommodations for their schedules, but I’ve personally witnessed many athletes face unintended consequences from such trips. Turning in assignments late, missing important material, or presenting on Google Slides after everyone else already went is an inescapable reality of the Division III athlete.
All of the time and energy spent traveling can take its toll on student athletes. When I asked Thornton if this shared experience was important to team bonding, she told me, “Yeah, it can be. Sometimes it can just be exhausting. But we’re tired in silence together.” Apio, near the end of their interview, said, “sports affect our lives so much, especially when we’re involved in them. They’re a big part of our identity, and so being trapped in some kind of vehicle, with a bunch of other people, who you know from practicing every day and also have that identity… You’re going to compete and prove this identity. It’s definitely very good for team-building.”