Amidst the pandemic, college sports have not been the same: limiting seats to eager fans, practicing with masks on, or taking several Covid-19 tests a week to ensure that each player tests negative before a game. Yet for Ivy League athletes, collegiate competition has been out of commission for an entire year. Following a process similar to the fall, the Ivy League, the first Division I conference to call off fall sports in 2020, also shelved both its winter and spring seasons. Since then, student-athletes have been forced to find outside competition and conditioning to maintain their stamina.
Take Yaraslau Slavikouski, one of Harvard Wrestling’s strongest competitors. Turning the clock back one year ago, Slavikouski was preparing to end his first season with the Crimson on a strong note after taking second at the EIWA Championships at 285 pounds. During the 2019-20 season, the EIWA Freshman of the Year had to adjust to a different weight class and learn what it takes to wrestle at the collegiate level. Fast forward to March 2021, he finds himself having to adapt to not only an entirely different type of training under Covid-19 protocols but also to a more demanding mindset as an athlete.
“It's about staying disciplined and investing a lot of time in getting better; not necessarily getting in shape or getting better for a tournament, but learning new techniques, new moves, and trying to prepare for the next season, kind of long-term planning.”
Slavikouski, the unanimous selection for Ivy League Rookie of the Year and the first Harvard wrestler to win the honor in 16 years, has been staying active despite the hiatus in Ancient Eight contests. Currently, he is training in his home country of Belarus and is set to compete at the U23 Nationals at the end of March, followed by the European Championships. He will take on these competitions after winning bronze at the Belarus Senior Nationals in January. For Slavikouski, however, bronze was not enough; he is determined to come back stronger in the coming weeks at these next matches.
“I lost one match to a pretty experienced guy who took third at the Olympics in 2016,” Slavikouski said. “He was good, mostly I blame myself for my loss, a few tactical mistakes here and there. I could have won, but what can you do now except get better.”
However, the first-team All-Ivy League selection performed extraordinarily well given the inability to compete in tournaments due to the pandemic. In alignment with strict Covid-19 protocols, Slavikouski and wrestlers across the nation have had to tiptoe around doing the one thing to truly prepare for tournaments: getting on the mat and wrestling in a naturally competitive setting.
“Not wrestling in tournaments for a year definitely took its toll on me,” Slavikouski remarked. “It just takes time to get used to the tournament routine and get over the anxiety of wrestling. You can still practice, you can still wrestle with partners, but it's not the same as wrestling in a tournament.”
Given that wrestling makes it difficult to practice social distancing, wrestlers like Slavikovski are trying to make the best of it: minimizing the number of interactions with partners, practicing shadow wrestling, lifting weights, and running.
“I felt the difference when I got back to Belarus. I realized how, yes, conditioning is great, but no matter how many miles you run, it's still different when you step on the mat, when you wrestle with another human being, or another athlete who is in great condition,” Slavikouski said.
The second-team National Wrestling Coaches Association All-American selection has had to readjust to new conditions again and again, and adaptability has had to become his friend. As for training in Belarus, “it's very different.”
“I’m training at different clubs and going to different cities, but there's no routine,” Slavikouski said, “I always have to improvise and find something new.”
On a more positive note, the Ivy League’s decisions have provided Slavikouski the opportunity to develop his technical skills as a wrestler. Through training camps in Belarus and practicing with the national team, he feels that he is learning new techniques that will help him improve in future tournaments.
When the Rechitsa, Belarus native finally returns to Cambridge, he will be welcomed home by the team he thought he would be training with at this very moment — the team that he will continue to impact for years to come.
“Being a part of the team and sharing this incredible bond, going through everyday struggles and practices together — that's been the best experience of the wrestling team,” Slavikouski said.
And when he does step back into the Malkin Athletic Center, Slavikouski will bring with him not only these new technical skills, but also the lessons he has learned about discipline and perseverance through his resilience as an athlete in this past year.
“The most important lesson is staying disciplined no matter what the circumstances are and no matter what environment you are in; no matter what city, no matter what problems you experience, or what you, your friends, or family are facing, you still have to stay on schedule, stay on top of your diet, and on top of your training plan,” Slavikouski reflected.
“Even if you don’t have access to a gym, you can still run, and if you cannot run, you can do something in your room. You just have to stay disciplined.”
If there is one thing that has stayed consistent for this Harvard wrestler amidst the trials of this past year, it is his dedication to the sport he continues to flourish in. Slavikouski has thrown back every curveball with greater force, and each one has instilled the values of staying positive amidst the challenges and holding oneself accountable to persevering — a mentality especially crucial to the sport of wrestling.