One year ago, as Harvard students were forced to vacate campus, junior midfielder Lara Schenk (#18) of the women’s soccer team moved back home to Hannover, Germany. A Tuesday, March 10, 2020, email had announced that students would be required to vacate the campus by that Sunday, and the NCAA and all major sports would soon follow suit with shutdowns of their own.
“No one had an idea of when we were going to play again, when we were going to see each other again in person,” Schenk recalled.
However, during the pandemic, student-athletes like Schenk have found ways to train and play with the best while discovering silver linings during an unusual time.
“The emphasis [from our coaches] really at first was ‘We're in a global pandemic, there is no blueprint for this, and soccer really isn't the priority right now,’” said Schenk. “They really emphasized — and our coaches did a great job with that — focusing on your mental health.”
Schenk — who started all 16 games and played every minute for the Crimson in the fall of 2019, helping lead the team to a 12-3-1 record and second place in the Ivy League — also has a history of playing with German national team programs.
Anticipating playing in the U20 World Cup — originally slated for August 2020 but pushed back to January 2021 — and knowing the unlikelihood of returning to play at Harvard last fall, Schenk talked with the U20 German Women’s National Team coach about finding a way to train for the World Cup. After the discussion, Schenk lined up the opportunity to train with VfL Wolfsburg, a professional club in Wolfsburg, Germany, that competes in the Frauen-Bundesliga. While NCAA eligibility rules prohibit student-athletes from playing for professional teams, student-athletes like Schenk have taken advantage of the chance to train with them, while not competing professionally.
As anticipated, in July of 2020, the Ivy League announced the cancellation of the fall 2020 athletic season, and Schenk then took a leave of absence from Harvard last fall semester to focus on soccer and preparations for the U20 World Cup. In doing so, she postponed her graduation to December of 2022, giving her another season of soccer with the Crimson.
Wolfsburg has been the dominant force among the top women’s teams in Germany since 2013. VfL won back-to-back Champions League and Frauen-Bundesliga titles in 2013 and 2014 and claimed the Frauen-Bundesliga crown in each of the last four consecutive seasons as well.
“I had the opportunity to watch and train with some of the best players in Europe, and it was such a challenging but also such a fun environment,” said Schenk, who wants to play professionally after college. “I got to see a glimpse of where I need to be and the level I need to be at once I graduate [from Havard] to compete at the highest level in Europe, so it was amazing for me to see what I was aiming for.”
Schenk began practicing with Wolfsburg beginning in July, as the side started its preseason, and trained through the fall with the second team until lockdowns put play on hold. Schenk also attended camp with the U20 national team in October just before Germany went back into lockdown, stopping all sports competition. Wolfsburg transitioned to remote, individual training, and in November, the U20 World Cup was canceled entirely.
Reflecting on the cancelation of the World Cup, Schenk explained, “It was definitely tough, especially since we had practiced and competed for this and worked hard for this for over a year ... but it’s obviously the most sensible and responsible decision.”
Schenk is just one example of a player who has found ways to continue to train at a high level. Indeed, the whole Crimson team has had to make some form of similar adjustment.
“One thing we said to the players that was going to be important for them is that they find the best possible environment to be in … because it’s really hard to train on your own, to get better on your own, to have the motivation to wake up every day and work out when you don’t have a system in place,” said Harvard Women’s Soccer head coach Chris Hamblin. “Every one of them has done a fantastic job of taking advantage of whatever’s available to them.”
Despite the disappointing cancellations of various opportunities, for Schenk, there have been plenty of positives amid the very strange year that has ensued since Harvard’s campus shutdown announcement on March 10, 2020.
“This school is very fast-paced obviously.… With the pandemic, it really forced me to slow down and work on some personal skills, whether that be mental health or just general mental skills that are needed for both school and soccer,” Schenk reflected. “I really did a lot of — I'm not gonna call it soul-searching—more of a personal growth.”
Schenk also had the chance to spend more time with her family than ever before, given that she is usually over 3,000 miles away from Hannover, Germany, in Cambridge, Mass.
Now, Schenk is back on campus, enrolled for the spring semester, and, with four of her teammates, training and working out to the extent that campus Covid-19 guidelines allow. Practices currently involve lots of passing, shooting, and wide-range drills to stay apart. Off the field, the players have been able to weight-train.
“It's really a lot of individual work, and trying to stay motivated, and keeping the goal of where we will be hopefully, fingers crossed, playing in the fall,” said Schenk. “And if you keep that goal in mind, then it's a lot of fun to do stuff on your own as well.”
A year after the sports world seemed to stop, professional sports are back. Four of the 31 NCAA Division I conferences with women’s soccer played last fall, and 29 of the 31 are playing this spring. The two that have not resumed competition are the Big West and the Ivy League. Nonetheless, the Harvard team continues to prepare and spend time together in weekly Zoom meetings with players and coaches.
With the anticipation of a fall 2021 season beginning to build, Schenk and the Crimson will look to pick up the momentum from a successful 2019 campaign. The squad will look forward to finally taking the field as a team for the first time with not only the class of 2024 but also the incoming class of 2025.
—Staff writer Zing Gee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zing401.