Thunder Bay

Lakehead University student-athletes getting their heads back in the game as full-length seasons return

Lakehead University's student-athletes are excited to get back in the game.

School offers mental health supports for athletes as they return to teams, classrooms after pandemic

Tiffany Reynolds, 9, drives to the basket in a recent game in Thunder Bay, Ont., against the University of Windsor. (Submitted by Jarron Childs)

Lakehead University's student-athletes are excited to get back in the game after years of disruptions. 

The Thunder Bay school's varsity programs have had a rough two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tom Warden, Lakehead's athletic director.

Last year in particular was "just sort of on and off, and we didn't know whether or not we were going to get through the full season," Warden said Sunday during a Thunderwolves Media Day at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse.

The 2020-2021 seasons were cancelled completely because of the pandemic. None of the teams have begun regular season play just yet, but the first team to do so will be the men's hockey squad, which begins its season on Oct. 21.

Warden said there's a lot of positivity among the teams.

"The schedules for our athletes are all set, and camps are set, and everything set," he said. "I think people like that stability."

Charlotte Sider, Lakehead's women's volleyball head coach, said she's "super excited" to start the new season.

Charlotte Sider, head coach of Lakehead University's women's volleyball team, said it may be an adjustment for athletes this year, as they're not only returning to full seasons, but also in-class learning. But Sider said the university offers a number of supports. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

"This team is eager to get better, eager to learn, and that's all I can ask for as a coach," Sider said. "We're really excited for our OUA [Ontario University Athletics] matches, but we have exhibition coming up soon, end of this month and so we're going to work on the seeing what our strengths are as a group and then from there build off of it."

Sider joined Lakehead as head women's volleyball coach in April. She brings a wealth of very-high-level volleyball experience to the court: not only has she played and coached at the university level, she's also played professionally in Europe, and both indoor and beach volleyball with Canada's national team.

However, given this season will see the team play twice as many games as the shortened 2021-22 season, Sider said she realizes it may be an adjustment for some players.

Pictures is The Lakehead Thunderwolves women’s volleyball team as they ended their 2019-20 season. It was the last regular season before the pandemic disrupted varsity sports. (Lakehead University/Billie Barrett)

"There's a high motivation across the board, which is so exciting, but it's just going to be just like every other year, managing our bodies as athletes and making sure that everyone stays healthy physically, mentally," she said. "And then of course they're back to live classes, which in itself is a lot, and it's probably going to be a bit overwhelming."

"We're gonna try to support them as much as we can, but I expect it's going to take some time."

Warden said Lakehead offers myriad supports to its student-athletes.

"Obviously the coaching and the medical side of things, but then also sort of mental health, their health, their academic health, their financial health," Warden said. "All these things are taken into consideration by both our staff and by the other programs and departments in the university."

"It definitely is a communal approach to assisting our athletes."

Track and field athlete Niko Dowhos said the pandemic was a struggle for athletes like himself.

Niko Dowhos is a varsity track and field athlete with Lakehead University. (Lakehead University/Jarron Childs)

"Ontario was shut down a lot more than some of the other places," he said. "So it it was a battle for sure to, you know, try to do the best you can. It kind of felt like a Rocky movie."

"Working out as hard as you possibly can, and to do the best with we can, under those circumstances."

And when the track and field team did compete, they did so in front of empty stands, Dowhos said.

"Adrenaline, for sure," he said. "You usually run a lot faster when there's a bigger crowd."

The Thunderwolves program, overall, did lose some athletes during the pandemic, as well, Warden said.

"It is a pretty finite career, your university career," he said. "So if two years of it, or a year and a half of it, of your four years, are spent not playing, yeah, people moved on, they got jobs."

"You feel really badly for that athlete, that they missed that point in time," Warden said. "But as a society we all did."

"In some ways we were blessed because we weren't as affected as a lot of people. But yeah, we did miss out on some athletes and for them it was tough, and for our coaches it was tough."