Canada’s junior women’s field hockey team was leaving practice in South Africa on Nov. 25 when they learned of the discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The team had arrived in the country early, eager to compete in the under-21 World Cup, which was set to begin Dec. 5. But that tournament was cancelled and flights in and out of South Africa were suspended due to global alarm over the new variant, stranding the team overseas.
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“A lot of people started crying . . . the team was really emotional, so we just kinda hugged and sat with the feeling for a little bit, and then we all just wanted to go home right away,” Melanie Scholz said Wednesday evening from Potchefstroom, about 120 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg.
“It was a really hard blow and it was really difficult to see the positive in the situation, because the narrative was, ‘We’re stuck, what are we going to do?’ But our coaches put in a really good effort to make sure we were busy throughout the day,” teammate Tayler Guy said.
Scholz and Guy are members of the University of Calgary Dinos field hockey team who were selected to compete for Canada in the World Cup. The pair are isolating with their teammates, completing their academics remotely and continuing athletic training as they await the opportunity to take a flight home.
That chance looks to be coming next week, after Field Hockey Canada announced on its website it had secured flights to Canada from Johannesburg next Wednesday, though the team said they “know things can change in either direction very quickly.”
The duo said they aren’t especially worried about the Omicron variant due to vaccine protection and preventive public-health measures in place, but said the experience has been “nerve-racking” nonetheless. The team is planning ways to beat cabin fever as they await their flights, including a Christmas party this week.
“But it honestly has been really hard counting down the days until we go home,” Scholz said.
In a statement, U of C athletics director Ben Matchett said the Dinos were relieved to hear Scholz, Guy and the rest of Team Canada looked to be coming home.
“This was an unfortunate situation, and we are glad to see they have been able to secure flights home,” Matchett said.
The plight of the junior women’s field hockey team became a national news story in the wake of the emergence of the Omicron variant and international travel shutdowns. Guy said the team is grateful for support from both the public and government officials over the course of the past week.
“Everyone has the same goal, which is to represent Canada in the best light that we can. And it’s really helping a lot of us keep our morale up, knowing the wheels are turning back home,” Guy said. “The uncertainty of the situation gets a little bit better just knowing that there are people doing absolutely everything in their ability to get us home.”
Scholz said one difficult part of the situation is that team members had to self-raise funds to get to South Africa and play in the tournament, asking for support from friends, families and university athletic programs.
“I think that’s on a lot of people’s minds, heading into the next, rescheduled World Cup,” Scholz said.
“Nobody wants to ask for more and more money, so that’s something that’s definitely difficult for all of us,” Guy added. “We raised over $160,000 to get here, and hopefully our communities rally around us and help us do that again.”