It was one final go-around. One final shot at a Conference USA title.
Senior Derek Cartaya was on his way to Southern Mississippi with the baseball team. Lina Bernier, also a senior, was in the thick of the beach volleyball season. But their seasons would have no championships. The coronavirus pandemic canceled them both.
However, thanks to a decision from the NCAA to extend additional eligibility to student-athletes who had their spring sports cut short by coronavirus, Cartaya and Bernier are returning to FIU for redos of their senior years.
“FIU, Pete Garcia and the president are allowing some of the seniors to come back. I’m extremely grateful for that. Honestly, there’s nowhere else I’d rather play my last year,” said Cartaya ’20, who is using his additional year of eligibility to earn a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies.
FIU has been working to support its student-athletes throughout the pandemic. The university is helping them train, supporting them as they take classes remotely and providing other services, like assistance with eligibility, to help Panthers get the most out of their college careers.
“FIU has done just an excellent job in keeping us motivated throughout this and keeping us informed on what their actions are going to be,” Bernier said.
When the beach volleyball season was cancelled in March, Bernier flew to her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to be with her family. As a student who just earned her bachelor’s in biomedical engineering and is now taking master’s classes, she found that switching to Zoom was no easy task. But her professors were willing to help.
“Personally, my professors were very understanding. At every point in time they would just tell us, ‘If you have some issues, or if you are just mentally not there, just communicate with me, and we will work through this,’” Bernier said.
Since March, her team has kept in touch through weekly meetings on Zoom. They have even introduced new teammates over the application so that players can get to know each other.
“I think that the main challenge has been as an athlete, just not being able to practice my sport,” Bernier said.
Cartaya has also stayed close with the baseball team, which meets every other Friday on Zoom. Head Coach Mervyl Melendez personally calls Cartaya once or twice a week to see how he is doing.
“He’s like a father to a lot of kids,” Cartaya said.
Being a student-athlete is already a challenging balance. But during the pandemic, that balance can be more complicated.
For example, many students on the football team did not have access to gyms before they returned to campus in June. Some of them got creative at home to stay in shape, turning water jugs and backpacks into free weights.
But while creativity is good, there is no homemade workout routine that can replace the value of weightlifting for the stronger players on the team, says Director of Strength and Conditioning for FIU Football Andreu Swasey.
“It’s not enough [weight] resistance with some of them. To do a bodyweight circuit is really way less than what they do. They are way past that. They have to do 1,000 reps of bodyweight squats to replicate what they were doing,” Swasey said.
To help student-athletes keep up with their studies, the Student-Athlete Academic Center (SAAC) has been focusing on communication. They check in on a regular basis to make sure students are getting everything they need, such as tutoring appointments or best practices for Zoom.
“We step in to make life manageable for the student-athlete, so that they don’t have to pick one or the other,” said SAAC Associate Director Ayssa Roza ’03, MS '07.
As the university prepares for repopulating its campuses in the fall, it looks to continue to support student-athletes with the unique challenges they face.
“It’s kind of like unfamiliar territory, coming back with COVID-19 and how our world has changed in general. I am excited to be back in Miami with my volleyball family, and to be able to play,” Bernier said.