As Linnea Saltz approached the bouncy surface of the track at Southern Utah University’s Eccles Coliseum, her heart was already heavy. On that March morning she woke up to the news that the National Track and Field Championship, alongside the rest of the NCAA’s spring sports, would be cancelled.
She was devastated. After setting an 800 meter personal record that was just two and half seconds slower than the standard needed to participate in the summer’s Olympic trials, everything had come to a complete halt.
“Are you still expecting me at practice today?” she texted her coach, Eric Houle. Nothing had been officially announced by the NCAA, so Houle held practice for anyone who wanted to attend. Saltz showed up, ready for her workout.
She tried to focus on her workout, but as practice wore on, the emotions grew too heavy to bear.
“I couldn’t even look [Coach Houle] in the eyes,” Saltz told SUU News. “It sounds so silly, but looking at him made me think, ‘Did I just compete for my last time in a Southern Utah track uniform? Did Coach Houle just yell my last split? Did I just spend my last conference championship with this team?’ The waterworks immediately started when I saw him.”
Saltz’s intuitions in that moment proved to be true. It was her last practice as a T-Bird. Houle instructed her to head home, where she flicked on the news and somberly watched as the rest of the sporting world was shut down due to COVID-19.
“It seemed so surreal that [cancellation] was even a possibility…. I was devastated. I felt like I lost a part of myself.”
Coming into her senior season, Saltz had high expectations for her final outdoor performances. Despite an injury that cost her the summer before her junior season, Saltz had a breakout season in 2019.
She shaved her 400m time down to 53 seconds and reached a personal best of 2:05 in the 800. Those times put Saltz into the second round of the Regional Championships, or, in layman’s terms, the top 25 collegiate runners west of the Mississippi.
Her eyes were on an appearance at the National Championships, but she fell a half a second short of qualifying for the 800.
The close miss was heartbreaking, but Saltz knew she would have a chance to qualify in her senior season. She was determined to make Nationals, which coincided perfectly with the 2020 Olympics. There was a good chance that if Saltz was fast enough for Nationals, she’d be fast enough to participate in the Olympic trials.
While the trials aren’t the same as the actual Olympic event, it would have been an unbelievable milestone for an athlete from a mid-major university to compete in the trials. The time needed to qualify was set at 2:02.5 for the 800m. Saltz’s outdoor PR her junior season was 2:05.
It was going to take some work, but Saltz knew that appearances on the All-American team and at the Olympic trials were in reach.Saltz exploded out of the gate at the team’s first indoor meet at the University of Washington. Her 800m indoor PR coming into the season was 2:14. Saltz ran a 2:07.86.
In her opening race, she had improved by seven seconds. That was the 13th fastest time in the nation.
That’s when her potential really hit home. She paced herself to avoid injury during the indoor season, knowing that outdoor meets would be her best chances to shine.
Then, after Saltz’s first place finish at the Big Sky Indoor Championships, the Ivy League cancelled its conference basketball tournament. Saltz was uneasy.
“I was very in denial at the start… I kept thinking ‘It’s not going to happen to us.’ Track just won’t have any fans. It’s not really a contact sport, so I thought it wasn’t going to affect us.”
Saltz is the president of SUU’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and heard from friends around the country about more cancellations.
The week before Spring Break and the team’s first outdoor meet, the season was cancelled. With so much potential, Saltz never got the chance to run in her preferred outdoor environment.
“I was thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me? Why is this my season? Why is this happening to my team, after everything we’ve worked for?’”
Initially, Saltz found herself getting caught up in what might have been, but eventually found peace in knowing she wasn’t the only one struggling to cope.
“There was a lot of denial, a lot of what-ifs, there were a lot of counter possibilities going through my mind. But it wasn’t very good for my mental health. Everyone was going through these what-ifs. Everyone was worried about what they could have done. So I had to take a step back and realize it wasn’t just me feeling those things, it was everyone.”
While the NCAA did grant eligibility relief for spring student athletes, returning to SUU wasn’t in the cards for Saltz. The philosophy major had already secured a job in Washington D.C. and the chance to eventually work on Capitol Hill was too enticing to pass up.
Saltz wasn’t ready to say goodbye to track, and with the blessing of her coaches, put her name into the transfer portal. She hopes to graduate-transfer to Georgetown University to pursue a master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, as well as another shot at the Olympic trials.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty about her future, but Saltz has learned from this experience.
“Never ever take for granted the opportunities that are right in front of you… Moving forward, I’ll never settle ever again. You never know what opportunity can be taken from you so quickly, like COVID-19 did for me and track.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics