Richard Rokos has led the Colorado skiing program for 29 years. Chances are, he could remain in charge another three decades and still never experience a situation as surreal and disappointing as what his Buffaloes endured last week.
When the NCAA pulled the plug on all championship competitions last week out of the growing fears of the nationwide spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), the Buffs were scattered throughout the west going through various stages of their postseasons.
In New Mexico, the track squad was getting ready to toe the line at the indoor national championships. In Las Vegas, the men’s basketball team was reeling from a first-round loss in the Pac-12 Conference tournament, while back in Boulder the women’s squad was going through its usual practice routine in hopes of landing a bid to the WNIT.
In Bozeman, Mont., matters were a little different for the CU ski team. The Buffs had already gone through half the NCAA championships when the remainder of meet was abruptly canceled. On day two of the meet, CU was making a charge up the team standings after a frustrating first day, but it was all for naught as the plug was pulled on the remainder of the events and the teams were told to go home.
“This pandemic and this situation, it’s never happened before and it’s under a threat level,” Rokos said. “It didn’t come as a big surprise. I think all the measures they are making are in the right way. The health and welfare of athletes and coaches come before all that, so I think it’s good.”
Day one of the meet on March 11 saw the Buffs suffer through a pair of unlikely and unfortunate setbacks, with senior Mikaela Tommy, a national champion contender in the women’s giant slalom, suffering a fall that led to a did not finish. A similar fate befell sophomore Steff Fleckenstein, who was fifth after the first run of the women’s giant slalom, lost a ski in her next run also did not finish. That meant zero points for CU in an event that was expected to be a team strength.
The Buffs rebounded somewhat the next day, getting a pair of top-10 finishes in the men’s Nordic 10K Freestyle from Sondre Bollum (sixth) and Magnus Boee (eighth), allowing CU to move up to fifth from eighth in the team standings. But after the freestyle events, the remainder of the championship meet was shelved.
It remains unclear if the NCAA will recognize the team standings to that point, which would award the national championship to Utah, or only recognize the completed individual events. If the team standings become part of the NCAA record books, the fifth-place Buffs will see their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA top-four finishes at the national championships come to an end.
“They followed it day-by-day and it looked every day like it was increasing pressure for something to happen,” Rokos said. “Despite the fact we were so pumped up for the level of this competition, the preparation throughout the season was aimed at four days of competition. But again, I think we all understand not too much can be done and we have to channel our efforts to the future.”