Courtesy of Sam Rubin '95, Yale Athletics

While the Yale women’s basketball team can no longer get crowds roaring for every five-on-five hosted in the John J. Lee Amphitheater this winter, the Bulldogs have their own sort of five-on-five occurring this fall.

Five members of the team are taking a full year off, they told the News, and only five members returned to campus to participate in on-campus athletic activities.

To make this decision, each player said that they factored in a variety of considerations, including athletic eligibility, relationships with teammates and online class structure. The year looks very different for Bulldogs on a leave of absence, but whether enrolled or not, all Bulldogs’ new routines have one thing in common: training in preparation for the 2021-22 season.

“You just have to have that self determination to drive yourself to work every day, so that’s definitely a bit tougher because when you’re with your team, you’re all working together for one goal as a team,” said guard Jenna Clark ’24, who is staying at home this semester. “But ultimately, in the end, it’ll be to help the team out, so you just got to think of that. That’s what keeps me going.”

Clark has been training in the Pittsburgh area — honing her skills as she looks to rejoin her teammates next fall. Because both coaches and players recruit and get recruited, respectively, with the idea that each player would stick with the team for a full four years, Clark felt a commitment to the Yale program and to her coaches to play for four years.

Clark is not the only one in her class who decided to take a leave of absence. All three of the rising sophomores on the team are taking a year off — which keeps their class together. The ability to stay with her classmates in the program also strongly impacted the decision of forward Ayla Elam ’24.

Though these tight-knit relationships prompted Elam to take a leave, she misses competing and playing with her teammates.

“It’s crazy because I haven’t been in the gym since we left campus. I haven’t even laced up my real basketball gym shoes since March, which is so weird,” Elam said. “That’s definitely the longest I’ve gone without being in a gym. I definitely miss playing, especially the competition part of playing with the team, and actually competing, because for me right now it’s obviously all skill development, so I’m working out by myself. I think I’m just taking this as a blessing that I have all this time to work on myself and on my game.”

Elam’s focus in her time off is working on her skills as a wing, a role in which she hopes to see herself for the next couple of years. Even without classes, she has been able to stay busy with a novel that she is in the process of writing, and she hopes to spend time with family in Kuwait, practicing her Arabic.

For both Elam and guard Klara Astrom ’24, taking time off was a more appealing option. They were deterred by not being able to return to New Haven or take classes in person.

“I reached out to a team in Lund, which is this college city in Sweden, and they have a team that plays in the top league,” Astrom said. “So I’m playing with them currently, and I’m practicing with them every day. Unfortunately, I can’t actually play games because the NCAA has rules about the competitions specifically, but I do get to work out with them every day, sometimes twice a day, which is really nice.”

Astrom has been able to get the best of both worlds — she is simultaneously enrolled in classes at a university in Lund, Sweden, giving her access to both basketball and education, two of her main factors in choosing to become a Bulldog. Being in Sweden allows her to feel more connected to her family roots, Astrom said, as she is the first generation of her family to receive an American education.

An hour train ride away from Astrom is one of her teammates, forward Camilla Emsbo ’23, who chose to take a leave of absence and play for a top-league team in Horsholm, Denmark, after Astrom gave her the idea to join her overseas. Emsbo found an in with a team after connecting on Instagram with one of its players.

“I ended up going on a couple of the team’s Instagram accounts, and one of them had a player who had lived in Colorado that played for a team I had played a lot of times,” Emsbo said. “So I thought I might as well reach out to this girl, and she brought me in contact with the coach. We talked on the phone about a week later, and he basically said if you want to come to Denmark, you can play on our team. He actually ended up also being the coach of the national team, which was a really great coincidence, because he said that I could come play for them too.”

Having a teammate nearby, even while on the other side of the globe from Yale, has been comforting for both Astrom and Emsbo. While Emsbo says it is tough to feel distanced from the team and the program, she feels confident that she is doing what is best for her, and that all of her coaches and teammates have been supportive.

Forward Alex Cade ’22 is the only rising senior on a leave of absence. Presented with the prospect of having a limited final season in the Blue and White and a proposal from her summer employer to continue working through the year, Cade took a leave of absence so she could both advance her career and have the opportunity to lace up again next year. In the meantime, Cade has made the effort to stay physically ready for the following season.

“I bought a stationary bike with a few of my other friends who live in the [team’s] house,” Cade said. “I’ve been biking, pushing myself nearly every day, trying to take Sundays off for rest. I’ve additionally been running and doing some body workouts, so I’ve just been working on my own and trying to stay fit that way.”

Living in New Haven in a house with her teammates and best friends has made Cade feel more confident that she has made the right decision for her.

While players have all felt supported by each other in their individual decisions, every one of them who spoke with the News felt that their coaches were just as supportive, letting them know they want what is best for each player as an individual. For Allison Guth, head coach of the Yale women’s basketball team, the well-being of her players, and all students at Yale for that matter, is first and foremost.

“I think this is a time where the pandemic has really put us in a position where there’s only one focal point here, and that’s the safety, the health and wellness of our players,” Guth said. “I think for each student to make the best decision for them and their families is something that should absolutely be the expectation, and it’s something that we’re so proud of. …  It’s just phenomenal, the type of health and safety measures [Yale has] put in place to make me feel comfortable being student-facing and coaching and teaching.”

Even with just five players available to practice in person, Guth has kept a positive outlook on the situation and is confident that the players will be able to continue growing individually, whether they are engaging in workouts in New Haven or are doing so on their own.

The team has been able to participate in individual and partner workouts in conjunction with the arrival of Phase II of a return to training. All of their drills have been approved by the Yale administration.

Yale athletic teams entered Phase II on Wednesday.

Ben Scher | ben.scher@yale.edu