Courtesy of Yale Athletics

At long last, Yale track is back. 

Nearly two years removed from its last meet, the Yale track and field team will host the Yale Season Opener at Coxe Cage on Saturday. The contest kicks off a much-anticipated 2021-22 indoor season for the Bulldogs.

“I’m really excited for my last time competing … I love to train, I love to get a good workout in with the boys, but I do track because I want to race people,” said Juma Sei ’22, sprinter and captain of the men’s squad. 

Women’s captain Emma Vasen ’22 and distance runner Kayley DeLay ’22 similarly expressed excitement about the return to indoor competition. But they also acknowledged the uncertainty and nervousness surrounding such a long-delayed season, with the team’s most recent track meets taking place at the end of the 2019-20 indoor season. 

Both the first-year and sophomore classes will hit the track wearing the Blue and White for the first time on Saturday. The team’s juniors have never experienced an outdoor season, and the seniors have not since their first year. As a result, this team may well look very different from the one that finished in fourth on the men’s side and seventh on the women’s side at Heps on March 1, 2020.

The continued impact of COVID-19 also adds precariousness to the 2021-22 campaign. Vasen noted that “despite [the team] returning to competition, things are just not normal… The unpredictability of that still factors in.” 

Coxe Cage will be subject to the same attendance protocols as other Yale indoor athletic facilities this winter: capacity will be capped at 75 percent and fans must be 12 or older, display proof of vaccination and remain masked at all times.

Above all, though, the athletes conveyed eagerness and gratitude for the opportunity to compete. In an email to the News, track and field head coach David Shoehalter wrote that “there is bound to be some competitive rust, but from what I am seeing in training, I think we are in for some great things in the months ahead. The lack of competitions over the past two years has made all of us realize how much we love and appreciate the ability to get out there and strive for our best performances.” 

While Vasen described “a sense of frustration” with the inability to compete over the past two years — especially as peers at other universities faced more lax restrictions — the Bulldogs may be able to find some silver lining in the extended period of uninterrupted preparation. 

For Sei, although “there is never, ever anything that can substitute the joy of competing,” the break from pressure to perform allowed him to focus on training. 

With the return to competition, the women’s team will look with optimism to DeLay, who has accumulated a remarkable series of accolades this fall. After winning the Ivy League Cross Country title with a 16 second margin over the rest of the field, DeLay was runner-up at the Northeast Regional Championship and placed tenth in her first National Championship, earning All-American status. Following those performances, the USTFCCA named DeLay the Northeast Region Athlete of the Year.

This past Saturday, DeLay opened her individual track season and added to her list of accomplishments, setting a 5k school record at Boston University’s Sharon Colyear-Danville Season Opener. In her first ever 5k on the track, she placed eighth in a field featuring professional and top collegiate runners with a time of 15:36.66. That mark bested the previous school record of 15:40.8 set in 2003 by Kate O’Neill ’03. 

DeLay had targeted the record heading into the race and discussed a strategy of consistent pacing and group-running with head women’s distance and mid-distance coach Taryn Sheehan. 

“I’m so happy for Kayley to have been able to take advantage of the opportunity to be in the right race and achieve this mark. I think it shows what incredible potential she has,” Sheehan said to Yale Athletics.

DeLay, who was the only Yale representative at the BU meet, called the race “exciting,” adding, “it was just a really cool experience, knowing that it was going to be such a competitive race. I felt very privileged to be there.” Looking ahead, she hopes to run more 5-kilometer and 3-kilometer races this season, with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the NCAA Indoor Championships in at least one of those events. 

DeLay, Sei and Vasen all represent a class of seniors who have missed much of their careers. For them, this unique season carries added significance as their last at Yale.

“Being a senior in general, you witness the sunset of a lot of Yale things, and this sort of comes with that,” Sei said. “This is another bittersweet goodbye, but I’m really, really excited to experience it for these next couple months.” 

In the meantime, the Yale Season Opener, which Sei and Vasen both described as traditionally a “rust-buster” meet for the Bulldogs, is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m Saturday. According to the meet results website, the Blue and White are scheduled to line up with Connecticut schools Hartford, University of New Haven, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and Southern Connecticut State. The Elis will get their first taste of Ivy League competition as Columbia will also be in attendance.

“There are always question marks with a first meet of the season. This year that is compounded by the fact that it’s been so long since many of our team has competed,” Shoehalter wrote. “I expect 100 percent effort from everyone who steps on the track, the runway and circle. We have had a great buildup to Saturday. Now we get to see where we are both individually and as a team.” 

After the Season Opener, the Bulldogs will face off against Columbia and Dartmouth at home on Jan. 22.