The biggest fish that Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Alice Read has caught since quarantine began were several 20-inch brown trout back in April. A long-time passion of hers since catching bull-trout back in Montana, fly-fishing in the Catskills waters offers Read a cooling reprieve from the uncertainty of COVID-19. “It’s kind of therapeutic…I’m getting some sunlight. I’m getting out in nature. It’s so quiet, you can kind of forget about the crazy world we’re in right now,” she said to me on an early Friday morning Zoom call. During a typical spring, Coach Read, or simply Alice to most Vassar athletes, would be found wrapping up the 9:20 a.m. lift, but like the rest of us, she’s adjusting to a much less structured schedule.
During the academic year, Read is responsible for training the roughly 20 percent of students that are athletes. She works with them to grind back to health from the pit of injury, to improve their bodies’ strength and build their capacity to perform and prevent injury. She even plays the bad guy when it’s time for conditioning and wind sprints (not for me, of course; my sport is your sport’s conditioning). It’s safe to say Alice is a deeply respected luminary of campus. There are few obligations that Vassar students would dream of waking up early for, but her 7 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. lifts are packed with dewy-eyed athletes who line up outside the Kenyon Varsity weight room. They dare not arrive late. Some unfortunate first-years and the occasional upperclassman know the shame of getting sent home at 8:16.
But without the structure and discipline of early morning, in person-lifts, Read had to figure out a way to keep students engaged and motivated to maintain the fitness they’d sweated all year for. She recounted dealing with the initial fall-out of canceled seasons: “I kind of panicked a little bit ‘cause I’m very much so a doer. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do I help 500 athletes when they’re all scattered across the country?’” Five hundred young adults is far more than any Vassar professor has to account for, but she still wanted everyone to have a plan to continue training. “The varsity weight room is a place that a lot of people like to come and it’s their place to get away from academics, from stress, so I wanted to continue to pro- vide options like that for people at home,” she said.
It’s not as if she drums up the same training plan for everyone, either. Coach Read trains 15 different teams, or classes if you will, with drastically different syllabi. “I kind of went into hyperdrive…After a week of putting some body weight programs to- gether and whatnot, I settled into really analyzing a little bit more deeply each sport.” Athletes’ needs cover a broad spectrum: squashers need to harvest their agility, basketball players to work on their bounce, baseball players bulk up to acquire raw slugging power. Even cross-country runners have to get in a couple kettlebell swings per week.
Spring sports were just beginning to compete when the pandemic hit, but Read didn’t let the loss of competition season daunt her: “I said right off the bat I don’t want to just jump ship immediately and go to offseason training. We need to spend some time in that power window and develop some kind of peak experience.” For the teams that were in their offseason, she told herself, “I need to be preparing them for an August 18 start…so their training needs to be peaking sooner.” This long-term planning was nothing new for Read. “I look at programming from a year-round perspective,” she shared.
This year is Coach Read’s second full year at Vassar. I asked her to reflect on some of the year’s highlights before it was cut short. “One of my coaching philosophies is I want the upperclassmen to be an extension of me and the returners be mini coaches… this year I actually watched that happen. To see so many upperclassmen helping their first-years learn how to hang clean or something more complicated than that was so fun to watch. ” In just two years, Coach Read established positive team culture across 15 sports, whether that means helping an athlete tweak their squat technique or reminding bench pressers about the importance of spotting. There is an air of accountability and optimism, along with body odor vapors, in the Kenyon basement.
That teamwork is hard to find in our makeshift at-home gyms, towels on a hardwood floor or dumbbells in the yard with only the company of a neighbor’s inquiring glance like looking away quickly to look forward to. Those early morning lifts are a great fodder of banter. Several exercises, although supposedly athletically beneficial, look downright silly, like the appropriately named hip stretch “fire hydrants’’ or the dreaded “inch worm,” and leave athletes dumbfounded. However, nothing really wakes you up like the weight room’s notorious Pandora playlists (Coach Read may actually be the last known Pandora subscriber in existence). Every lift starts with a brief discussion of the day’s playlist, although it is inevitably either 2000’s pop or new hip-hop. Try attempting to squat six reps of your max weight to “Party in the U.S.A.”; that’s what you get in the varsity weight room. Outside of the weight room, Read adds a little more variety to her workouts. “One of my go to’s is the throwback workout playlist. It’s quite good. Not censored though. 80’s cardio is also a gem of a playlist on Pandora.” I have long lobbied for acoustic sunrise with little success, but it seems like I’m not the only one with clandestine lifting taste: “I know it’s controversial, but I am a country fan and have been listening to quite a bit of that,” admitted Read. It’s definitely not controversial, Coach Read. Ultimately, she finds herself going back to the basics: “I’ve actually been rocking quite a few weight room playlists because I need to feel like we’re back there together.”
Coach Read has tried to bring the good vibes to digital format. The Vassar Strong Instagram has become a virtual weight room where Coach Read demonstrates some of the more befuddling or challenging exercises. The comment sections abound with feedback from student-athletes. Read also posts some of their shelter-in-place gyms. This was unfamiliar territory for Read: “When we first started, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is gonna be such a long haul; posting every day I’m going to run out of creativity.’ Michelle Walsh ,the athletic director, keeps saying she’s going to turn me into a social media influencer…I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
Until the day Coach Read becomes a social media influencer, she’ll stick to what she knows best: crushing workouts and motivating student athletes. “I’m a strength coach because I love interacting and working with you guys on a daily basis, so not having that has been one of my biggest challenges,” she said. She’ll stick with social media for that: “It’s always nice to hear back and I always encourage student athletes if you just want to drop a line and say ‘hey coach.”
Read believes that community is more important than ever as we’re stuck in this long grind. “I feel like quarantine is kind of like a marathon…you’ve got to find that steady pace and stick at it and keep that going,so it’s kind of slow and painful,” she said. I asked her if coronavirus were an exercise, what would it be? “100 percent a burpee,” she replied. Oof.
For a while long we’ll be running this marathon, and, like always, we’ll do our best to avoid burpees. In these crazy times, it’s good to know that the idiosyncratic Vassar athletic community has something to rally around, and Coach Read is thankful for it too: “Knowing that you guys are there is a way we can…feel the sense of community, working out together.”