Photo provided by Eric Perez
Eric Perez was looking forward to his last season as a distance runner on the Oswego State track and field team. Perez has been running with the Oswego cross country and track teams since he first came to Oswego and was planning to go out with a bang for his last outdoor season.
Then came Covid-19, a pandemic that has swept across every continent and shut down huge portions of American life. In mid-March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY schools would stop in-person instruction for the rest of the spring semester. Once that decision was made, it was clear that spring sports were not going to continue, and on March 13, the last day of in-person classes, the SUNY athletic conference made the decision to cancel all spring sports.
Perez, a wellness management major, said that he was not overly surprised to hear that the season was ending, as he had been aware of how serious the situation was becoming.
“The virus had been on my radar for a bit, as someone studying health sciences, we’d been talking about it in class and I knew it was coming to New York,” Perez said. “I kind of knew that the semester and the track season were both going to be canceled, even before the announcements.”
For track and field, there are two seasons per year. From December to mid-March, athletes compete in the indoor season, and from mid-March to the end of April they compete in the outdoor season. This year, the indoor track season championships were scheduled for March 13. Perez said that some teammates of his were on the track at the championships this year when the season was canceled.
“I feel so incredibly bad for those people who were literally about to compete. They were on the track, ready to run when they were told the season was over and the races weren’t happening,” Perez said.
While he may have seen the closings coming earlier than many other people, Perez said the results were no less disappointing. He was just building up to the pinnacle of his athletics career, something that’s been 8 years in the making.
Perez started running as a freshman at East Hampton High School, on the eastern end of Long Island. He joined the cross-country team after being passed up for the soccer team and found that running was one of the things he could make his own and truly enjoy.
“I feel like it’s a talent, it’s one of those things that a lot of people don’t enjoy, but once you get that rhythm, and start to see success, it can be very rewarding,” Perez said. “It’s different from a lot of other sports, you get out there and get a rhythm and it’s just peaceful and relaxing.”
Perez found a home with the East Hampton team, and connected with his coach, Kevin Barry. After working with Barry for years, he and his team made it all the way to the state championship during Perez’s senior year.
“When I was a freshman or sophomore, Coach Barry said that we were going to make it to the state meet,” Perez said. “Looking back at it now, I still don’t know how he was able to look at me and have that faith like that. When we did make it, it was incredible.”
After graduating high school, Perez started at Oswego State with a business major, although he chose to switch to a wellness management major shortly after. He chose the school mainly because of the academic programs and the affordability factor but had his eye on the cross country and track teams as well.
Perez said that his first coach at Oswego, Sarah Ritchie, was one of the most influential people for his athletic career. During the first tryouts for the cross-country team in the summer of 2016, Richie was not sure if Perez was cut out for the team.
“She suggested I take a year off, actually,” Perez said. “Over the summer, when we did out first time-trials together, I was in the top ten. She changed her mind about me then and became a great mentor actually.”
Perez said that Ritchie became a friend as well as a coach over the course of that year, as she coached the cross-country team and assisted with the distance runners for track.
Since then, the cross-country team has cycled through a number of coaches and assistant coaches, as Perez has set personal bests for a variety of events and made it to the regional championships.
In 2017, Perez set a personal best for the 10,000 meters, finishing 11th with 36 minutes and 12.29 seconds.
In 2019, Perez and the Oswego State cross country team made it to the NCAA Div III Atlantic Regionals, where he placed 200in the 8k. Perez ran his fastest mile, 4 minutes and 52.02 seconds, at the Cornell Sunday Invitational, also in 2019.
“Having lost this outdoor season, Eric lost his chance to set a new personal best in the 10,000 meters,” Oswego State cross country and track coach Jacob Smith said. “That’s his primary track event, and he never got the chance to do it this last season because its an outdoor event. I think he would’ve had the chance to set a lifetime best for that.”
Not only did Perez miss out on one more season with his main track event, but he also missed out on almost all the traditions and celebrations that come at the end of a senior’s last season. Usually, around the end of the year, the team would have their final meet at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, where graduating seniors would be recognized from each team. After the end of the season, the team normally gets together and has a party, where the seniors are gifted their uniforms from all the seasons they competed and are given the chance to say final goodbyes.
“Athletes are used to circumstances being out of their control,” Smith said. “Outcomes are never assured in this sport, and all an athlete can do is control their response and what they choose to do. I think that is a useful quality for everyone, especially right now.”
Instead of celebrations, graduation ceremonies and the usual goodbyes, Perez is home on Long Island for the time being. His former high school has offered him an assistant coaching position for the cross-country team which he plans to do once athletics programs start back up.
“I’m looking forward to giving back to the place that helped me with my start,” Perez said. “I’ve been running lately for the future in hopes of running a half marathon competitively.”