Volleying hope against setbacks: meet Catherine Blayze ’20

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COURTESY PHOTO

By NICK NONNENMACHER

Spring was going to be exciting this year. Anyone walking around campus could feel it; the warm days were arriving early, election results were headline news and spring sports were getting ready to match the recently completed stellar fall and winter seasons.

None were more excited than Catherine Blazye ’20, a captain on the women’s tennis team from London, England. She had finally recovered from a brutal viral infection that kept her from playing all but one doubles match her junior year, and could not wait to return to the courts and fight towards a potential NCAA bid with her team during her final season.

Then, that — along with senior spring and a traditional graduation ceremony — was taken by the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.

“At first I was in disbelief,” said Blazye, recalling the dramatic twists of that fateful day on March 10, when the student body received news of the cancellation of in-person classes and the transition to remote learning. “I remember the header of that email [sent by Professor Hector Vila a few hours before the official message from President Patton] was ‘Spring Sports Cancelled,’ and I was like, ‘Oh no.’”

Blazye is not only a senior, athlete, international student, but an older sister as well — her younger brother James is a freshman at Middlebury. Suddenly, she found herself juggling the responsibilities of all of these identities  at once. “I didn’t know whether I should come home, or whether I was meant to stay in the U.S.,” Blazye said. “None of us knew what this meant, or what remote learning would look like in terms of whether or not we’d be coming back.”

Fortunately, Blazye has found strength and support in her team. “I think we came together really well,” said Blazye. “We were just trying to stay hopeful and positive, and maybe we would come back later in the season.”  Blayze said that the team had one final, emotional practice that night. “That’s when it hit me, like this is my last practice, probably,” she said.

Tennis has had a huge impact on Blazye’s Middlebury experience. “For me, [my teammates] were my family,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have come across some of them if not for tennis, and I’m so glad I did. We would literally do anything to win for each other on that court”

Blayze recalled that, during her battle with a viral infection last year, there were practices when she did not want to get up from the bench or could not lift her racket. “You just carry on, because you’re like ‘we can do this’” she said.

Losing that team aspect is something Blazye reiterated as being the toughest part of her early retirement. “At least I was still around last year, and as much as it felt so far away to be fit, last year I’d always had that in sight,” said Blazye from her lost season in 2019. “I basically lived in that training room, and so much of me wanted to go out there this year and play a match and go see all of our hard work. This year is different because — because I’m not going back.”

Spending a season fighting injury made sure Blazye was no stranger to overcoming challenges. “There was so much uncertainty in recovery, I was taking things day-by-day for months,” Blayze reflected. The unpredictability of that struggle was certainly made easier by her teammates and coach, Racheal Kahan. Now, that care and encouragement is an ocean and a five-hour time difference away, as Blayze is back home and quarantined with family in the United Kingdom.

“I’m still trying to keep in shape, just without the tennis part of it,” she said. The team Zooms every other week to keep in touch, and Blazye still has a role to play as a senior captain. “I’m very aware of my position now, letting the juniors take the lead and helping out where I can. We’re still very much a team, and we’re still sticking together during the tough situations.”

Everything still seems surreal to Blayze. “I still feel like I’m gonna get up in a week and go back to Midd and it will all start again,” she said. Blayze recalls joking with her teammates about retiring from tennis — but now, it’s become a reality for her and other seniors on the team. The silver lining is that although their college careers might be over, playing tennis can be a life-long commitment. “I don’t think you ever do retire from tennis, fortunately,” Blazye said.

Although disappointed, Blayze is putting things in perspective. “This is an international crisis, and we have to do what we can to help out,” she said. “Thinking about things like this always helps me put things into perspective and deal with the uncertainty.”

The worldwide shutdown, however, does not seem to be dissuading Blazye from approaching life any differently than she ever has. “I don’t think anything could’ve prepared anyone for this,” she said. “I think it will just make everyone realize and appreciate their desk to do work at, and their home to return to, and I hope it will make everyone appreciate being around such special people as well.”

After all, she does have a point. One of the great lessons sports teaches us is to persevere despite setbacks, and Catherine Blazye has embodied that lesson well. Hopefully we can all take a page from her playbook.

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