Georgia equestrian rider Ali Tritschler had to redshirt her freshman year due to portal vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the vein connected to her liver.
In the wake of COVID-19, she has realized that not being able to ride her first year was a blessing in disguise.
Of 16 seniors on the 2019-20 Georgia equestrian team, Tritschler is the only one that has the chance to return for one more season — and one more chance to win a national championship.
“I had a really hard time approaching the topic with them,” Tritschler said of her senior teammates. “I felt so guilty that I was the only one that had this opportunity when in reality we all deserve the chance to finish the way we wanted to.”
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all spring-sports athletes on March 30. This relief was provided for athletes whose seasons were canceled due to COVID-19.
Equestrian runs a full-year schedule, meaning teams compete in the fall, winter and spring seasons. This distinguishes them from other sports that fall neatly into one competitive season.
Although Georgia’s regular season was completed at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Southeastern Conference and National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) championships were canceled. The championships were originally scheduled for March 27-28 and April 15-18, respectively.
For the purposes of eligibility relief, the NCAA labeled equestrian a winter sport, Tritschler said. None of the equestrian athletes were given an extra year of eligibility.
“It’s been a progress of emotions,” equestrian head coach Meghan Boenig said. “The first was absolute heartache and devastation. … The second emotion really became gratitude and learning and appreciating what all [the seniors] had.”
The Bulldogs lost their last regular season meet to TCU by a score of 10-9 on March 7 just before the news of cancellations broke. Despite the loss, they were in high spirits. They were ready to come back and beat TCU at the NCEA championships.
The team was excited, Tritschler said. They were in a good place, physically and mentally.
The Bulldogs’ last national title was in 2014, but they’ve finished as national runners-up four times in the last five years. For Tritschler and her 15 senior teammates, this past season was their last chance to win a title together — a chance that was taken from them.
“It was horrible,” Tritschler said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
The Bulldogs aren’t practicing, competing and meeting together in person anymore, but they have found new ways to stay connected. Tritschler and her roommates have talked over FaceTime almost every day. She also keeps in close contact with her “rack group,” the group that she lifts with in the weight room. They have been using Zoom and Houseparty to spend time catching up and are even working to create a group TikTok.
Other than video calling, the team is staying in touch by sharing recipes, workout routines and Netflix recommendations, compiling it all into a Google Doc that they share.
These virtual connections also extend to the coaching staff. Every day a coach or member of the staff takes over the team GroupMe and sends an inspirational quote, a funny video or something else uplifting, Tritschler said.
Tritschler, a jumping seat competitor, has become an integral part of Georgia equestrian over the past four years. She competes in both Flat and Fences. Over the 2019-20 season, she rode to a 16-7-2 record, 9-4 on fences and 7-3-2 on flat. Over her career, she has gone 40-34-7 and won seven Most Outstanding Performance honors.
As she grappled with the premature end of her senior year, Tritschler also struggled with making the decision to stay for a fifth year. When she redshirted, she didn’t plan to stay at Georgia for five years.
She wanted to stay with the class of 2020. She felt that, even with the loss of her freshman year, she had spent her time on the team. Those feelings changed when part of that time, the closure she always thought she would get and her May 2020 graduation ceremony were taken from her.
Her senior teammates have been supportive, Tritschler said. They told her to go finish the 2021 season in the way they wished they could have finished the 2020 season together.
“I’m really going to not take for granted anything in this next year,” Tritschler said. “I’m definitely going to do it for the class of 2020.”
Jose Chavez contributed to this story.