Parker Hill was getting ready to leave for the girls basketball state semifinals on March 12, 2020. Her Winston Churchill High School teammates were gathered in the gym, where the coach had told them that the game had been canceled due to COVID-19, but she was just returning from the locker room and missed the announcement.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, they’re joking.’ I walked in and everyone’s eyes were on me because I was the only one who wasn’t there when the coach first said it,” Parker recalls. “I just was stunned. It didn’t seem real.”
Parker, then a junior, was disappointed for her team, which was undefeated at the time, and upset because she wouldn’t have a chance to compete for the state championship. Her mother, Dana Hollish Hill, won her New Jersey state high school championship as a junior in 1987, wearing jersey No. 33—Parker’s number. But a family repeat was not to be.
A 6-foot-4-inch forward, Parker says she had a “killer game” to get her team into the Final Four. In her three seasons as a varsity starter, Parker racked up 883 points and 731 rebounds—and set the school’s career record for blocked shots at 217. She was on pace to be the first Churchill player to score 1,000 points and get 1,000 rebounds, according to varsity coach Kate McMahon.
“It’s pretty sad, because a lot of the milestones that you want to hit…I didn’t get the chance,” says Parker, 17. She’d hoped to play one more season alongside her sister, Miranda, a sophomore.
Parker, who lives in Bethesda, shifted to preparing for the next level of play. Last summer and fall she met other players on the outdoor courts at Cabin John Middle School, where her longtime club team coach and mentor, Larry Gray, would run drills. For Parker, a sunburn-prone redhead, the afternoon practices were particularly grueling. “I hate being outside for too long, especially when it’s very sunny or hot,” she says.
Gray says Parker still managed to improve her speed, agility and 3-point shooting. “Her mindset never changed. She worked harder,” says Gray, who believes Parker is one of the top 50 players in the country for her age and has the potential to play professional basketball.
By last fall, Parker was able to practice and scrimmage indoors with an elite league. In a roller-coaster year, she says one highlight was scoring her 1,000th career point early this March while playing with an area private school league. “It’s unofficial because it’s not my public school,” she says. “But…I scored my 1,000th point, so that was pretty cool.”
In May 2020, she committed to play basketball at Princeton this fall.
When her alarm goes off at 4:20 a.m., Erin Gemmell only allows herself to hit the snooze button once. Getting up early for outdoor practice—even during the winter—has become part of the 16-year-old’s routine since COVID-19 shut down indoor pools.
“She comes bounding down, says good morning, and we trade parent-teenage barbs. Then we hop in the car and drive in the cold and dark to swim practice,” says Erin’s father, Bruce Gemmell, who’s also her coach. “It’s not normal when you think about it, but I’ve been impressed with how normal she’s made it and how adaptable she’s been.”
Erin, who started competing when she was 4, comes from a family of serious swimmers. Her brother, Andrew, 30, was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Her parents swam at Division I colleges (mom, Barb Harris, at Northwestern University, and dad at the University of Michigan). Bruce leads the Nation’s Capital Swim Club and coached Katie Ledecky at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four gold medals.
Rather than feeling pressure to keep up, Erin says her exposure to the world of elite swimming has made things easier for her. “I feel like it makes the bigger goals in swimming seem more attainable. Because if my brother could do it, I could do it,” she says.
In August 2018, Erin won the women’s 200-meter freestyle at the Speedo Junior National Championships, clocking the second-fastest time for a 13-year-old in U.S. history. The following summer she qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyle competitions and in the 200-meter individual medley. Before the pandemic, the Potomac teen was practicing two hours a day, six days a week.
“For someone who’s used to swimming, I didn’t really know that many other types of exercise that I could do. I’m not very good at running. I don’t have a bike that’s big enough,” says Erin, a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. She initially turned to the Nintendo Wii video game Just Dance. “It was something I could do for a while and get my heart rate up a little bit,” she says. After 30 minutes of dancing in her basement, she often did another hour of dryland strength exercises—push-ups, squats and dumbbells—or jumped rope.
In April 2020, Erin started venturing out to Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and Gunpowder Falls State Park, northeast of Baltimore, with her dad and a handful of other swimmers. Swimming in open water was a new experience: She had to buy a wet suit (the water in early spring was in the 60s) and pick up her head to breathe—rather than move it to the side—to see where she was going. “There were times when there was lots of algae, or the water would be brown or sort of questionable,” she says. While swimming at the Epping Forest Boat Club just outside of Annapolis, she saw a snake in brackish water but jumped in anyway.
By last summer, practice had moved to outdoor pools, and since September Erin has been swimming with about 30 other teens at Lakewood Country Club in Rockville. The first time the temperature dipped below freezing she had to remove chunks of ice from the pool covers before practice. It was so bad at times that a thin sheet of ice would form on her kickboard as it sat on the edge of the pool. “We try to not think about it when it’s really cold. It’s better just not to process that,” says Erin, who quickly shuttled to the locker room after practice in the winter to wrap up and grab her parka, unable to use the showers because of COVID.
“It’s been hard, and kind of difficult to stay focused and positive,” says Erin, who remembers feeling particularly down in December when her times were slower than she’d like. She talked through the lull with her dad and says she improved once she had the concrete goal of competition back on her schedule. She swam in a few indoor regional meets in Virginia in January; everyone had to social distance and wear masks on the pool deck.
Next up: the Olympic Trials in mid-June in Omaha, Nebraska. Erin says she’s more hopeful about making it to the Tokyo Olympics this summer than she would have been if the Games had been held in 2020 as scheduled: “I’ve had a whole other year to train.”
To catch the eye of college football recruiters during the pandemic, Bryce Barnes had to get creative. The standout defensive back from Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg couldn’t meet with coaches in person, visit campuses, or share film from this year because there were no games last fall.
Instead, the 17-year-old took to Twitter, posting videos of himself doing agility drills and photos displaying his 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound build. In one tweet, he demonstrated his 77-inch wingspan. “I would stand in front of a doorway so they can get my relative height to a doorway and see how tall I am,” says Bryce, a varsity captain. “Then I would stick my arms out against the sliding back door to see how long my arms are.”
Bryce, a junior, has already received offers to play college football and is hoping for more as a senior. The first came last April from the University of Michigan while his brother Ryan, who’s a year older, was on a recruiting call. “The coach called me over to the computer and I thought we were just going to talk,” Bryce says. “And then he offered. Everyone was really shocked and surprised, and I was just really happy.”
His dreams of playing in college—and professionally someday—kept him motivated to stay in shape. Most of the past year, Ryan was his workout partner at home. (Ryan graduated from high school a semester early this past January and then moved to Indiana to play football at Notre Dame.) The two practiced with friends at a field near their home in Gaithersburg and made use of the family’s weight bench in their basement, eventually lifting at area gyms once they opened.
Beginning in September, the Quince Orchard team had a five-week virtual season and players did some conditioning in their homes. Connecting by FaceTime on their phones, they used a deck of playing cards to make a game out of their workouts. One player would draw a card, and everyone had to do that number of push-ups, squats or sit-ups. Although it wasn’t the same as being at practice together, Bryce says, there were some lighter moments—like when a teammate kicked over a TV tray in the tight quarters of his living room.
“Bryce has made the most of an unfortunate situation,” says Quince Orchard football coach John Kelley, adding that many athletes in other sports had club teams to fall back on during the quarantine. “Football kids have been the ones scrambling to find anything. …Football is the one sport where there is no club. It is solely a high school-driven sport.”
Kelley had high hopes for his team last fall—QO won the 4A state title in 2018—and knows the unexpected gap in play was hard for his players. “We probably had one of the best teams ever in school history,” he says.
With schools open and an abbreviated football schedule this spring—three games and no postseason—Bryce has enjoyed being with his teammates again. “We were all trying to ease back into things, but we’re picking up quickly,” he says. He made a defensive playbook using Google Slides as a reference for players to study. Although he won’t have the pressure of making the playoffs this year, Bryce says his team faces tough opponents and he’s determined to get some clips on the field to share with more college recruiters: “I’m trying to do everything I can to be there for these three games and do what I need to do to get this film out.”
Drew And Ike Guttentag
The 2020 Maryland State Wrestling Tournament wrapped up in early March last year, just before the coronavirus arrived in the region. Ike Guttentag, then a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, won the individual state title in the 113-pound weight class. His brother Drew, then a junior wrestling at 152 pounds, got injured in the semifinals and had to forfeit his match. Drew’s opponent came up to him afterward and said that Drew would at least have another chance to win the title.
But there was no real wrestling season this year. No state championships. “It was obviously bitterly disappointing for me, but especially for Drew because it was his senior season,” Ike, now 17, says.
Drew admits he initially welcomed the break from school. “Then everything set in and I realized it wasn’t going to be just a two-week thing,” the 18-year-old says. “It started to weigh a little heavier and get hard.”
The Guttentags bought an 18-by-14-foot purple mat and wrestled one another in the basement. They did workouts with their brother, Eli, a 2019 B-CC graduate and wrestler who was home from the University of Michigan. Sometimes their dad, Steven, 57, who also wrestled in high school, would work out on the mat with his sons. “I got a few injuries from that time period. I shouldn’t be wrestling with them anymore,” Steven says.
“He’s not quite the powerhouse he was,” jokes Ike, who carried his dad piggyback along the Capital Crescent Trail near their home in Chevy Chase to build up strength.
When the Capital Wrestling Club in Gaithersburg and some gyms began to open in the summer, the boys started practicing again, and eventually competing. While Montgomery County Public Schools didn’t hold matches, the rules were more relaxed in other places (and at some local private schools). The Guttentags traveled to tournaments in South Carolina and Pennsylvania (with health protocols in place), and Ike and Drew signed on for virtual workouts that featured talks from high-profile athletes. “Getting to wrestle with the best kids in the state and receiving instruction from the best coaches was a silver lining during the pandemic,” their dad says. In the fall, about a dozen B-CC wrestlers Zoomed twice a week to review films together and share tips. To stay fit, they’d shadow wrestle in front of their cameras, practicing moves without an opponent.
Despite not having a regular season, B-CC wrestling coach Evan Silver says he’s optimistic that Ike and Drew will bounce back. “Whenever you are not competing, it takes more time to get back into shape,” Silver says. “But mentally, I think maybe they will have a stronger drive to keep working hard and improve.”
Drew says the inability to compete as much last winter solidified his decision to wrestle next year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Ike is looking forward to the chance to reclaim his state title as a senior.