Malik Owolabi-Belewu, a graduate of Woodbridge, Ont.’s Holy Cross Catholic Academy’s high-performance athlete program, is now playing soccer professionally in Italy’s Serie B. Photo by Isabella Gandolfi

High-performance school learns to cope with COVID

  • January 8, 2021

In a year marked by event cancellations, pandemic restrictions hindered competition plans for many high school athletes looking to obtain their diploma while also pursuing athletic ambitions in 2020. 

With uncertainty as to when there will be a full return to play extending into this new year, coaching staff and students in the high-performance athlete program at Holy Cross Catholic Academy in Woodbridge, Ont., are staying ready for action.

Offered flexible school timetables, student athletes enrolled in the program are better able to balance academic demands with athletic commitments while also earning high school credits for work put into their training. Coordinators of the program, now in its third year, say that with group training restrictions still in place students have had to find other ways to ensure to progress towards their fitness goals.

“The majority of our high-performance athletes have had their training reduced to meet safety regulations,” said Arthur D’Sylva, program co-ordinator and teacher. “They usually train four to six times a week and are now averaging about half of that. However, our HP athletes are pretty resilient and have found new, creative ways to continue developing their skills in their respective sports. Athletes have told me that they train in their basement, backyard and neighbouring parks to keep their fitness levels up.”

As the only high-performance athlete program in the York Catholic District School Board, various measures have been put in place to ensure the highest standard of academic excellence is maintained.

To enrol, students must have a minimum 70-per-cent overall average and be evaluated as having “good” to “excellent” learning skills. Once they are admitted into the program, a co-ordinator reviews their marks twice per semester to determine if the student-athlete is maintaining the minimum grade average.

“We want our student-athletes to understand that academics and athletics are equally important, and together, can open many opportunities for them either in Canada, the United States or abroad,” said D’Sylva. “We are proud to say we have a hard-working group of student-athletes that push to be the very best version of themselves, and we are happy and honoured to support them along their journey.”

With 120 students currently in the program, the school held a virtual open house before the Christmas break and expects the number of students enrolled to increase for the 2021-22 academic year. With the pace of vaccine distribution speculative at best, and high school sports still cancelled until further notice, co-ordinators say managing the mental toll of pandemic constraints has been half the battle.

“We perform regular mental health check-ups on our athletes either virtually or face-to-face,” said teacher and co-ordinator Christien Iafrate. “Coaches and trainers have used a variety of methods to keep their athletes focused. Fitness and small group activities are the main focus now until it is safe to resume competitive games.”

For many of the school’s athletes, having a career in professional sports or earning an athletic scholarship in Canada or in the United States is the ultimate goal. Holy Cross has had a few students make the jump to the next level. Eric Ciccolini, who graduated in June 2019, was drafted by the New York Rangers and currently plays for the University of Michigan.

In August 2020, fresh graduate Malik Owolabi-Belewu signed a four-year professional contract with SPAL Football Club of the Italian Serie B soccer league. Owolabi-Belewui, who transferred to Holy Cross from a high school in London, Ont., after earning a spot on the Toronto FC reserve team, says spending his final year at the school was instrumental in helping to find balance between his athletic and academic goals.

“I feel that if I wasn’t at (Holy Cross), things would have been a lot harder to deal with,” said the 18-year-old centre-back.

“The fact that the school allowed me to focus on athletics made it easier for me to train hard and look to improve and try and make it. They made sure that I stay on top of my school work by giving me the extra time to complete assignments and things like that. They also made it a thing where I could do my sports, but then I could also look to achieve good grades and good marks in my education.”

Owolabi-Belewu, who was born in England and came to Canada as a young teen, chose Holy Cross after learning about it from a friend and says he can’t thank co-ordinators enough for their support throughout his senior year.

“Two people that played a very, very big role in my success being there and helping me while I was at TFC are Mr. D’Sylva and Mr. Iafrate,” said Owolabi-Belewu. “I can’t even describe how much they helped me, but without them I wouldn’t have been able to adjust to living in a new city, playing at a new team and being able to perform.”

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