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Staying Active in Times of COVID: Spring Sports at SLU-Madrid

by Katie Gortz on 04/27/2021

At SLU-Madrid, the Department of Athletics promotes physical activity and sports in support of the physical, psychological and social well-being of the community. Now, perhaps more than ever, as we live amid a global pandemic, caring for our health and wellness is essential. Putting the skills and lessons he learned as a professional basketball player in Spain's version of the NBA to work, Director of Sports César Rioja has ensured that students of all levels of athletic ability have been able to continue to lead active lives during the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Pickup soccer
Jorge Urribarri receives a pass at one of the weekly pickup soccer games. 

During the Spring 2021 semester, SLU-Madrid students have been practicing a wide range of sports and activities. In accordance with CDC guidelines, which identify outdoor spaces as best to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when playing sports, Rioja has developed a robust program of athletic activities in open-air facilities whenever possible, with scheduled court and field times reserved for SLU-Madrid students to play basketball and soccer. A former professional basketball player himself, Rioja takes part in the pickup basketball games and helps train players.

"I consider myself very lucky to have kept sports in so many aspects of both my personal and professional life," he said. "One of my greatest passions is coaching our students on the basketball court, as well as spending time with them and getting to know them, as I believe that we can all learn a great deal from each other."

For students looking to play tennis or paddle tennis, Rioja facilitates the on-demand reservation of outdoor courts. He also offers lessons to students and manages the equipment available to lend out. Other sports opportunities include training and competing in volleyball tournaments organized by Club Volleyball Madrid, discounted gym memberships, golf training at the National Golf Center and the Madrid Golf Federation, and ongoing hiking trips organized by the student-led Sierra Club.

Students at the Spanish National Golf Center

SLU-Madrid students shoot a round of golf at the Spanish National Golf Center. 

In accordance with campus-wide health and safety protocols, Rioja and dance professor Yolanda Granado have organized a new initiative this semester: twice weekly Pilates classes in the San Ignacio Hall Dance Studio.

Granado, who teaches the classes, explained, "Pilates is a tool through which we free our minds, feed our spirit and strengthen our bodies. I have always enjoyed taking and teaching Pilates classes because I always leave feeling better than when I entered: lighter, more relaxed, and full of energy to continue the day. I’m delighted to share this experience with students, particularly in the context of added stress of the pandemic."

Rioja and Granado have been impressed with the enthusiasm and demand among students for the classes and plan to continue with the initiative in future semesters.

The student-led Esports Club has also grown significantly, as a safe and socially-distanced way to enjoy friendly competition and to socialize by playing video games. Led by Andrés Portela Lomba, the club recently organized its first Esports tournament, which involved 12 students who connected from their homes to compete.

High-level Competitive Athletes 

Rioja also serves as academic advisor to high-level student athletes, assisting them with the challenges of balancing athletics and academics.  

Mariana Casanueva, a SLU-Madrid sophomore who is pursuing a double major in communication and political science with a minor in psychology, is currently the starting goalkeeper for Union Adarve's senior women's soccer team. According to Rioja, Casanueva is "a very highly skilled player with excellent distribution and reflexes."

 Thanks to the time management skills she has sharpened on the field, Casanueva also thrives in the classroom as a dedicated student. "Sports have taught me time management and discipline, and how to honor commitment. And as a goalie, I’ve learned mental strength as well," she said. 

In terms of playing soccer during the pandemic, she commented, "There are new regulations for COVID, and we compete and train wearing masks," she said. "But this is not a complaint! I’m thrilled to be back on the turf with my team."

In addition to soccer, elite student athletes at SLU-Madrid are currently training in basketball, water polo, tennis and the martial arts. 

Mariana Casanueva

Casanueva on the soccer field. Submitted photo taken before the pandemic.