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Student-athletes navigate COVID eligibility loopholes

Graduate+student+pole+vaulter+Dom+Mikula+is+heading+into+his+sixth+year+competing+in+college.+Because+of+eligibility+loopholes%2C+he+will+be+able+to+compete+in+the+winter+and+spring+seasons.%0A
Nolan Saunders
Graduate student pole vaulter Dom Mikula is heading into his sixth year competing in college. Because of eligibility loopholes, he will be able to compete in the winter and spring seasons.

In Spring 2020, the NCAA announced that student-athletes who did not compete in the 2020 spring sports season because of the COVID-19 pandemic would be granted an extra season of eligibility. 

Graduate student pole vaulter Dominic Mikula will use this extra season to compete in his sixth and final outdoor season this spring on the Ithaca College men’s track and field team. Despite Mikula being able to use this a sixth year of eligibility for this year’s outdoor season, he said he will have to take a break during the indoor season because of the NCAA not allowing extra eligibility during that period.

“Back in 2020, we were at the indoor NCAA championships in North Carolina when they canceled the meet and the upcoming outdoor season,” Mikula said. “They didn’t give back indoor eligibility, so that outdoor season is what I have left to be able to use for this upcoming season.” 

When the NCAA issued the eligibility extension in March of 2020, they gave universities the individual decision to extend each player’s eligibility window one year past their normal five years. This decision did not include the winter season, as the season was nearly done when the pandemic hit. 

As the reigning outdoor pole vault national champion, Mikula had to decide whether or not to come back and compete using his sixth year of eligibility or leave the program as a national champion. Mikula said this decision was based on both academic and athletic desires.  

A student in the occupational therapy department, Mikula, with the guidance of his advisers, was able to curate an academic schedule that allowed him to continue his academic and athletic career for six years at the college. 

“I was already in a five-year master’s program, so making it a six-year master’s program with the program support in HSHP and the occupational therapy department definitely allowed me to continue using my eligibility as I had it left,” Mikula said.

Mikula will continue to attend meets during the indoor season, however, he will compete under the “unattached” name. Competing unattached means individuals can attend an open meet and compete as long as they pay the fee to get into the meet, which allows Mikula to continue competing in the sport without requiring NCAA eligibility. 

While Mikula is entering his sixth year, senior Hannah Fichter, a member of the women’s track and field team, is graduating early with the class of 2024 and foregoing her remaining eligibility. 

Fichter, who competes in the 5k and steeple, had two seasons of eligibility left for both indoor and outdoor events and like Mikula, she said the decision for her to forgo this eligibility was dependent on various components. 

“Several of my teammates are trying to get me to come back to use my eligibility, especially for cross country, but I came to Ithaca for academics and running was a bonus, so I am okay with foregoing the eligibility I will have left after I graduate,” Fichter said. “If I wanted to stay another year, I would have to take on an entire minor and it didn’t seem worth it to make that financial commitment.” 

During this time of COVID-19 relief, Fichter has competed with fifth and sixth-year student athletes. Fichter said she believes the structure put in place by the NCAA after COVID-19 has been a disservice to athletes entering their collegiate athletic experience. 

“I believe that [COVID-19 eligibility relief] may have created an unfair advantage because as a freshman, I was competing against fifth and sixth-year athletes who were older and had developed more than I had in my career,” Fichter said. 

After spending the past six years with men’s track and field coach Jim Nichols and pole vault coach Matt Scheffler, Mikula said he sees his experience as an opportunity to serve as a leader for underclassmen. 

“Going out on top would be great, but being able to use that outdoor eligibility would also be great and I felt like my body was healthy to come back and continue to be a leader,” Mikula said. “Knowing the traditions of the program, helping the underclassmen navigate around a meet and providing that leadership as a veteran in the locker room is a huge thing for coaches and being able to provide that for them is important to me.” 

Last season, Mikula served as the captain of the team and Nichols believes that presence and experience will continue to benefit the team this season. Nichols, who has coached Mikula through highs and lows, is looking to the sixth-year athlete to be a role model for the younger members on the squad in his final season. 

“Dom is our defending national champion so his sticking around adds a great level of leadership, dedication and diligence to the sport and the program,” Nichols said. “He is a reflection of the success you can have in this program and even competing unattached in the winter, he will be able to train indoors with the team, serve as an example, provide that experience to our younger athletes and have a great impact.”



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