How a Coach Kept His Team Fit — and Connected — During Distance Learning

Not long after the pandemic forced EHS to shift to distance learning last spring, Steve Castle began a routine that he never could have imagined in his 27 years as head coach of Episcopal’s wrestling team. As many as four times a week, he would descend the stairs in his campus home to his family’s basement, with its carpeted floor, electric keyboard, and sectional sofa. Plugging his computer into the television, he logged in to the School’s Webex video-conferencing system and watched as the faces of his wrestlers popped onto the screen. 

For the next 45 minutes or so, Castle led the group through a workout, with drills and exercises that required only discipline, a couple dumbbells, and a pull-up bar, if available. Pushups, squats, planks, pullups, bench dips, and more to build strength. High-repetition cardio work — burpees, mountain climbers, split squats — to lend them explosive power.

Then, drenched in sweat, endorphins pumping, the team would sit and talk — about the highs and lows of the week, the trials of lives put on hold by the pandemic, everything and anything. It was these conversations, Castle said, that he missed and that led him to turn his basement into a workout studio. 

“I was feeling really disconnected from the kids,” he says. “I just wanted to keep my team together and engaged.”

Athletics is one of the areas of Episcopal life most disrupted by the pandemic. Classes, which continued virtually through the spring and this September, now meet in person, with some students still attending remotely from home. But interscholastic leagues cancelled the spring season and now plan to run three shortened seasons — winter, fall, and spring — this school year, beginning in January 2021.

Episcopal’s athletics community has responded to these disappointments with ingenuity deployed to keep students active, fit, and connected with friends and teammates. During distance learning, Instagram took on new importance as a vehicle for real-time workouts, courtesy of athletics trainer Rachel Kelly (strength and conditioning), wellness coordinator Emily Straight (yoga), and admissions officer Tran Kim-Senior (Zumba). Damian Walsh created virtual track meets that became a national model. The Athletics Department created a video with Luke David ’93 to celebrate the winter sports teams, who missed their end-of-season banquet. It also organized videoconference college-commitment ceremonies and ran a social-media campaign to honor seniors. 

Though The Game with Woodberry and the Seminary Hill Cup are on hold for now, teams returned to the EHS playing fields last week. Each team is holding workouts, physically distanced, that are designed as mini-camps to get them ready for competition in 2021. “They’re mostly skill based, fitness based,” says Girls Athletics Director Jen Fitzpatrick. “We’re building the foundation as well as that team unity, so that we’re ready to roll in 2021.”

Castle’s virtual workouts never ended, stretching from spring through summer to September. As many as 12 athletes would show up some days, only a handful other times. Matt Zito ’24, an incoming student, joined Castle’s workouts and attended faithfully, along with his younger brother, Michael. He connected with Castle through his mother, Katherine Weglein Zito '02, a standout soccer goalie and multisport athlete during her time at EHS. Castle previously had taken Matt and his younger brother, Michael, with his EHS team to the University of Virginia’s summer wrestling camp.

Matt committed to the workouts so that he could arrive at EHS ready to compete. But the sessions also gave him a lifeline outside his family at the height of the pandemic when lockdowns were tight and anxiety was high.  “From a mental health perspective, It helped both of them get through it and gave them something to look forward to,” Katherine says. “It was cool to see it continue through the summer so that they could connect with another adult and have this touchpoint.”

With students now back on campus, Castle is coaching football and doing weekend morning “boot camps” for all comers. In-person workouts for his wrestlers will begin in the Bocock Cage in late October, though there will be no wrestling until the pandemic eases. 

Castle is planning those workouts with some new wrinkles learned from his basement regimen. Using Webex, he plans to tap the many alumni in his wrestling family to talk about wrestling, college, careers, and life. He also plans to reintroduce the virtual workouts to help his wrestlers work out when home from school for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays and stay fit during wrestling’s fragmented season. 

Best of all, when it’s safe to wrestle again, he wants to go to the mat with his team. “I'm probably as fit as I've been anytime in the last five years,” he says. “I'm actually ready to wrestle with the kids.”