Editor's note: This is the first part in a two-part series chronicling multisport athlete Nicole Sulla Mathews' academic and athletic career at St. John's School. This first article focuses on loss and sacrifice during the pandemic and sheds light on the tremendous effort she put into becoming an honor-roll student on the International Baccalaureate path. Part two, which will publish Monday, shares her journey through sports and discusses those who helped her become an outstanding Senior Sports Standout.
In the days leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, and as countless televisions and news feeds became filled with tales of doom and terror, St. John’s School Knights student-athlete Nicole Sulla Mathews began preparing for her final month of school and fourth quarter soccer.
As she feverishly worked to finish her International Baccalaureate diploma requirements and turn in her final projects, everything began changing and her senior year began resembling something completely foreign. On March 14, the Government of Guam declared a public health emergency and students were forced to finish the school year online, unable to say their final goodbyes to friends and teachers they admired most. For underclassmen, they will get a chance to say their farewells sometime in the future, but for graduating seniors, the opportunity is lost forever.
“As the pandemic started to reach the island, I’d say I was in a pretty stressful place,” Mathews said. ... "The last day I spent at school was the day I turned in my Theory of Knowledge essay and I was still stressing about how many more Internal Assessments I still had to finish up in the short time we had left at school."
With the closure of schools and all nonessential businesses, Guam’s role in the pandemic graduated from a theoretical nuisance to an economic and social catastrophe. For Mathews, and the countless millions of high school seniors around the world, the rapidly escalating situation swept her out of the classroom and locked down with family.
Her senior year was gone, and it wasn’t coming back.
“As we moved onto online schooling for our final quarter, my class and I definitely felt a disconnect from our senior year,” she said. “It felt like we were losing all of our opportunities for traditions and goodbyes that we should’ve been doing if we weren’t stuck at home doing Google Meet calls."
Having been a Knight for 13 years, Mathews' entire life had revolved around St. John’s, friends, family and sports and, seemingly in the blink of an eye, or, in this case, the signing of a GovGuam executive order, so much she had grown accustomed to and relied upon was taken away. But instead of dwelling on the negatives piling around her, the 18-year-old honor student-athlete began processing the situation in a most unique way, even though a not-so-deep-down morose feeling would occasionally cast its shadow.
“Upon learning that our season was being canceled, my mind immediately went to all the fun memories I had with my team in the year prior,” she said. “From the not-so-fun running drills to ice baths and especially to our Senior Knight potluck, I was crestfallen that I wouldn’t get to experience them again.
“It was definitely hard getting over the loss of the season on top of our last quarter of school, and it was my fellow classmates and teammates that really helped me get through it.”
As Mathews remained locked up with her family, she didn’t mind spending the extra time with loved ones, rather, she quite enjoyed it. Between online classes and turning in research papers, she and her family began tackling long-neglected projects that they had vowed to finish someday when they had the time.
As social distance mandates and mandatory lockdown spread into months, the scarce commodity of time became eerily abundant.
“Since the pandemic has hit Guam and with everything being either suspended or closed, I’ve found that I have a lot more time on my hands, which was very rare for me to have prior to the pandemic,” Mathews said. “While being away from friends and avoiding going out has not been the best, it allowed my family and I to spend some rare time working in the garden or making dinner together, something our busy schedules would never have permitted before.”
My family and I have been catching up on everything we’ve said we would get to fixing or cleaning, perhaps for the first time in a while, so I’ve been quite busy around the house, she said.
With shelves and books dusted, appliances polished and returned to their original state, made possible by an overabundance of time, nervous energy, and elbow grease, Mathews began thinking about graduation. Early in the pandemic, the senior class had asked the administration to put off the event and have a formal ceremony at a later date, but time had begun to work against the seniors.
“Sadly, by the week of graduation, social distancing rules did not permit us to have our ceremony on the field as planned, and our admin quickly got to work on changing our ceremony to a drive-in,” Mathews said. “The ceremony was nice, seeing that we had to follow the many rules outlining gatherings, but obviously not what many of us hoped of experiencing.”
On her way to becoming a standout indoor and beach volleyball player and mainstay on the soccer pitch, and having maintained honor-roll status, Mathews had sacrificed so much and was owed a formal graduation.
“Throughout the year, there always seemed to be some paper or project due and stress became the tag-along buddy I couldn’t get rid of,” she said. “With schoolwork and sports practices, I forced myself to practice time management, with occasional power naps from time to time.”
But with the not-so-memorable - or memorable for the wrong reasons - July 3 graduation come and gone, Mathews is preparing to leave the island and head to college. As many colleges and universities in the U.S. are gearing up for what promises to be a unique, but possibly less than fulfilling, fall semester, she will be heading to the University of Hawaii at Manoa for a more traditional, in-person education.
With a low number of COVID-19 cases, UH is able to offer a more normal learning experience than many other universities.
At UH, Mathews will pursue a major in global environmental science: sustainability science.
“Between having family in Hawaii, being closer to home, and how much I enjoy UH’s science department, it was pretty easy for me to come to the decision to go there,” she said.