Gophers rower Natalie Stratton making Covid-19 masks for hospitals with athletic career over

Gophers senior rower Natalie Stratton makes 40 to 50 masks per week to help stop the spread of Covid-19 after her Minnesota athletic career came to and end last month.

Natalie Stratton isn’t letting the worldwide pandemic that ended her collegiate athletic career with the University of Minnesota rowing team stop her from making a positive impact on the world.

Stratton, a senior with the program who is completing a degree in biology and getting ready for medical school, got herself a sewing machine and started stitching together face masks that can help slow or stop the spread of Coronavirus. She’s always had a fascination for healthcare, with her mother being a veterinarian, and is using her connections with local children’s hospitals to put her imprint on the global pandemic.

“The reality is that whether these masks are actually going to healthcare providers or whether they're going to the general public, hopefully it's a way to at least contain what's happening,” Stratton said Monday via Zoom.

Like thousands of other NCAA spring athletes, her season and career came to an end about a month ago without it every really getting started. The Gophers rowing team was on the road training when it got the news that the NCAA had canceled all spring sports.

Her team already had an idea something might be imminent. They were traveling with a team from Yale, and the Ivy League had just canceled all of its spring activities. The Gophers were heading to an afternoon practice when they got official word from the NCAA.

“Everyone was bawling. We work so hard to have the opportunity to compete. So to then have that taken away is, especially as a senior of course, is emotionally difficult,” Stratton said.

Her coaches, knowing that decision might be coming, had the team get in their full uniforms and race apparel that day. They got their boats in the water, and rowed a 2,000-meter race. It was the final time the entire team would be in the water, the final race for the senior class and the final time this team would be together.

There weren’t official goodbyes. The NCAA hadn’t yet ruled on spring seniors returning for a fifth season, but Stratton knew that was an unlikely path for her. She’s getting her degree and preparing for medical school. It was her last race with the Gophers, and it gave her finality.

“I really appreciated my coaches’ foresight and being like, Okay, well, we're still going to get out. We're still going to run the boats one last time we're still going to get the 2,000 meters and so that the seniors have that opportunity for some closure,” Stratton said.

With her athletic career in the rear-view mirror, Stratton shifted her focus to making a positive impact on the Covid-19 pandemic. She taught herself how to sew, and started producing the masks that she hopes will stop the virus from spreading.

It wasn’t easy at first. It took her nearly an hour to make her first mask. She’s now more that cut that time in half, with the goal of making 40 to 50 per week. She says the most difficult part is attaching the elastic band at the end.

Last week’s batch of masks went to the children’s hospital in Milwaukee, as she’s a Wisconsin native. This week, she’ll donate them to a Twin Cities hospital. She worked as a volunteer with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. But with school exclusively online, she’s no longer in research labs and sticking to self-isolation. If she gets out, it’s for the occasional run or bike ride.

Just like the rest of us, her life has completely changed in the last month.

“All the big aspects of my life changed so that, along with like not being able to be in the research lab or not being able to go to the hospital, has made things very, very, very different,” Stratton said.

She’s not completely leaving sports, though. She says she’ll start training for Ironman competitions.

For now, she’s helping fight the Coronavirus pandemic with every stitch done, every mask completed.

“I mean of course of course it makes you feel good,” Stratton said. “If I would be at the hospital. Like, that's how I'd be spending my time is I'd be volunteering with these kids. So since I don't have the opportunity to do that, I like to think that them seeing a healthcare provider come in with a kitten mask on, well at least make them smile or make them feel more comfortable. It's something brighten their day that otherwise wouldn't be there.”