Leah Gneco: the gymnast who persevered through four ACL surgeries

By Emery Summey

She dedicated 17 years of her life to the sport, yet it only took one faulty landing to change the course of Leah Gneco’s gymnastics career. At the age of 21, the former collegiate gymnast received her fourth ACL reconstruction surgery, and her fifth surgery total.

A few days after her 16th birthday, Gneco was on the balance beam at gymnastics practice, gearing up for her dismount. She had been training extra hard in preparation for a college coach coming the next day. As Gneco zoned in and hurdled for the roundoff, her foot missed the beam.


Despite the pop in her neck, Gneco remained calm. It was 15 minutes later when her hands went numb, and Gneco’s parents rushed her to the emergency room. They learned that Gneco had torn ligaments between her fourth and fifth vertebrae and also crushed her spinal disk. The injury required Gneco to undergo surgery if she ever wanted to be active again. After two plates, eight screws and a cadaver bone, everything was fused back together. Gneco was back doing gymnastics three months after the surgery, unaware of the four major knee surgeries she would later undergo.

Dusting herself off

In 2017, a week before the regional championships, Gneco was training on the balance beam during practice. She was setting up to finish her back handspring back layout when her right knee popped out of place upon landing. Gneco noticed her knee began to swell, but continued with practice and even participated in conditioning. She eventually went to the ER with her parents, where she was referred to an orthopedic surgeon and received an MRI. 


 “I’m sorry to tell you this Leah, but your right ACL is torn and we need to schedule surgery to fix this,” Dr. Dasti said. 

  “So, my junior prom is next week, and I already bought my dress,” Gneco said. “I still really want to go. Is there any way we can schedule the surgery after prom?”

 “Yeah, we can do that,” Dr. Dasti laughed. “But you’ll need to be on crutches until your surgery.”

 Gneco agreed to the deal, knowing she wouldn’t take those crutches to prom. 

With junior year being crucial to the college recruiting process, Gneco felt down about not being able to attend college gymnastics camps over the summer or show her skills to coaches during practice. Nevertheless, she remained optimistic that her body would heal quickly, and she would return to her old self in no time. After a nine-month recovery, Gneco was back to her normal training schedule.

Familiar feeling

Almost a year later to the date, Gneco was once again on the balance beam training for regionals. She was setting up for her series, back handspring back layout when she landed and felt a familiar pop in her right knee. She finished her workouts and even continued training for the next week, in denial of the hard truth. When she could no longer bear the pain, Gneco went to a new orthopedic surgeon specializing in female athletes and received her second MRI scan. 


 “Hi Leah, my name is Dr. McCarthy,” she said. “I see you’ve been through this before, but unfortunately you have torn your ACL again.”

  “Yeah, I could feel the exact same thing as last time, but I thought I could keep pushing through and go to nationals,” Gneco said.

Dr. McCarthy shook her head in disappointment.

“We are going to have to schedule another surgery to fix your ACL and I would like to do it pretty soon.”

Gneco made a face.

“Last year I postponed the surgery so I could go to my junior prom … will I be able to go to prom after my surgery?”

“Yes, you can go to prom after,” Dr. McCarthy said. “But you will have to be on crutches, and you will probably be in a bit of pain.”

 Gneco smiled and agreed, knowing that this time she couldn’t avoid the crutches.

Slow and steady

With her senior year over and a 13-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco headed to UNC-Chapel Hill to start summer classes. She slowly began rehab, weightlifting and eventually gymnastics. Entering college as an athlete, Gneco felt the excitement and pressure to deliver her gymnastics skills. She was thrilled to compete and contribute to the team, but also skeptical about what her knee could handle.

Throughout preseason during her sophomore year, Gneco frequently felt her knee pop out of place or lock up. It seemed like something was wrong, but her desire to compete in college was strong. One day in practice, Gneco had one more bar routine and asked her coach if she could leave out the dismount because her knee was feeling sore. Coach left the decision up to Gneco, who decided to go for it. As soon as she landed, she felt her right knee get blown out again. This time, Gneco was in too much pain to even stand up. She was familiar with the routine, but this time was different–Gneco instantly knew her gymnastics career was over.

Gneco went to UNC-CH’s knee and ankle specialist, Dr. Jeffrey T. Spang, who said that her ACL was torn once again. This time, however, she would have to undergo two surgeries to fix her knee. The first surgery would be in February to remove and regrow her ACL, while the second one would be in June to go back in and complete the reconstruction. With an 18-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco was devastated by the abrupt end to her gymnastics career.

A new normal

By the start of her junior year, Gneco had a slim chance of ever returning to gymnastics and decided to medically retire. With so much of her identity focused around the sport, she had to create a new normal for her everyday life.

Currently in her senior year, Gneco has found the positive side of medical retirement. Not having to spend 20 or more hours a week in the gym has given her time to focus on her future. Now, Gneco is working at Labcorp, has completed all of her medical school applications and is exploring new interests such as cooking and baking. Fifteen months out of surgery, she is still not cleared to do high levels of physical activity. However, Gneco’s love for gymnastics remains.

“Gymnastics has been my whole life for the past 18 years,” she says. “It has taught me to be resilient, adaptable and to push through challenges in all areas of my life. I have sacrificed so much of myself for the sport, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Edited by: Natalie Huschle

The game of life: embracing identity and community through board games

By Jackson Moseley

Daniel Manila sits by the gameboard on the living room coffee table, intently contemplating his next move in the strategy game Catan. He glances at the board, then at his resource cards, then back at the board. The gears turning in his brain are almost visible.

The game is a close one. Three of the four players have almost enough victory points to win. At this rate, anyone could take home the victory crown.

But suddenly, a flicker of recognition appears in Daniel’s eyes, and a knowing smile spreads across his face and curves into a smirk.

“Good game,” he says. In one fell swoop, he makes his move and snags the last two points that he needed to claim the victory.

The other three competitors roll their eyes and groan, but they harbor no feelings of indignation. This outcome was expected. Daniel’s affinity for board games is well-known among his friends. Few play against him expecting to win.

Daniel has loved playing games of all sorts ever since he was old enough to understand and abide by basic rules. Strategy games like Catan are some of his favorites.

In many regards, Daniel is a typical American college-aged adult. He goes to school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies computer science. He enjoys playing games, reading, programming and hanging out with friends. For the most part, he fits right in with everybody else (aside from his overall lack of pop culture knowledge). Most people wouldn’t guess upon first meeting him that Daniel has actually spent relatively little time in the United States over the course of his life.

How it all began

Daniel was born in Durham, North Carolina, but has spent most of his life in Central Asia, where his parents do nonprofit work. When Daniel was 5 months old, his family moved to Uzbekistan. However, after seven years, they were forced out of the country, and after a yearlong period of moving around, they moved to Kyrgyzstan, where they have lived ever since.

From an early age, Daniel’s love for games was one of his defining characteristics. His parents recall how he used to organize outdoor games among groups of total strangers on the playground when they would visit his grandparents’ house in the U.S.

“You wanna play tag?” he would ask the other kids. And with that, dozens of small children were running around the playground, chasing each other and having a blast—all thanks to Daniel.

Daniel wasn’t just content to play though. He wanted to win. His parents recall a time when he was 8 years old, playing a game of Phase 10 with them and a group of college students during the brief period that they lived in England. Daniel was losing badly, but he fought desperately to hide the tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t want the big kids to see him cry.

A complex story

Daniel’s refusal to cry in this situation is reflective of his overall tendency to conceal his emotions behind a calm, collected demeanor. But behind his composed exterior is a very goofy and lively individual. His younger sister, Faith, frequently found herself both annoyed and amused by Daniel. She recounted a time many years ago when her brother stuck his tongue out at her during the blessing before family dinner. Faith couldn’t stop herself from laughing and ended up getting in trouble for his antics. 

Every couple of years, the Manila family went back to the U.S. for a few months at a time. But they never stayed there long. In fact, Daniel estimates that he spent a total of only three or four years in the U.S. prior to starting college at UNC-CH.

Daniel’s time in the U.S. was not particularly restful. Much of it was spent going from house to house, getting dinner with families in hopes of raising support for their nonprofit work. Daniel and Faith dreaded these meetings and found themselves bored to tears when the families they visited had no children their age.

Between two worlds

For Daniel, Kyrgyzstan was home. Though he was American by both background and citizenship, Kyrgyzstan was what he knew best.

Yet, even in Kyrgyzstan, there was a disconnect between him and the locals. For one, he didn’t speak the language particularly well. Though he knew some Kyrgyz, it was hard for him to communicate more abstract concepts, making it impossible to have anything other than superficial conversation. As a result, most of his friends were Europeans who happened to be in the area, with whom he could communicate in English. 

The struggle to assimilate

Coming to UNC was certainly a shock for Daniel. Having been homeschooled his entire life, this was his first experience in a physical, brick-and-mortar school. In addition, many of his preconceived notions about what constituted American culture turned out to be false, only reflecting white American culture.

The first few weeks of school were especially hard for Daniel. In addition to being an outsider, he struggled with social anxiety, and these factors combined made it difficult for him to form close friendships. For someone who identifies as an extrovert, as Daniel does, this was especially trying.

Full circle

However, as time went on, he began to form those friendships that he so desperately craved. He enjoyed hanging out with the other guys in his hall, and he grew close to the people in his small group for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry that he joined.

It was also through playing games that these friendships formed. Daniel frequently brought board games to the first floor lounge of Everett Residence Hall, asking those who were already there if they wanted to join in. It was just like the games of tag on the playground that he used to organize as a kid.

Daniel’s friendships have persisted to the present day, particularly with those in his InterVarsity small group. And he maintains those friendships through playing games, among other things.

Remembering home

While Daniel has grown close to these friends, however, physical distance has made it difficult for him to maintain that same level of connection with his family. He only sees them in person once or twice per year, and the 10-hour time difference makes phone communication difficult to coordinate.

But he remains close to them nonetheless. He flies back to Kyrgyzstan once a year to see his family, and this year, they flew back to the U.S. for the summer. Faith said that some of her fondest memories of her brother are from when he came back to visit over Christmas break after his first semester of college.

Despite growing up abroad, Daniel says that he wants to make his permanent residence in the U.S. He appreciates the work that his parents do, but he believes that it is not for him. Living outside of one’s culture is not something to be taken lightly, he said, based on his own experience.

Yet there will always be a place in Daniel’s heart for the country where he was raised. In many ways, it shaped him into the man he is today.

Edited by Isa Mudannayake

Hospitals struggle with morale as COVID-19 cases rise

By Hailey Stiehl

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

As the summer of 2021 began, it felt like some normalcy was slipping back into our lives for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. For healthcare workers, like Emergency Room Physician, Dr. Colleen Casey, this sense of normalcy was the light at the end of the COVID-filled tunnel.

Recently Casey and her colleagues at UNC Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina began to see fewer COVID patients as the vaccine became widely available. When they ventured outside for a cup of coffee during their breaks, they weren’t as concerned about sitting six feet apart. They left their masks off outside and spoke to each other, about their summer and travel plans they needed after everything they had been through.

“I remember mid-summer not seeing a single COVID patient for four weeks,” Casey said. “It truly felt like the world was opening back up, and our lives would go back to normal.”

A Resurgence in Cases

One weekend towards the end of summer caught Casey’s attention. Four patients were admitted with COVID-like symptoms, a major red flag after not seeing any COVID-19 patients for almost a month. The patients tested positive for the virus, marking a negative shift in plans for a full reopening.

The Delta variant’s surge through North Carolina communities, particularly in those that are unvaccinated, has led to increased hospitalization rates. Healthcare providers are once again facing mounting levels of burnout and fatigue as they battle another surge of the virus.

“Our local hospitals are now full and overwhelmed again,” Casey said. “With all of this happening and having to go back to the way things were during our last peak of COVID, my mental health is taking a significant dive.”

Casey works in the ER but has been helping in Rex Hospital’s COVID unit for the duration of the pandemic. The hospital is currently experiencing a shortage of beds, respirators, nurses and hospital staff. The stress of shortages and extreme work hours combined with the rising cases, has left doctors like Dr. Kenny Michau II, short on compassion for unvaccinated patients.

“I would say I find it hard to have sympathy in caring for people who didn’t get vaccinated for any particular reason, or because of misinformation, and now are very entitled about the medical care they should receive,” Michau II said. “It’s like they don’t trust science but then want science to ‘fix them’.”

Recently, Casey treated a 30-year-old unvaccinated patient who was hospitalized with COVID-19. As Casey made her rounds, the patient repeatedly asked Casey if there was anything she could do, or any medications she could take to make her feel better. Casey said the patient stared back at her in disbelief when she answered with a simple no, as there was nothing more she could do for them.

“They had the opportunity to do something for themselves in the six months prior when they could have gotten vaccinated,” Casey said. “This is part of the reason why we’re now back at what feels like square one.”

The Exhausting Toll

Being exposed to COVID-19 all day isn’t just stressful for Casey and her colleagues’ mental and physical health. It has trickled into their personal lives, impacting their home life and families. Casey’s husband, Tim Miller, has seen the hardships that his wife has experienced from working on the front line of the pandemic.

After every shift, Casey had to take off all of her work clothes in the garage, then immediately shower before seeing her family. There were times when she had to isolate herself in separate rooms in her home for days, away from her husband and children, in fear of spreading the virus to them.

“It was hard for so long having to live like that, in fear that Colleen could potentially give us COVID,” Miller said. “When you come home from work and can’t be around your family because you’re worried of the potential risks of spreading the virus, that’s a heavy burden to carry.”

Dr. Christine Knettel, Vice-Chair of Emergency Medicine at UNC Rex Hospital, has two children under the age of 10, and has faced similar fears of spreading the virus to her family and children.

“During the pandemic, rough days at work have become increasingly more common because of everything we’ve had to see and face,” Knettel said. “And when you have a rough day and all you want to do is go home and hug your kids, but you’re terrified to potentially pass COVID to them. It’s been immensely stressful to now have that additional weight on your shoulders as a parent who works in healthcare with cases climbing again.”

In addition to the fatigue and mental burdens of once again being on the front line against COVID, the emotional toll of the situation has worsened for Casey and her co-workers. Casey recently signed three death certificates in one day due to COVID-19. With hospital restrictions not allowing for family visitation, most of these patients passed without family by their side.

“That kind of thing is heartbreaking to see not only as a doctor but as a human being,” Casey said. “This shouldn’t be happening with a vaccine widely available for most people.”

As Casey and her coworkers are once again required to wear protective equipment to fight against COVID, they think back to the early days of this summer. Days when they saw a drop in cases, when they only needed surgical masks to see patients, and when they thought the battle would soon be over. As cases climb and burnout grows, Casey hopes that the populations responsible for driving the COVID-19 surge will think about helping the community return to normal.

“The choice of individuals to not go get vaccinated at this point is putting me at risk, putting my family at risk, putting my mental health at risk and putting my patients at risk,” Casey said. “I hope that all who can get vaccinated go and do their part to end this so we can fully enjoy all that normal life has to offer.”

Edited by Peitra Knight

Polyamory, LSD and red peppers: Shakori Hills Festival returns

By Ellie Heffernan

A priest, a reiki instructor and an old white man performing “a love song to mushrooms” all walk into a field.

This isn’t the opening line to a joke. It’s a non-exhaustive list of people you might encounter at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance.

The four-day festival is typically held twice a year in Pittsboro, North Carolina, to raise money for the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center. Up to 9,000 festivalgoers gather to dance and attend sustainability workshops. And to do a bunch of drugs.

Barefoot children traipse around, avoiding rocks as their feet strike the ground. A smattering of multicolored tents, hammocks, tarps and tapestries stand wedged in between countless trees. A teenage boy munches on a raw red bell pepper. He swears this snack enhances LSD hallucinations and prevents bad trips.

By far the loudest of the festivalgoers are the throngs of sweaty, semi-clothed young people. They rub against each other, eyes half-closed, hollering as guitarists rip godly solos from their instruments. The crowds don’t care that it’s pouring rain, as long as the lead singer maintains so much energy that his bare feet bounce hard enough to shake the stage.

Building community

But not every corner of the festival is this noisy. The old man — the one who was previously singing an ode to mushrooms — is now performing a twangy bluegrass tune. Two people by a snack shack sway to the rhythm, seeming mellower than the festivalgoers moshing in front of the guitars.

Trow and Lanelle Ward are a married couple volunteering at the festival in exchange for free tickets. Trow is a military pilot, and Lanelle works at a sushi restaurant. At first glance, their lives seem relatively orthodox.

Lanelle maintains three relationships outside of her marriage. Trow also has multiple partners.

Trow and Lanelle are polyamorous.

Polyamory is a broad term that refers to people engaging in multiple romantic, physical and/or sexual relationships at once. Different people might maintain considerably different numbers of relationships. Polyamorous relationships also vary along a spectrum ranging from purely romantic to purely sexual: Two of Lanelle’s outside relationships are physical, and one is romantic.

A short conversation with the Wards supports the idea that everyone is leading a more exciting life than you’d assume. The couple discuss the power of making decisions by prioritizing your own happiness over society’s expectations. They emphasize the importance of building community — perhaps referring to the practice of polyamory.

‘I want you’

The Wards met in college through a dance competition club for students at the United States Air Force Academy. Trow joined the club to “meet ladies” at the majority-male institution. Luckily for him, his future wife joined, as her college didn’t have a dance competition team.

Lanelle was dating someone at the time, but she says Trow made quite an impression.

“He had this stare that was like, ‘I want you, but I don’t know how to tell you I want you,’” Lanelle says.

It’s clear that Lanelle and Trow have an easygoing give-and-take. When customers come to the snack shack and interrupt the couple’s dancing, Trow attends to business without grumbling. Lanelle handles the easier job of answering questions. When the line grows much longer, they scramble together, laughing as they feverishly scoop strawberry lemonade into cups.

Lanelle has barista experience, so she easily prepares coffee, chai and kombucha. But she doesn’t have anything with kratom in it, much to the dismay of one old man.

Lanelle says Trow is better at being friendly, while she tends to be more assertive and straight-to-the-point. Regardless, it’s clear she wants to go the extra mile for people, treating them to random acts of kindness. For example, she does her best to give away fancy drinks for free. Nobody told her she had to charge for cinnamon sticks, so she ensures every customer knows about her free cinnamon water.

An excuse to cheat?

Being isolated from others during the pandemic was difficult for the couple. Even after college, dancing is still an integral part of their life. Canceled festivals meant no live music, no group dancing and an immense loss of community. It’s been two years since the last Shakori Hills Festival. Trow was also deployed for much of the pandemic.

Lanelle says having multiple relationships with people other than Trow helped her stay afloat during this time. When asked to elaborate, she bristles a smidge, her tone becoming slightly defensive. It’s as if she’s used to being judged or misunderstood when sharing this part of her life.

People unfamiliar with polyamory often assume it’s a thinly veiled form of cheating. They also accuse polyamorous individuals of not truly loving their primary partners. If they did, wouldn’t one person be enough?

Lanelle says polyamory is distinct from cheating, since everyone involved agrees to participate in a relationship with some degree of non-monogamy. Trow uses familial relationships as a metaphor to explain how he can easily love more than one person. If you ask parents which kid they love more, they typically say they love them both. It’s the same for people with multiple partners, Trow says.

Polyamorous couples are often harshly judged by the monogamous. But Lanelle says people who refuse to venture beyond monogamy are missing out: They’re losing the ability to learn better communication skills. She says people in relationships are used to cheating and not talking about it, while people in polyamorous relationships are used to talking about complicated feelings — and not cheating.

Free love

Trow and Lanelle embrace freedom through their relationships and beyond. It’s apparent from their bare feet, Trow’s kilt and the fact that they spend most weekends flying their own plane to other states, including Florida and Colorado. You never would have guessed this is how they spend their time if you had just asked for some kratom and left.

This realization begs you to pay closer attention to as many faces as possible, although you know you’ll never have enough time to hear 9,000 life stories. Still, you reconsider the entire crowd of drunken, moshing, laughing fist-pumpers. They might not all be polyamorous jet-setters, but they likely share a good deal in common with the Wards: They are forming community and charting their own paths.

Shakori Hills festivalgoers are kind enough to offer you a seat at their campfire. They’re thoughtful enough to persistently suggest that you put up your tarp before it starts raining. And when the downpour inevitably begins, they dance with abandon, each body flailing to its own beat. Each body part of the same crowd.

These are the kind of people that return from a two-year hiatus ready to party.

Edited by Mary King

‘An amazing feeling’: UNC men’s club volleyball is back on the court

By Jordan Holloway

The UNC-Chapel Hill men’s club volleyball team competed in a tournament at UNC Charlotte on Feb. 29, 2020. Little did they know, that would be their final competition for the next 19 months. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced club sports at UNC-CH to pause practices and games for an unknown amount of time.

Sports clubs were given the green light to resume regular practices and competitions in the fall 2021 semester.

Despite a lengthy hiatus, the men’s club volleyball team seemed to not have missed a beat or lost any skills, with their “A” and “B” teams placing first and third in their first tournament of the semester on Sept. 25, 2021.

Strong chemistry and strong relationships 

Drew Campbell, the club’s president, speaks highly of the players’ passion for the game. Despite the pause in practices and competitions, he thinks both teams were successful in the recent tournament because of their great relationships with one another. 

“I think that since we have had such great chemistry over the years and seeing it carry over into this year, that is definitely one of the reasons we were victorious in our first tournament,” Campbell said. 

Despite men’s volleyball not being very popular in North Carolina, the club is still able to draw players who are eager to learn more about the sport and have fun at the same time.

Campbell thinks the players’ eagerness and dedication have allowed them to gel well together and be successful on the court recently.

“At the end of the season, I hope the guys on the team will be able to look back and be confident that they got better at the sport, but also built strong relationships with their teammates,” he said. 

Because of the lengthy pause in both practices and competitions, Campbell hopes the team enjoys the time they have together playing the game and becoming better teammates. 

“We learned a bunch about how much we all love playing volleyball when we weren’t allowed to play during the pandemic,” Campbell said. “I told the guys to enjoy every second because it could be taken away at any point if COVID cases begin to spike again.”

 Practice makes perfect

Jalen Johnson, a senior and four-year member of the club, did not play volleyball before coming to UNC-CH. However, he had a strong interest in the game and wanted to develop his skills. 

Johnson did not try out for the club team the first semester of his freshman year. Instead, he joined an intramural team that played once a week to help him learn more about the sport.

“I wanted to try out for the team my first semester, but I thought I didn’t know much about the game so I wouldn’t be quite ready,” he said. “Joining an IM team was awesome because I got to gradually learn more and more about the sport every week, while also having fun with friends.”

Johnson believes the practice he received playing intramural every week allowed him to hone the skills needed to join the club team.

Now, he is the starting right side attacker for the club team, but he’s also a leader that the younger players on the team can look up to.

“I think the story of the team’s success recently really aligns with my story and how practicing really does make you better,” Johnson said. “I’ve noticed in the past that some guys haven’t really bought in to the team and missed several practices. This year I think it’s different because we have guys that are always consistently at practice, and I think the results from that were seen at our first tournament a few weeks ago.”

 A fresh start

Creed Mainz, a junior on the men’s club volleyball team, believes that the return to normalcy from the pandemic has been no easy task, but being able to play volleyball again has made the transition much easier. 

“Putting that jersey on again is such an amazing feeling that words cannot describe,” Mainz said.

One of the aspects that Mainz thinks is unique about the club team this year is the mix of older and younger players.

“We have an interesting mix of guys this year which allows everyone to create new friendships,” he said. “As an older player, I have already made great friends with some of the younger guys on the team, and I think that has allowed us to grow not only on the court, but off the court as well.”

Mainz believes the mix of younger and older talent has allowed the team to develop new plays. It also creates a better offensive and defensive threat, which was noticeable in the recent tournament.

“In previous years, I think some of the more local teams like State and Duke were knowledgeable about what plays we ran and who our better players were,” he said. “After the COVID pause, we not only were able to create new plays but we got new weapons in the younger guys that we could implement into our game plan.”

Trust in your teammate

Andy Jin, one of the underclassmen on the team, is no stranger to the sport. He played consistently prior to college, both on his high school team in Maryland and on an AAU club team.

Jin believes an important aspect of any team is trust. Although it is still early in the season, he thinks the team members have already developed a strong reliance on one another, evident in tight sets during the first tournament. 

“One game that really sticks out in my mind was the ‘A’ team’s final game against UNC Wilmington,” he said. “We were in the final set and we were down two points. We took a timeout, and the guys really stepped up and placed trust in one another to come back from the deficit. And we did that, scoring four straight points to take the victory.”

Jin is thankful to be able to play volleyball in college. Because of the pandemic, his high school seasons were interrupted. But now, he is able to continue playing the sport he loves so deeply. 

“I am so glad to have a great group of guys that I can continue playing volleyball with in college,” Jin said. “The older guys have been so welcoming and have made this transition from high school to college — but also pandemic life to a more sense of ‘normalcy’ — worthwhile.”

Edited by Claire Tynan

Far from home, Emily Murphy describes her soccer journey at UNC

By Eric Weir

It’s September 17, as fans flood into Dorrance Field.

Hundreds of students line up an hour early and are comfortably packed into the student section.

Some students purchase standing tickets, a few wait for security to look away so they can disappear into the stands. Other fans peer through fences, climb on top of walls, set up on dorm balconies, and any other way so they could get a view of the UNC vs. Duke women’s soccer game.

Emily Murphy, a freshman, had a seating problem of her own. Her seats were great as they were right next to the sideline, but she hated being an observer.

Murphy sat on the sideline wishing her ankle wasn’t as swollen as an elephant’s and that she could kick her walking boot to Hooker Fields.

If Murphy had a choice, she would be playing, even if that meant running around with the walking boot.

Instead, she was an injured observer with VIP seats to UNC’s first ever loss at Dorrance Field.

“I was gutted. That was the biggest game we’d had all year,” said Murphy.

A Key Piece in Solving the Puzzle

Prior to her injury, Emily Murphy had been emerging as a key piece in Head coach Anson Dorrance’s puzzle.

Murphy became a top scoring option on a team that had made it to the NCAA Tournament Semifinals earlier this Spring. Murphy and the Tar Heels started the season with a perfect 7-0-0 record before she missed three straight games with her ankle injury. In the brief span since her injury, the Tar Heels have gone 1-1-1.

When Murphy was in primary school back in Windsor, England, her parents would ask how she ruined her shoes and how she got those scrapes on her knees. Murphy said it was because she was playing soccer on the concrete with all the boys.

Every couple of weeks she would get a new pair of shoes and every couple of weeks she would ruin them. Several ruined pairs of shoes later, her parents learned to only buy her cheap school shoes instead of trying to keep her from the playground soccer pitch.

Gone Pro

In November 2019, Murphy exited the Chelsea locker room at Kingsmeadow Stadium for Chelsea’s match against Tottenham. Her nerves were greeted with the biting, autumn English air and the flags flapping against the wind.

In the sixtieth minute of the match, with around two thousand fans in attendance, Murphy jogged onto the field and officially became a pro.

“That was one of the most surreal moments of my career, […] that was probably the first time I was like, yeah, this is definitely what I want to do,” said Murphy.

Despite some success with Chelsea and later Birmingham City, Murphy was not going to get consistent playing time at her age and needed to find a better opportunity.

Murphy began watching the NCAA women’s soccer tournament and found herself rooting for the Tar Heels. She began to do some research on Anson Dorrance and found herself asking her coaches and friends about UNC.

Her coaches had nothing but good things to say about UNC’s entire soccer program and encouraged her to apply.

“I came to UNC to compete. I was totally focused throughout the summer and my plan was to come in and make an impact,” said Murphy.

In August, Emily Murphy dropped off her final bag in her dorm room. She sat down and wiped the sweat from her brow; the unfamiliar North Carolina heat had beat her down as she moved in.

A New Kid on the Block

As she entered her first meeting with the team, Murphy’s nerves ran up her back. She was the new kid, the British player, and she barely knew anyone.

Those nerves dissipated as her teammates began introducing themselves and began a team scavenger hunt.

“You must be Emily.”

“Hi Emily it’s nice to meet you.”

Eventually, one of the taller girls made her way over to Murphy. Murphy already knew her name, years of watching UNC had exposed her to this girl’s greatness in front of the net.

“Hi, I’m Claudia Dickey.”

The senior goalkeeper had led the Tar Heels to two national title games and was named to the First Team All-ACC. She also had a reputation of being reserved.

“As much as Claudia denies it because she pretends she’s emotionless and hasn’t got a soft sport for anyone. I know she’s got a soft spot for me,” said Murphy.

Despite Dickey’s denial, her and Murphy began to form a sisterly bond. Many early weekends were spent getting dinner together with Dickey’s family and many late nights were spent laughing together in someone’s dorm room.

On the soccer field, Dickey’s influence on Murphy was immeasurable. Dickey would relay her experiences to Murphy and give her some tough love when she needed it.

During a preseason match against High Point University, Murphy was subbed out in the middle of the second half.

Making an Opening

Murphy jogged off the field, but inside she was screaming at herself. She couldn’t figure out how to break through High Point’s defense.

She made her way to the water cooler, but Dickey cut her off. Dickey, who was resting, began telling Murphy different ways she could break down High Point’s defense and what she learned from past UNC greats like Alessia Russo.

Murphy tried to move around Dickey, but she got cut off again. For the next several minutes, Dickey offered different strategies for Murphy to consider.

After her dry, ten-minute break, Murphy head back onto the field with new determination. Within minutes, Murphy broke through the defense and scored.

As she walked off the field as the game ended. Dickey smiled as she approached Murphy.

“You could have got at least another one. Why did you only get one?” said Dickey

Murphy says her relationship with Dickey has been great because it’s fun and playful, but they’re also constructive of each other.

In Murphy’s first match back from her ankle injury, Claudia scanned the field trying to find someone to get the ball to. She spotted Murphy’s white jersey scurry into view among the wave of defenders. She flung the ball just to the right of Murphy. Murphy tried to turn upfield, but was cut off by the only defender between her and the goalie. Murphy dribbled the ball towards the sideline. She tried pushing herself to go faster to get around the defender, but she lost control of the ball and rolled out of bounds.

“I’m sorry about messing up that throw,” said Murphy as they walked off the field.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” said Dickey, “just do it better next time.”

Murphy says her game has changed a lot since coming to UNC. She has learned to have faith in her teammates and how to be a more selfless player.

“I feel like every game we’re improving, every game we’re finding something new and we’re building more relationships,” said Murphy.

This time next year, Murphy wants to have made a name for herself at UNC. She wants other teams to point her out when they’re watching film and she wants to be the player opposing teams center their game plan around to stopping her.

She wants to be a player opponents fear.

Edited by Jake Jeffries


Injured but not down: The journey of UNC wide receiver Beau Corrales

By Christian Randolph

Imagine being a standout wide receiver heading into your senior season while wondering at the same time if you have already played the last snap of your college football career.

Thanks to a recurring injury requiring three separate surgeries over the course of the past two years, Beau Corrales has been on a rollercoaster ride for what seems like the longest season ever.

As a senior, the prospect of not playing football again is what keeps him up at night.

The start of a back-and-forth journey

With the NCAA’s decision to extend an extra year of eligibility to senior football players prior to the 2021-2022 season, Corrales has been wondering for a while whether he will be able to take advantage of this opportunity or if he will have to move on from the sport.

“I’ve been trying to take things day by day,” Corrales said. “For now, I’m doing my best to get back to play the final few games of the season, and I’m just trying to take things as they come.”

Getting back on the field has been a difficult task for Corrales. It began with nagging abdominal pain at the start of the 2020 season which sidelined him.

Diagnosed with a sports hernia, a partial or full tear of the soft tissues in the lower abdomen, Corrales underwent typical hernia surgery and felt confident he would return to football in just two months.

However, after failing to progress during rehab, Corrales quickly found himself back to where he started prior to surgery.

“I felt like I hit a wall,” Corrales said. “I wasn’t making any progress in rehab and the pain wouldn’t go away.”

Frustration seeps in

For the next three months, Corrales sat on the sidelines as the Tar Heels played in an empty Kenan Stadium due to the restrictions put in place to control the spread of COVID-19.

Frustrated by his plight, Corrales eventually traveled to Philadelphia to seek another opinion on his injury. Following an MRI, doctors noticed an apple-sized calcium deposit, and after a second surgery to shave down the calcium deposit, Corrales again returned to Chapel Hill hoping he would be able to play soon.

Upon his return to UNC, Corrales began the same rehab process over again: first walking slowly, then lifting lightly, and finally moving to agility drills and movements similar to practice scenarios. The senior from Georgetown, Texas even circled games on the calendar to provide motivation and hope for an accelerated recovery.

But, just two weeks before summer workouts, the pain crept back, and once again, Corrales found himself in scrubs at a Philadelphia sports medicine hospital.

According to Corrales, this third surgery was the procedure that should have been performed in the prior two surgeries: a complete cleanout of the nagging abdominal tissues and a tightening of the distance between the pubic bone and the lower chest.

Once again, he thought this was the surgery that finally would put him back on the field.

After seeing no improvement following workouts this past summer, Corrales again returned to the doctors, who gave him two steroid shots to reduce inflammation and pain. If the pain improved within the next two weeks, they suggested it might solve the problem entirely.

“This was such a tease,” Corrales said. “I felt the best I had felt leading up to fall ball, but I started to run routes the second day of fall camp and all the pain came back.”

Hope remains for a return

As the Tar Heels head into the seventh game of their season, Corrales has yet to play one snap, let alone put on his helmet and shoulder pads. Even though he can’t provide support with his talents on the field, he has been making sure that his presence is felt both on the sidelines and in the locker room.

On game days, Corrales stands on the sidelines in his Carolina jumpsuit, signaling plays to the offense and coaching up underclassmen.

“As a wide receiver on the team, Beau is always in my ear,” junior Gray Goodwyn said. “Whether he is correcting my route running or helping me understand plays, I am always sure to listen to his advice.”

Going through a rollercoaster of injuries as an older player on the team has provided Corrales with opportunities to encourage his teammates in ways that an injured underclassman might not be able to.

When it’s not game day, Corrales is breaking down the opponents’ film, looking for specific tendencies in their games, and then providing his notes to teammates. He is also in the weight room spotting the wide receivers as they bench press and squat hundreds of pounds.

Fortunately for Corrales, being able to help his teammates keeps him in good spirits but true positivity has been hard to come by.

Turning to his faith and mentor

In response, Corrales has turned to his faith for strength and has sought guidance from the men’s football team chaplain, Mitch Mason. Mason, a former athlete himself, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease last year. Barely able to walk, he still shows up to practice at 6 a.m. and travels to every away game; all with a smile on his face.

“Watching him and seeing how he embodies the ‘walk in faith and give glory to God’ attitude has influenced me greatly,” Corrales said.

Mason and Corrales have used the common bond from their shared hardships to connect, and the two have used their faith as the foundation of that connection. The two often meet to discuss the significance of maintaining your faith in times of hardship. Corrales’ social media posts often share biblical verses and lessons learned from discussions with Mason.

“You have this guy [Chaplain Mason] who knows his days are never promised, and I think Beau has adopted the same mentality when it comes to football,” starting center Brian Anderson claims.

Like Mason, Corrales treats every day as a blessing. Through the hardships brought upon him by multiple injuries and surgeries over the course of his athletic career, he has learned to control what he can.

“To me, it’s not how you act when things are going well,” Corrales said. “I think one of the bigger testimonies in life is how you react to situations that don’t go in your favor.”

As the senior wide receiver likes to say, “No matter what, it doesn’t rain forever.”

Edited by: Austin Bean

‘It’s quick, it’s easy to view’: Two UNC-Chapel Hill students create magazine during pandemic

By Lindsey Banks

It’s December 2019. Best friends Ken Davis and Cee Cee Huffman are sitting on a flea-infested couch in Ken’s college apartment when Cee Cee turns to Ken and says, “So, I had this idea yesterday.”

Ken sits up a little straighter, eyes wide. “I had a big idea yesterday that I wanted to tell you, too,” he says. “I want to start a magazine.”

“You’re fucking joking,” she laughs. “want to start a magazine.” She can’t tell if the hair on her skin is standing up because of the sweet bliss of coincidence or because a flea is dancing across her arm, but regardless, they both take this as a sign.

They had unknowingly been craving the same thing: an outlet in which they could create without any rules or limits, and never have to say the dreaded two-letter word to an idea.

With a shared love for journalism and fashion – and with an audience of fleas to witness

Looks Attached was born!

“I’d kind of always been envious of people who were confident enough to start their own thing and just really build something from the ground up,” Ken says. Cee Cee gave him the push off the diving board that he needed to swim.

Cee Cee, 24, and Ken, 21, met the year before at their part-time jobs at Carolina Brewery on Franklin Street, bonding over a Trisha Paytas YouTube video on break. Cee Cee was a server, and Ken was a host. Though their mutual love for Trisha was short-lived, Cee Cee and Ken have been best friends ever since.

Cee Cee graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2020 with a degree in broadcast journalism, and Ken is currently a senior public relations and advertising major at UNC.

Their original idea was to create an e-newsletter for fashion, culture and entertainment, which inspired the name, “Looks Attached” (the content would be sent as an email attachment to their subscribers). “Think theSkimm,” Ken says.

After landing on a name, Ken and Cee Cee texted all of their creative friends to ask if they wanted to help. Looks Attached was their baby, and they wanted people they could trust to help look after it.

Currently, the Looks Attached team consists of 24 college-aged individuals. Most of their staff consist of UNC students, but they have a few writers based in New York and Los Angeles.

A challenge most great leaders face, Ken and Cee Cee worked diligently to build trust between themselves and their team.

“It was really just about creating a space for people to feel comfortable to create what they wanted to without limits,” Ken says.

Cee Cee is the chief operations officer, and Ken is the chief creative director. The easiest way to explain it according to both of them: Cee Cee makes sure shit gets done on time and Ken makes sure it looks good. In other words, she handles the business and financial sides of Looks Attached and he works on the website, social media and styling.

“I never really vibed with the idea of one editor-in-chief, and basically they’re making all these decisions from a top-down format,” Ken said. “One of the biggest things that I really wanted to take with it is just creating a space where the entire team has a hand in the creative process.”

The money

Babies can be expensive, so the next step was to secure funding to get their idea off the ground. With just an idea, the most difficult part was pitching a concept without having anything to show yet.

Their first pitch was to 1789 Venture Lab, a workspace for student entrepreneurship and innovation. 1789 awarded them with a $500 grant before they even had a website. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hogan Fellows Scholarship Fund awarded them an additional $4,000. Ken is a Carolina Scholar which made him eligible for the award.

After procuring the funds to get started, they decided to take Looks Attached on a different route.

A digital museum

“We were just going in with some hopes and dreams and hoping that they would trust our vision,” Ken says. “It’s hard to pitch something to somebody when they can’t even see what it is.”

One of Ken’s goals as chief creative director was to create an online format that was aesthetically pleasing. They came up with the idea of releasing their monthly editions in “rooms,” or separate pages on the website. Each room is designed around one central theme. All photos, articles, videos, staff-curated Spotify playlists and other digital content are connected by that theme.

“We wanted it to feel like a museum, like an exhibit room, and less of a digital gallery,” Cee Cee says.

Covid-19 pushed back its official launch to July 2020. During the first few months of the pandemic, they regrouped and started working on a new room called “We Are The Virus” that focused on the environmental impacts of disposable face masks.

In Sept. 2020, Looks Attached officially became an LLC. Cee Cee said the process was simple, and since Looks Attached doesn’t have an official office space, her studio apartment is listed as the address for their business.

Even now, Ken and Cee Cee are “winging it” as true first-time parents. They didn’t seek out mentorship from their professors at UNC, but Terrence Oliver, who has been teaching magazine design at UNC for 11 years, says Looks Attached covers all the important factors to consider. It’s relevant, easily accessible, understandable, engaging and piques its audience’s curiosity.

“There’s common ground with communication that a lot of us are visual learners, and visuals command attention even more so than long narratives because it’s quick, it’s easy to view,” Oliver says.

Going forward

With more positive feedback from their audience, Ken and Cee Cee realized that their concept was unique and needed legal protection from competitors. They purchased a copyright for their “room” innovation.

“If you think about Ford, when he was in the inception of the car, everybody was still focused on the horse and buggy, and there was resistance,” Oliver says. “Any new concept, there’s got to be a level of risk involved but then also there may be something to garner from adoption and innovation that can be progressive and forward-thinking, and maybe even change the path of the way people navigate and communicate.”

Ken and Cee Cee have grown their social media presence to over 8,000 followers on Instagram and have grown their markets in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Durham, New York, Los Angeles, London, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

This year, they hope to grow the number of featured artists on their site and continue being a space for new and young artists to launch their creative careers. As for Ken and Cee Cee’s future with Looks Attached, they told themselves they would give it two years and re-evaluate. But it doesn’t sound like they’re quite ready to give Looks Attached up for adoption yet:

“Our entire business has been done during the pandemic,” Cee Cee says. “To see what we’ve been able to do now, I just can’t imagine what we’ll be able to do later, and I’m really excited for it.”

Edited by: Anna Blount

Student rescue squad make friends and face challenges during pandemic

By Claire Perry

20-year-old Kim Woodward ran from the ambulance up three flights of rickety stairs, her hands empty and grey polo stained navy with sweat, and opened the door to a baby’s crowning head.

“Oh,” she gasped. “We’re going to deliver this baby.”

Woodward, a then college sophomore, had joked with her colleagues at South Orange Rescue Squad just hours before over an afternoon Elmo’s coffee that something crazy—something like delivering a baby— would happen today during their shift.

She was the one who threw the OBGYN kit onto the stretcher her squadmates pulled haphazardly into the Old Well Apartments, which had patchworked sidewalks and landlord’s special paint jobs even in 1996, long before its name was changed to Abbey Court to cover up a murder-suicide.

But Woodward remembers the Old Well apartments not for the deaths, but for the gift of life.

Because the moment the mother pushed the baby into her arms in those apartments, 20-year-old Woodward knew she wanted to work in Emergency Management Services forever.

“​​I wasn’t even able to drink and yet I was delivering a baby.”

And that’s how, 25 years later, a college student who only took EMT classes so her roommate wouldn’t have to do them alone has become the Director of Orange County EMS Operations.

They stand beside a yellow and blue striped ambulance outside of the Smith Center, their ranks blending right in with Orange County EMS’s own if not for their age. These students see their college experience through the lens of a barred window and flashing lights, a high-pitched siren the soundtrack of their core college memories.

Bonding between the blasts of sirens

Leyla Ozelkan, a 2021 UNC graduate, is a lieutenant in SORS, the same position Woodward held over 20 years ago. Like many UNC students hopeful of starting a medical career, she learned about EMS in a classroom, but she learned how to be in EMS at Carrboro’s Southern Orange Rescue Services (SORS).

While other students were studying in dorm common rooms, Leyla was sitting on top of folding tables surrounded by SORS’ cinder block walls, trading sweatpants and Birkenstocks for black slacks and work shoes. When all there is to do is work, and wait to work, bonds grow between the cinder block’s cracks.

“There’s something about spending 12 hours with someone, and it’s three in the morning, and you are getting back from this weird call. And you’re like, ‘What just happened?’,” Ozelkan remembers. “You develop a trust for each other.”

Every year since 1971, when SORS was founded, UNC students have begun their medical career by learning to face everything from basketball games to battery charges out of SORS’ station on a corner in Downtown Carrboro.

Matthew Mauzy, a former Boy Scout who joined SORS for the shining lights and rescue boats who eventually rose to the rank of chief, was one of those students.

“All of us enjoy lights and sirens, and that’s a big part of it, but also in you know, helping people is as well,” Mauzy said.

It is at SORS that Mauzy met his wife, and most of his wedding party. He’s made lifelong friends, faced many sleepless nights and has even raised a family while serving as SORS’ chief. But now, he faces the biggest challenge of his career.

A pandemic induced strain on EMS services

In 2020, EMS agencies across the country saw a dip in requests for service, which Woodward and Saunders both attribute to patients’ fear of needless contact with the virus. But as the delta variant has become more heinous in recent months, Orange County has faced new challenges: a simultaneous staffing shortage and the highest call volume it has ever faced.

Compared to pre-pandemic numbers, EMS calls have increased by 27%, an increase that Orange County Emergency Services Director and Woodward’s boss Kirby Saunders said had mostly occurred just in the past four months.

“Our highest recorded call volume ever was on June 21, 2021. It was 67 calls in one day,” Saunders said. “To put that in perspective, the county EMS system is built to sustain around 33 to 35 calls per day.”

Normally, SORS runs a single truck from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Orange County each night, filling a niche in local coverage but only operating beyond during surges, unusually high volume periods where Orange County calls for aid due to a lack in coverage, or special events, like football games and flood responses.

Pre-pandemic, SORS would be called upon to go on Surge relief calls maybe once a day. These days, it is more like thrice. On June 21, they were called on six times. Mauzy remembers the chaos, the polo-clad cadets running in and out of the station, the pager’s oscillating tones mutating from a purr to a hiss as the day went on.

“That’s a lot. That’s a big demand,” Mauzy said. “Our folks have lives, jobs, commitments, school, just like everybody else does outside of the time that they’re committing to South Orange. That’s six times in which they dropped whatever they were doing, put on a uniform and responded to the station to put an ambulance in service.”

SORS doesn’t just take calls in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. These days, blue and yellow stripes are seen far into Orange County, even into Wake and Durham as they answer the call for more people, a resource that volunteer-based SORS can afford to provide.  In 2021 alone, SORS’ standby summons have increased 220%, averaging out at about 1520 annual calls.

SORS is happy to help – after all, Woodward and the many other SORS graduates who have gone on to work for Orange County are family– but they, too, are tired. The increased calls are not the only challenge they face.

Between balancing COVID changes and helping COVID patients

Ozelkan spent almost three semesters of college and lieutenancy in a pandemic, training classes of upcoming cadets with Zoom seminars and socially distant catheters.

She’s proud, she said, of how the SORS team has found creative ways to train its newest members as it has faced more challenges now than ever, and sometimes she wondered if the cadets would even stick with it. Some have, some haven’t – but she finds herself wondering what they even owe SORS as COVID has ravaged their own lives.

“That’s something that has been challenging at times, but we were still able to do and still able to kind of maintain our daily operations,” Ozelkan said. “I think at the bare minimum, that’s all you can ask for, right?”

To Saunders, who is seeing his own workforce burned out at higher rates than ever, the commitment of SORS’ members is unfathomable.

“I can’t imagine being a college student and volunteering at a rescue squad that essentially asked you to volunteer what is the equivalent of full time,” Saunders said. “We appreciate that demand and stress, we have to be aware of that too. We can’t burn out the folks at SORS.”

Sustaining the family experience, one Zoom meeting at a time

SORS’ meetings, once held in the station elbow to elbow, are now Zoom-Square-to-Zoom-Square. One of the group’s challenges, Muazy said, has been retaining its unpaid staff’s engagement: when one of the greatest benefits you offer members, a family experience, has to be temporarily altered, it’s hard for some to justify staying involved.

Woodward and Saundars both have seen their own numbers dwindle, once as the pandemic’s initial wave set in and once again in the past few months. But in a time unprecedented in every sense of the word, Woodward knows she is not alone. SORS, the same group that gave her a life’s mission will help her see it through, will help her birth the pandemic-sustainable agency she is growing with every Surge call and SORS hire, of which there are many.

The Zoom meetings may be emptier than they once were. The station, now with disposable masks instead of Elmo’s takeout containers, is at once the same and different than it was before. But for Mauzy, and for Ozelkan, for all those who stayed, the changes and challenges—the Zoom meetings, the increased calls, travelling from county to county in a yellow and blue metal box ricketing down country roads and interstates— are worth it. Family doesn’t fade.

“Being a part of South Orange, it’s almost your next family, and in some cases, you see those people more often than you see your own family,” Mauzy said. “You see people at their worst, and you have the opportunity to see those people at their best. For me, it’s another extension of family.”

Edited by Montia Daniels

‘Bad year, good fruit’: Dry season produces sweeter tomatoes in the Triangle

By Benjamin Rappaport

Just before the sun goes down on a warm October night, Ray Christopher is out in the fields harvesting the last of his tomato plants. It’s time to take out all the late summer plants to make room in his six-acre field for the fall vegetables. He takes a three-pronged hand fork and begins digging up the roots.

“It’s been a rough year for everyone except the fruits,” Christopher said.

Christopher has been growing his own organic fruits and vegetables since he was 12 years old. For the past 33 years, he has sold his produce every week at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

Now 67, Christopher has plenty of experience growing produce. He knows what makes some seasons yield more fruits, what time of day is best to water the plants and when his crops will taste the best.

This year, one crop has tasted especially good.

“The flavors in the tomatoes all convalesced into perfection this year,” Christopher said.

A Complicated Gift

That’s because this year was a particularly dry season, and tomatoes taste better when they have less water in them, according to a 2013 study from the science journal PLOS One. The less moisture in the plant, the more the flavors can naturally condense into the fruit. Those natural flavors of the fruit make the tomato extra sweet.

This phenomenon is unique to tomato plants because, while most crops will change flavor depending on moisture level, fruits and vegetables typically become more bitter during dry and hot seasons. Instead, the unique flavor profile of the juices inside the tomato plant makes it sweeter.

One of the authors of the 2013 study is Raquel Miranda, a plant biologist at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil. She said to imagine the tomato breathing to understand why it tastes sweeter.

“When we breathe, we produce what are called free radicals. Those react and deteriorate our cells very slowly over time. Essentially, we are aging,” Miranda said.

However, plants can age indefinitely because the free radicals they produce don’t deteriorate the plant. So, when they “breathe” and produce those free radicals, they are producing internal antioxidants. Miranda said antioxidant production is increased when the plant is under stress, and those antioxidants are associated with the quality of the fruit.

Climate change is proven to increase stressors on all plant species by creating longer, more frequent dry seasons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Miranda said the main effect of global warming is that it will increase photosynthesis in plants, and the effects of that increase on a plant species can vary depending on the geographic region.

“It’s really a long stretch to say climate change will improve the quality of fruit across the board,” Miranda said. “Photosynthesis isn’t the whole story when it comes to plants, especially produce.”

Nature’s Secret Sauce

For now, the sweeter tomatoes can be a temporary delight. This sweetness is especially prevalent in organically grown tomatoes, like Christopher’s.

“I just know now when it’s dry out there, those pasta sauces, those salsas, those soups are going to be extra good,” Christopher said.

Christopher’s customers notice the changes too. He said dry seasons often result in more tomato sales because the word gets around. While the customers often don’t know the science behind what’s exciting their taste buds, to them it doesn’t matter.

“Every week at the market I’ve heard, ‘Wow. I didn’t know they could taste like this. What’d you do to it?’” Christopher said.

His special secret? Mother Nature.

Christopher said he doesn’t change his tactics from year to year; he just lets the plants do their thing, and he harvests them when they’re ready to sell at the market.

An Imperfect Balance

The advent of modern farming techniques has made organic farms like Christopher’s much rarer. Organic farms don’t produce nearly as high crop yields as conventional farming methods. Those methods, however, rely heavily on the use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, which can decrease the health benefits of the fruit.

For example, tomatoes grown organically can be 40% smaller than modern methods. However, they also have 55% more vitamin C, 57% more natural sugars and 139% more natural antioxidants, according to the 2013 study.

Harry Klee is a horticulture researcher at the University of Florida focused on producing better tasting tomatoes (yes, this is really his main emphasis). He said the fight between organic and modern methods is an imperfect balancing act.

“You look at the data, and it says organic tomatoes are better for you and the planet,” Klee said. “That’s all fine and dandy until you realize how much more land it takes and there are millions of people out there still starving every day.”

Klee said the solution is not choosing one method or another but instead working at the intersection of business and technology to produce tomatoes that taste better and are accessible to everyone. Some people prefer going to the market every week, getting their produce from people like Christopher and knowing their farmers. Most, however, don’t have the time, money or access to organic markets so they go to the closest grocery store.

The best solution to increasing accessibility of tomatoes — and all produce — is to teach people how to grow it themselves, Klee said. That’s why his lab in Gainesville, Florida, started shipping free tomato seeds to anyone across the country who requests them.

To him, these issues of taste, yield and access of tomatoes are interconnected. Growers aren’t incentivized to use safer methods because yields determine wages, he said.

While there is no perfect solution to farming more equitably or solving climate change for growers, Klee and Christopher take solace in the joy of a sweeter tomato season.

Christopher places what is likely the last group of this season’s tomatoes into cardboard boxes and then into the bed of his white Ford F-150. They’re ready to sell at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning.

“Somewhere tucked in there is a metaphor for us,” he said as he closed the tailgate. “Bad year, good fruit. I don’t know; it feels like a reminder there is always a silver lining.”

Edited by Caroline Bowers