Coping with COVID-19 as a student and Olympic hopeful: a Q&A with Thomas Cope

Even award-winning athletes are having a hard time getting into a routine these days, but Tommy Cope wants everyone to keep working hard.

Tommy Cope swimming breaststroke Enlarge
Tommy Cope swimming breaststroke at the 2019 Big Ten men's Swimming and Diving Championships. Iowa City, IA.

ECE student Tommy Cope was preparing for the NCAA Swimming Championships and had his sights on the Olympics when his dreams were derailed by COVID-19. A record-setting, two-time Big Ten champion in 2020 for the 200-year breaststroke and 800-year freestyle relay, Cope has already been featured in several articles by Michigan Athletics, including:

Cope graduated with his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering, and is now pursing his master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, with a focus in Signal & Image Processing and Machine Learning. He’s also a graduate student instructor (GSI) for EECS 216 (Intro to Signals and Systems), though he’s taking 6 weeks off to compete professionally on a swimming team in Budapest.

Tommy Cope zoom screenshot from his apartment Enlarge

We took a few minutes of his time to catch us up on how life has changed after COVID-19, while he continues to work and plan for the future.

How were you able to keep up with a demanding major (electrical engineering) while being at winner at swimming?

I was surrounded by good influences on my team. They also do really hard majors and put a lot of time into their academics. And I think it’s natural that when you train so hard for swimming, you apply that good work habit to everything in life.

Were you surprised when the school shut down in March due to COVID-19? What did you do?

My sister goes to Ohio State, and they were one of the first schools to close, so I figured Michigan would be doing something similar. A few days after Michigan closed, the NCAA canceled all sports – and that was harder. I can’t swim online.

I was able to keep training at a friend’s pool in Oklahoma, and then got an internship with Procter and Gamble in Missouri, where they didn’t have many COVID cases.

Are you still an Olympic hopeful?

Right now I’m training for the Olympic trials. I was right on the cusp of making the USA National Team last year, you have to be top six and I was seven, and that’s always been a goal of mine. So I want to try to do that and see what happens with the Olympics. I’ll give it my best shot.

What has life-during-COVID been like for you?

I feel like the biggest things I’m missing are a good routine and all the personal connections and interactions with other students and the faculty. I used to make sure to make good use of office hours and talking to my professors and meeting with other students. Now you can’t really do any of that. And I was really looking forward to teaching, but now the labs are online. I’m trying to make the best of it.

How did you choose your area of specialty as a master’s student?

I did some research on incorporating sensory perception into prosthetics as an undergraduate student, and then was on the fence between robotics and signal processing. I decided to stick with signal processing, and right now I’m looking at some really cool machine learning applications. My heart still lies with prosthetics and medicine, and I hope I can merge these later in my career.

Do you have any tips to help students?

I’m a GSI and a student, so I see both sides. I go to office hours almost every day, and I’m always encouraging my students to come to my office hours. I think it’s easy to feel alone with online learning, but there are actually people here, dedicated to making sure you’re successful as a student.

One thing I’ve done recently is reach out to other students in my class. Normally you have study groups, but I haven’t had the chance to meet anybody. But I do see people popping up in my zoom panel, and I saw one guy there a lot, so I reached out to him and we just formed a study group.

This isn’t fun, but it’s not going to last forever.

I just want to encourage everybody out there to keep working hard. And Go Blue!