In the days following the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, we asked a few Olympic veterans and hopefuls how they were faring, in particular first impressions of the postponement, how they and their training partners handled the challenges and uncertainty of the past few weeks, if they have come up with any novel training approaches or tricks - and if they could stomach it, what a 16-month timeline looks like from here. Here is what they had to say.
It's unfortunate, but definitely the right decision. The initial aspects like World Cups being cancelled was the hardest part for me. At that point, we didn't know how serious this virus is, so it just felt like we were going to have to do more weeks of high volume, high stress training, and selection. Once the IOC announced that cancellation was not on the table, that was a really big relief for me. As much as it sucks to be so close to the end goal, and now have it much further away, it's ultimately going to make the prize that much more special for everyone.
Something our team has always been really good at is adapting to change and dealing with adversity. I think that has helped us adjust the best we can. Our training kept changing as the local guidelines changed. First Princeton University closed, so we moved all of our equipment outside and started training from the parking lot. We started social distancing from there and broke our team down into 4 groups of 8. We staggered the start of practice so we weren't around most of the team. After that, we got a shelter in place order from the state of New Jersey, so we all brought ergs home and we were able to take some weight lifting equipment as well.
I'm the kind of person who does best with a schedule, so while I really want to relax and sleep in right now, I'm going to do my best to stay on a schedule. I think in times of uncertainty, it's good to do the things that are most enjoyable to you. So if you like doing blasters and going on/off, do that. Do what is going to make you most excited to get the work in.
On the road ahead, it's hard to say right now. We don't actually know the dates of the Olympics yet, or what events to expect leading up to the games. Right now, we're all taking a little time to reset and process the current situation. Staying fit will be one of my main priorities moving forward while we're in the shelter in place mandate.
Unfortunately, I think postponing is probably the right call. While I think it's theoretically possible the Games could have gone on as planned, from a health perspective it seems like a significant risk given the current situation. Nonetheless, adding another year to the Olympic cycle will be personally challenging for most athletes, as it means even more time away from loved ones, and a further delay in entering the workforce and establishing a strong career trajectory.
The immediate effect of recent regulations has been a temporary stoppage of all rowing on the water. We're continuing to use the ergs and bikes, but only in small groups and spaced far apart from each other. Obviously water time is preferable from a technical perspective, but I think a period of land training will be beneficial for our fitness.
I think rowers in general are better-positioned than some other sports to bounce back from these restrictions; while we're used to frozen winter lakes and extended time on the erg, sports like swimming, where there's no real land substitute, probably suffer more from their time out of the pool.
I expect our path forward will continue to develop as more information become available. Since the timeline to Tokyo has shifted from a few months to at least a year, I suspect we'll shift to a lower-intensity program for the time being.
The postponement of an Olympic Games was never really high on the 'what if' scenario list, but as Covid-19 has taken hold of our daily lives, it became the most logical decision for the IOC and Tokyo 2020 to make.
In a climate of such uncertainty, this decision will allow every Olympic hopeful to take time to focus their energy on what is most important at this time. Their safety, their family's safety and the safety of our communities.
While there will of course be disappointment in having the 'rug taken from underneath us' so close to the 'final dance', this pales in significance to the potential of losing a business, a job, or worse - a loved one. We need to be there for those that have.
This decision relieves uncertainty around qualification. It gives us the ability to train and be prepared to put on the greatest sporting display, at the peak of our conditioning, when the time is right. It allows us to plan again and execute.
Next year we will be fitter, faster and stronger. Next year, the world will have had time to heal and the playing field will be back at level. Next year, we will be even more ready to inspire and to be inspired.
The next 16 will be business as usual, we will now take time to sit down with our coaching and support staff and make a plan to be ready for Tokyo 2021.
It's been a wild couple of weeks. Leaving Austin, TX, where I had been training for the last couple months, I never could have predicted how events have unfolded. I had been preparing to qualify the M1x for Tokyo, and going to Sarasota for Trials was just the beginning of the qualification path. I found out while I was in the air on my flight to Sarasota that Trials had been postponed due to rising concern about the Coronavirus.
At the time, I felt like it was the right call to postpone, considering all other major sporting events had been postponed or cancelled. But somehow the Olympics still felt safe. I didn't think for a second that the Last Chance Regatta could be in jeopardy, or even the Games themselves. Trials being postponed was an inconvenience, but I remember reasoning that I would get my shot to show what I could do, I might just need to wait a little bit longer. I was ready to race, but I could easily cycle back into training for a couple weeks, and be ready for the next opportunity.
I was wildly unprepared for the news I got the next day. As I was driving home from an afternoon practice, Felice called me and just said, "Have you heard?" "No, what?" "I'm so sorry...The qualifier is cancelled." "I'll call you back," I said. I will never forget that moment. The reality of the situation hit me hard. My journey in the single this past year flashed through my mind. Memorable practices and important lessons that had prepared me to take on the challenge of qualifying the single. I let out a scream and began to sob in my car. My quest for qualification was over before it started.
While it was very difficult to come to grips with the new reality, not all was lost. When planning for this year, I prioritized racing the Diamonds at Henley equally with qualifying for the Olympics. My plan was to race at Henley regardless of whether I qualified for Tokyo or not. My objectives for the year were to win the Champ 1x at HOCR, win the Diamonds, and qualify for the Olympics. Even though the Olympics were off the table, HRR was still in play and so I set my sights there.
I came back to Princeton and continued training in the single, meanwhile the virus continued to spread and restrictions began to tighten. Every day it felt like the Olympic postponement seemed more and more likely and I would say that I was somewhat ready for that eventuality. However, today when it was announced that both the Olympics were postponed and HRR was cancelled, once again the blow was harder than expected.
On the bright side, it means qualification for unqualified boats can happen again - something I am very thankful for. But I am also aware of how challenging it is for athletes to just shift their focus on something off in the distance again. I am believer that special things occur in the Olympic year. It's not that people weren't trying before, but just as the pace naturally picks up in the final 250m of a race or the final piece of a workout, people begin to see the finish line and burn all of their energy reserves to achieve the desired result. It's very hard to tell an athlete after a maximal effort that they need to go back to the start line and do it all over again. This is where we are at the moment, psychologically.
As a smaller, less powerful athlete compared to my competition, my margin for error is so small. I enjoy this challenge, but for me personally, taking full responsibility for the challenge of the Qualifier was more akin to preparing mentally and physically to free solo El Cap. And I was ready for that immense challenge. So now it is equally challenging to wrap my head around putting myself in that position again at some unknown date in the future. It's certainly possible, it's just difficult to think about everything you just went through to achieve your current form and having to do it all over again. Obviously everything is very fresh right now and in time I am sure all the athletes will be able regroup and refocus on the new timeline, but it will be a process.
As far as training goes, we have some weights and an erg, so I will be able to at least maintain some fitness until we can safely get back on the water. Especially with the Olympics potentially 16 months away, now is a great time to get back to some heavy lifting. I will be waiting to hear from FISA about the timeline of qualification events and use that to make a smart plan going forward.
My initial thoughts when the postponement was announced were those of mixed emotions. Obviously, I was disappointed that I would not be racing at the Olympic Games this summer. However, I also saw the opportunity that this presented to me, and the squad. The announcement had been anticipated for some time so it wasn't so much a shock as a sudden realization that what I had been training for over not just last 4 years, but the last 10 years would not yet be culminating in the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.
I think that most of us in the GB setup see this the same way, an opportunity to get better, to make absolutely sure that we have left no stone unturned in our quest for success. No Olympic team in history has had this opportunity, so we have to make the most of it. As a result, we have carried on regardless. We are training from home, but everyone has bought into the team culture and ethos and is working hard to make sure that when we can come back together, we are ready to go.
There are some pretty unique training methods taking place at the moment. Most of us are erging in garages all over the country, and many of the team are getting out on bikes to mix up the training a bit - Something that is vital with a 16-month block in front of us. The main source of creativity has come in the weights room. I have seen photos of members of the team using watering cans, sandbags and even a chunk of lead as improvised weights to continue building strength and maintaining condition.
Jumping back to the 16-month block in front of us. It is a pretty unique situation. Olympic years are incredibly intense, as I am sure any athlete would tell you. Thus, being told to do it all again is quite a daunting prospect and it will be a challenge to maintain our good training for the duration of this block, particularly if we put in too much too early. Cross training in these first few months is vital, and a time to reflect on what has happened. Then when we come back together, we can be ready to kick on.
In terms of what the year looks like; for the foreseeable future we will continue to train from home, and I have no idea when this will end. When this quarantine period ends, we will return to our base in Caversham. Our first camp of the season will be our grueling altitude camp in Sierra Nevada, Spain in December. From there we will continue to train in Caversham, and at our home away from home in Aviz, Portugal throughout the year.
We are very fortunate to go on so many camps as a result of the support we receive from the National Lottery, and we are grateful for everything that they give us! It has been well publicized in the UK that there are question marks over individual funding, with the current UK Sport agreement ending in March of 2021. So, this will pose its own unique challenge as and when the time comes. It is clear that no one foresaw this situation (and how could they have).
Ultimately, it is a strange time to be an athlete, but this strangeness presents its own opportunities. It is going to be exciting regardless, and you can bet that at the first World Cup regatta next year (whenever it is) the racing is going to be HOT - It will be the first time we have raced in 20 months!
Throughout our entire career together, Ellen and I have had to face several obstacles and challenges. Those experiences, and having built such a strong foundation from them, helped us and will continue to help us navigate such an unprecedented time.
While we paid close attention to everything unfolding - quite rapidly, especially leading the final postponement announcement - we did our best to stay focused on what we could control, which was training at the highest level possible and doing our part to support our communities. Of course, uncertainty creates anxiety and frustration, and there were days that it felt overwhelming, but we relied and leaned on each other, one of our greatest strengths.
I feel lucky that rowing, and especially sculling in small boats, is basically by definition social distancing. We've been able to continue rowing while adhering to our local mandates. Being able to train has been a great outlet and therapy in itself; turning your mind off and leaving your phone with the constant barrage of news on land for a couple of hours is healthy. We've had to get a little creative with our strength training since all gym facilities have closed.
A timeline for the next 16 months? There's an effect of whiplash created, coming off of some great racing at the end of February and knowing that you're in the middle of a big ramp up to peak and potentially secure your Olympic spot a month later. Holding the strong belief that this was absolutely the right decision to postpone the Games, it doesn't negate the disappointment you feel in not putting into action all of the work you've put in for months and really, several years.
On one hand, it's completely jarring, but on the other, it's an opportunity. Ellen and I are still going fast and finding new speed. It's been exciting to see that develop over these last few months. We had a huge reset after my injury last year. Imagine how strong we can be with another 12-16 months? We'll take some time to process all of this, but remain committed to our goal of an Olympic medal and seeing that through.
What a Games it will be in 2021 to bring this world back together after defeating a common enemy. I'd love to be a part of that.
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