Swimmers Prepare for Challenges of Olympic Postponement

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Grant House took an Olympic redshirt this season, but the Games got pushed back another year. Now he is just rolling with the punches and staying as positive as possible despite the disrupted plan. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The coronavirus pandemic had caused the world to go into a frenzy the last few weeks. Athletic events were being cancelled left and right. Facilities were closing down. Sports, what was once a form of escape during times of panic like these, was suddenly completely wiped away from our lives in a matter of what felt like the blink of an eye.

With roughly four months still to go to the Olympic Games, the coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Athletes everywhere were struggling to find places to train. Gym equipment became nearly impossible to get their hands on. While in the United States, the NBA, NHL, March Madness, and spring sports seasons all came to a screeching halt, the Olympic Games were still set for a July start date.

With Olympic Trials season right around the corner for many and a large percentage of the world’s athletes quarantined to their homes, training was not a feasible option.

The International Olympic Committee had insisted that the Games would go on as scheduled and the COVID-19 pandemic would not be any reason to cancel or postpone the Games. Only three times in history have the modern Olympic Games been cancelled. The 1916, 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled because of world wars, but no Games had ever been postponed. No matter what decision the IOC would come to, it would have been a historical one.

So on Tuesday March 24 when the IOC officially announced that the Olympic Games for Tokyo would be pushed back another year to 2021 to ensure safety and fairness for all involved, it was a huge sigh of relief for athletes and coaches everywhere.

“It was really really stressful trying to find training time and  trying to get pool space with no pools open but after the news dropped, the dire need for water time has gone down significantly,” said USA national team member Erica Sullivan. “Now I am just trying to focus on dryland and a good weight regimen that I can do in my own house so I can stay safe.”

But with the Games being pushed to 2021, that changes so many things for athletes around the world.

2020 had a nice ring to it and it rolled off the tongue. Not to mention the symmetry in numbers made the logo a catchy one. 2021 does not have that same effect.

For some, 2020 was supposed to be the end of a long road with their respective club teams before they head off to college this fall. 18-year-old Carson Foster, who is a favorite at the Olympic Trials in both IM races as well as the 200 freestyle, graduated from high school early to fully focus on swimming before heading to Trials this summer, and eventually the University of Texas in the fall.

Not being able to finish out with his club team, the Mason Manta Rays and head coach Ken Heis, is a bummer, but he still plans on heading down to Austin to join his brother Jake and the talented group with Eddie Reese and Wyatt Collins.

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Carson Foster. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“Obviously that has crossed my mind and I’m sure it has crossed every person who is a senior in high school and in contention,” Foster said. “Changing up training is obviously not what you want to do before an Olympic year but I am confident that a year down at Texas is only going to make me better and I’m not worried about it.

“I am sad to have to leave Mason behind next year. I know that was something Ken (Heis) and I were really excited about to try and make a push for the Olympic team as a club swimmer and especially do it for the city of Mason because of all of the stuff they have provided for me and all the ways they have helped our team.”

“I’m bummed about that but I have 100% confidence in Eddie and Wyatt and that team and training environment so the plan as of now unless something drastic happens, I will still be heading down to Texas next fall.”

For Erica Sullivan, 2020 was supposed to be her shot to make an Olympic team before she headed to the University of Southern California in the fall. Sullivan graduated high school in 2018 but deferred her enrollment so she could continue to train under coach Ron Aitken to try and make a spot on the Olympic team for open water. The qualification for the 10K starts a year in advance, so she stayed an extra year to try and earn a spot at the 2019 Nationals. She fell a spot short in finishing third at nationals. But she has emerged as a favorite in the pool 1500, where she still has a great shot to finish second at Trials behind Katie Ledecky.

But it gets trickier for Sullivan. When she committed to USC and decided to defer her enrollment, the original plan was to join head coach Dave Salo in the fall after the Games. But Salo has since stepped down as coach of the undergrad team, and the next head coach is still not known.

If she defers her enrollment another year, she would be a 21-year-old freshman.

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Erica Sullivan. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I still don’t know who my coach is yet so I don’t want to make any decisions before I have to,” Sullivan said. “I think we are just going to wait until we get news from USC and sit down with my family and with Ron and whoever the new coach is and make some decisions from there.”

For Arizona State’s Grant House, he took an Olympic redshirt this year to be a full-time swimmer and not have the stress of class weighing over him while he chases his dream with coach Bob Bowman.

House was set to begin his junior year this fall no matter what happened at the Olympic Trials whether he made the team or not. He was a contender in the 200 freestyle and will still be among the mix for 2021. But this is an unprecedented time, and it is not know at the moment what will be made of Olympic redshirts.

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Grant House. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I can’t even imagine. If they’re not going to give the winter sport athletes back a year right now, then I doubt someone with an Olympic redshirt will fall under that or if there was any room for consideration,” House said.

“As of right now, it looks like I will be back in school and training but we will see how that develops. Maybe if winter sport athletes get a year back, I wouldn’t be opposed to another redshirt year but obviously there are circumstances with eligibility, academics that also need to be taken into consideration.”

House and Foster grew up together in Ohio, and still check in daily to keep up with each other. They have both tried to stay as positive as possible during this time.

“Luckily there is postponement,” House said. “Ultimately I can’t control when they decided to postpone them to or if they were going to have it or not. What I can control is my preparation. The week before and the morning of, I was still preparing for Trials to be in June and for the Olympics to be in July. But now we are just going to prepare for it to be a year away and getting ready as we can. Now it is just a longer time to prepare and get ready for game time.”

Every athlete will react to the year-long postponement differently. Most have been positive thus far. 35-year-old Ryan Lochte is chasing his fifth Olympic berth, which would make him just the third American swimmer to do so. He wanted to view the year-long postponement in a positive light.

“I get to have another year of training and another year of getting better,” Lochte told Swimming World. “Working on my technique and getting stronger in and out of the water. I think I’m going to become an even better and faster swimmer than I am right now.”

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Michael Phelps. Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

His long-time rival Michael Phelps is retired, but still took notice of the postponement. In an interview with NBC Sports’ Tim Layden, he went over how he would have reacted to a postponement if it occurred in each of his last three trips to the Games:

  • 2008 (Beijing, where Phelps won a record eight gold medals):  “I was totally locked and loaded,” he said, “But I had broken my wrist six months before the Trials and I was still getting better, I would love to have had another year.”
  • 2012 (London, where Phelps was undertrained, disinterested and careening toward the crash that would come two years later, still won four golds and two silvers): “If the Olympics had been moved to 2013, I would have straight punted,” said Phelps. “I would not have shown up. That was the mental state I was in. I was mailing everything in, anyway, and I couldn’t have done that for another year.”
  • 2016 (Rio, where Phelps closed out with those five golds and one silver, a triumphant finish to his career): “I would not have given up,’’ said Phelps. “No way in hell. I wanted to finish something that I hadn’t finished right. I don’t know what it would have looked like with a year off, if those games were postponed, but I would have found a way. The climb back to the top of that mountain was the best time I had I my career.”

Phelps’ good friend Allison Schmitt is still swimming, and aiming for a fourth Olympic berth in Tokyo at the age of 29. She is training at Arizona State alongside House and coach Bowman. According to The New York Times, she put off her Master’s degree in social work at Arizona State after spending the 2019 spring semester completing internships, which she thinks the stress caused her to poor under her expectations at the World Championships.

With the Olympics being pushed back a year, she is left in a bind. Does she put off her degree for another 12 months? Or try and juggle studies and training? It is worthy of noting that Schmitt’s best year of her career, 2012, was while she was taking a year off of school at the University of Georgia.

Again this is an unprecedented time, and the answer is not certain what will happen in regards to deferred enrollments, redshirts, etc.

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Madisyn Cox. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

For Madisyn Cox, she was set to start medical school in the fall after the Olympic Trials and had set her mind on retiring after the summer. But like Schmitt, she has to make a major decision: chase her athletics dream and delay med school, or cancel her Olympic dream and pursue her degree. Cox still has not decided on where she will attend med school, and then a decision will have to be made to see if she can defer her enrollment so she can still go for the Olympics.

“There are a few moving pieces that factor into whether I will be able to do so or not,” Cox said. “The first being the dates of both the Games as well as the start dates of medical schools I am still looking at. Another piece of it being which medical school I actually end up going to and if they will let me defer a year so that I can train. Like I said, I’m going to try my best to work it out so that I can swim.”

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Zane Grothe. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

US national team member Zane Grothe, who is a month away from his 28th birthday, will be chasing his first Olympic team spot in Tokyo next summer. As for his post-swimming plans, he ensured he was still going to swim past 2020 so this doesn’t change anything for him.

“I’ve been a swimmer a long time now. What is one more year?” Grothe said. “As far as current training goes, I will have to get crafty. Indiana is currently on lockdown for two weeks. I’ve already been out of the water a week, too. I don’t mind taking a break from swimming but I’d really not like to be out of the water for more than a month. I’ll be doing calisthenics, yoga, abs, body weight circuits, and running to stay in shape the best I can.

2012 Australian Olympian Tommaso D’Orsogna, now a Western Australia Swimming Board Member, wrote a letter to his WA Olympic aspirants:

“You face a new challenge now, on an unprecedented scale,” wrote D’Orsogna. “Extraordinary challenges can produce extraordinary results, but they require extraordinary strength and determination. Those that face this challenge with optimism, with innovation and creativity, will come out stronger than any single season of training could possibly make them.

“Some will falter and give up, they will blame the situation, but success was never meant for them. Others will thrive, they will grow and steer themselves. To them, this is not a challenge, but an opportunity to prove themselves, to show they have what it takes to succeed – To be the best.

“So, who will you be? The choice is yours and yours alone. Keep training, keep improving, keep pushing. Keep going.”

There are positives and negatives to the postponement.

“Most of my friends that I have met through swimming are closer to my age,” Foster said. “Fortunately for us another year will probably benefit us more than hurt us. We are lucky we are only 18,  19, 20 years old and we will continue to get better with age and keep getting stronger. I think we are lucky in this situation.”

Even though mostly everyone is quarantined in their own homes during the pandemic, many have kept in touch with their peers.

“I’ve been checking in with Ashley (Twichell) the most,” said Sullivan. “At times like this, the most you can do is look back on memories and think back to something that made you laugh. Ashley and I were talking about how a year ago we were sitting in our room at Yeosu at Worlds, talking about the Olympic team in the next year and if only we knew all this back then.”

Twichell, who will be 32 by the time the Tokyo Olympics finally come around, is already on the team for Tokyo by virtue of her top ten finish at the 2019 Worlds in the 10K. It is highly unlikely she will give up her dream when she has already qualified. But one more year is a long time to wait for someone with a grueling training schedule like her.

The same goes for Grothe, who will be 29 by the time the 2021 Trials will roll around. But he has reaped the benefits of leaning on his friends in swimming who have been dealt the same cards.

“The swimming community is an amazing group and we will all be coming together (not physically #socialdistancing) to help each other out,” Grothe said. “I’m ready for this adventure and for doing my part for our country to heal.”

Foster still keeps in touch with members of the World Juniors team from last summer like Luca Urlando, who he had been training with a lot this year. Foster, Urlando and Regan Smith were all Olympic hopefuls that will be starting at their respective colleges in the fall. Foster will be at Texas under Eddie Reese. Urlando will be at Georgia under Jack Bauerle. Smith will be at Stanford under Olympic head coach Greg Meehan.

Their seemingly perfect plan of going to college and starting a new Olympic cycle under a new coach has been disrupted, and they have kept in touch with each other during this crazy time to have each other’s backs.

“I think ever since January, I have been really hitting my stride in training,” Foster said. “I haven’t rested at any meet this year since US Open so I was looking forward to showing my cards at the end of the summer at Trials and I felt really good where I was at and what my chances were.

“But obviously everyone is in the same boat, I wasn’t the only one swimming well this summer. It’s motivation to keep working for another year. It feels far away now but it’s only a year out. It’s not that far away.”

House, who is still in Tempe, had a lot of his ASU teammates go home while campus was shut down. He is able to train with the postgrad group which includes Schmitt, Worlds medalist Hali Flickinger and Arizona grads Giles Smith and Brad Tandy, and has taken on the role as ‘little brother’ with the postgrads.

“They treat me like an equal which is very appreciated and respect goes around with all of us as well,” House said. “But it’s been nice to have to be around my peers reacting to this situation and it has kept me more calm and level-headed. Having all that experience around me – it’s helped me immensely.”

These are just a few stories that have been affected by the Olympic postponement. The disruption to a four-year plan that had been set in stone can be a detriment to some and a benefit to others.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Sullivan said. “It’ll definitely show who is the most resilient in the next year. I’m excited to see what the team is going to end up being.”

Everyone will react differently, but it will be rewarding for all of us when we finally get to Tokyo 2021 after a five-year wait.

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