An Olympic dream, a pandemic, a postponement and a predicament

Henry Bushnell
·9 min read

She had decided to retire. Not because she’d tired of a career, but rather to begin one. In September 2016, with an Olympic silver medal in tow, Gevvie Stone was ready, at last, to put her medical school degree to good use.

Life, after all, had been on hold long enough. For more than a decade, morning after morning, often before dawn, the water had called out to her. And rowing, week after week, year after year, had lured her back. It delayed med school in 2007. It interrupted again in 2010. It put off post-grad endeavors four years later.

Finally, at age 31, residency applications had been sent. In 2017, Stone went to practice emergency medicine at a hospital in Boston. And she loved it. Loved the people. Loved the work. So one day, less than a year in, she phoned a legendary rowing coach. She told the coach she was done. And she wept.

Next, she called a teammate, informed her of the decision, and wept again.

So she devised a test. She made a third call, this time to a college friend. I’m training for Tokyo, she said through the phone, and excitement bubbled inside of her.

“And once I told her,” Stone says, “and saw how it felt, I knew I was going to go back.”

Back to the water, that is, full time. In August 2018, Stone left the hospital to return to the three-a-days; to the calming serenity; to the monotonous grind. She’d be there for two years, until Aug. 17, 2020, one week after one last Olympics.

Instead, five months before her restart date, she feels directionless. Those Olympics have been postponed. She doesn’t know what to do.

Had the water ever ceased calling, Stone would be on the frontlines right now, fighting an unprecedented pandemic that is threatening to overpower hospitals just like hers.

Instead, she’s a doctor-in-waiting, sitting at home, feeling helpless and guilty.

She’s an Olympian who’s trained thousands of hours for one more shot.

And she’s a human who’s wondering: Can life wait one more year?

Genevra Stone, of United States, competes in the women's rowing single sculls quarterfinal heats during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Gevvie Stone competes in the women's rowing single sculls quarterfinal heats during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (AP)

‘A really dumb thing’

Gevvie Stone began rowing in high school, and continued in college, and in 2008 almost gave up. She was 6 feet tall, powerful and driven. But she’d poured everything she had into making the 2008 Olympic team and had fallen short. So as her peers prepared for Beijing, she trudged off to a kids summer camp as a counselor. Med school awaited in the fall. Rowing, in truth, had begun to feel like a job, not a love.

So she told her father, Gregg: “Dad, you keep saying I’m good. I’m not good. I wasn’t good enough to make the team. That’s fine. I’m going to be a doctor.”

Dad, however, was a rower himself with a particularly pertinent experience. He’d narrowly missed the 1976 Olympic team. He’d carried on in the sport during law school, representing the U.S. at world championships. By 1980, he was the top single sculler in the nation, and an Olympic lock – until Cold War politics intervened.

The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games, and Gregg Stone immediately quit. He had a well-paying job lined up for the fall. Most teammates went to trials that spring, made a USOC-recognized “1980 Olympic team,” and went on a memorable European tour. “Why would I ever do that?” Gregg thought at the time. “I’ll go and begin my legal career.”

He told Yahoo Sports this story months ago, long before the 2020 Olympics became imperiled. And it’s a story, he said, that Gevvie has heard, with this conclusion: “In retrospect, that was a really dumb thing. You can work your whole life. How many times can you row at the highest level?”

Gevvie goes all in

Father coaxed daughter back out to the water that fall. “Hey, I still think you’re pretty good,” he told her, and he was right. Gevvie started with a few races here and there. Before long, she was all in on London. She took a leave of absence from medical school in 2010. She made the 2012 Olympic team. She graduated in 2014, trained full time for two years, and won silver in 2016.

It was, she admits, “the perfect story.” Of doubts overcome and confidence regained and exertion rewarded. Rio, and the success, and the joy seemed like a perfect final chapter. She was “100 percent committed” to residency, and to her career as a doctor.

Along the way, however, she’d fallen back in love with rowing.

She realized she loved the training, and the international community, and the linear relationship between effort and results. She loved working toward an unattainable goal, striving to be faster, dedicating everything to the pursuit, all while understanding: “You’re never gonna achieve fast. There’s always faster. There’s always something more.”

“And that is definitely a huge part of why I came back.”

Stone heard from retiring peers who “were just exhausted and done with training.” She never felt the same way. Logic, she admits, would have sent her to residency, and three years later to doctorhood, perhaps as an orthopedic surgeon.

Emotions overrode logic. They’re one reason why she chose emergency medicine over orthopedics. The schedule would allow for more rowing.

There were other reasons for that choice, though, too. Such as the variety of procedures and patients. And the adrenaline rush, when a gravely ill patient needs urgent care. And the human connections. “You feel like you’re really able to help people,” Stone says.

Which is why the past few weeks have been so difficult.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13:  Silver medalist Genevra Stone of the United States celebrates after the medal ceremony for the Women's Single Sculls on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Lagoa Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Gevvie Stone celebrates after winning silver in the women's single sculls at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

COVID-19 tweaks the calculus

Even before the coronavirus gripped America, perhaps in between grueling workouts in Austin, Texas, this winter, with Tokyo months away, a thought would occasionally cross Gevvie Stone’s mind. Or, rather, a question without a satisfactory answer.

“Which contributes more to society, and the world?” she’d ask herself. “Is it training for the Olympics? Or working in the emergency department?”

Her Olympic pursuits, she believes, do have broader purpose. “Hopefully by doing that, I’m a role model to kids, and an inspiration to people everywhere,” she says. But the COVID-19 outbreak has tweaked the calculus. Emergency rooms in some U.S. cities are overflowing. Stone is trained to be in them, qualified to evaluate patients, to send them home or to the hospital floor or to the ICU, to insert breathing tubes if necessary.

Instead, she’s communicating with residency classmates from afar. “We’ve got a running [group] text that’s pretty active these days,” she says. And she’s monitoring the news; the rising case counts and death tolls; the troubling accounts, just like the rest of us are.

And that’s the source of her guilt – which she brings up, unprompted. It’s not regret. It’s helplessness. It’s “the feeling that I could be doing something I’m not.”

“Fortunately, Boston has not gotten a surge yet,” she says. “But we’re anticipating a surge, and it’s really hard knowing that my friends and colleagues are all dealing with this, and helping, in ways that I am most certainly not right now.”

She has volunteered to help if necessary. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of paperwork, logistics, certification stuff” that could stand in her way, she says. There are various “levels of crisis activation” that could call her to the frontlines. Until then, all she can do is wait. And think.

To postpone or not to postpone

The all but official news arrived over the radio during a Monday afternoon lift. The official announcement appeared on her phone Tuesday morning. Stone had been running steps at Harvard Stadium, up to the top row overlooking Cambridge, then back down. Still training, up until the IOC made the call: The 2020 Olympics were postponed — to a date after Stone’s residency is set to resume.

And thus, the decision: To push it back another year, or to finally give in?

To choose the latter would be to discard two years of relentless, strenuous training as something resembling waste.

To choose the former would be to “postpone a lot of other things in life” yet again.

“Adding to the equation: training is exhausting, physically and mentally and emotionally,” Stone says. It’s even more so without the rewards — “the fun, of racing internationally, traveling internationally, world championships,” much of which has or could be shuttered by the virus, she adds.

And then there’s her boyfriend’s biggest worry, one that she initially didn’t consider, but that some experts would share. What happens if the pandemic isn’t under control in 12 months? “What happens if you row for another year and then it’s postponed again?” Or ever canceled?

“It’s very unknown and uncharted territory,” Stone says.

The closest thing to precedent, in a way, is what her dad lived through 40 years ago this month. The specifics are different. One takeaway, however, holds up. It was part of the advice Gregg gave Gevvie back in 2017, when the decision between residency and all-out training loomed. And it was informed by Gregg’s own choice, to move on with life, which he now feels was the wrong one.

“It’s totally up to you,” he told his daughter. “But you’re going to be a doctor the rest of your life.”

The pandemic, of course, will play a big role in her ultimate decision. Before she makes it, she’d also like to know 2021 Olympics dates, which remain undecided.

In the meantime, the water still calls. Gevvie still answers. Even this week. She heads to the Charles River. Her oars dip into it. Her boat glides down it. “It’s the happiest place for me to be in the chaos of the current world,” she says.

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