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The most accomplished female swimmer in the world can’t find a pool where she can train.
With the Bay Area on lockdown and coronavirus anxiety soaring, Katie Ledecky’s coach has been turned away by almost every facility he has approached.
The hunt began last week when Stanford told students to leave campus and closed its athletic facilities, sending coach Greg Meehan scrambling to find another option for Ledecky, fellow Olympian Simone Manuel and the handful of other elite swimmers he trains. A nearby country club took in Meehan’s orphaned Olympic hopefuls for three days but then it, too, had to close its doors.
Not since Tuesday have Ledecky and the others been in the water, the longest hiatus any of them have ever taken this close to a major competition. Meehan is hopeful they’ll be able to resume training again soon, but so far the best option he has found are backyard pools that generous friends have offered to let him use.
“It has been chaos,” Meehan said. “We exhausted every other possibility we could think of — private pools, community pools, asking other universities to open their doors to us. Every time we thought we had something it would end up getting canceled later that day or the next morning.”
A world-record holder and five-time Olympic gold medalist like Ledecky resorting to doing laps in someone’s backyard pool would be the most egregious example yet of how the coronavirus is disrupting training for Olympic hopefuls. It’s the equivalent of LeBron James being barred from gyms across Los Angeles and reduced to practicing his jump shot in a neighbor’s driveway.
The psychological toll that not being able to train properly is taking on swimmers and other athletes is among the biggest reasons that Meehan believes the Tokyo Olympics should be postponed. He hates that the athletes he coaches are having to choose between following public health guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus and dedicating themselves to their training in case the Olympics actually happen as planned.
On Friday afternoon, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee calling for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics until the summer of 2021. Meehan said he is “100 percent behind the leadership of USA Swimming on that” and “grateful” that Hinchey took such a strong stance.
“It was time, at this point, for a couple reasons,” Meehan said. “The level playing field is a big issue right now as you look at the training situations here. And then, quite frankly, I think there’s a pretty strong component of anxiety and stress among these athletes as they are thinking about the things they are not doing currently that they know they need to be doing if the Games are still on. The mental health for these young people is being challenged, and I think that’s as important a part of this story as anything.
“So I’m very grateful that USA Swimming has pushed forward with this, and I absolutely 100 percent agree. I hope that the USOPC listens and they can take a strong stance toward the IOC. Part of the spirit of the Olympic Games is to bring the world together. How can we do that in this climate? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Even though the IOC continues to publicly insist that the Olympics will start as scheduled on July 24 in Tokyo and refuses to discuss any contingency plans, the letter from USA Swimming suggests postponement is a serious option. USA Swimming is one of the most influential governing bodies in the U.S. and it oversees some of the most prominent Olympic stars.
Already there had been growing outcry from athletes in the U.S. and abroad over the IOC’s business-as-usual attitude in the midst of a global pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus has exceeded 200,000 worldwide. It took over three months to reach the first 100,000 confirmed cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000.
“I am deeply concerned by IOC’s recent statement that they are essentially continuing with business as usual despite the growing evidence that COVID-19 will remain a massive threat for the foreseeable future,” backstroker Jacob Pebley, a 2016 Olympian, wrote in an Instagram post on Thursday.
“How can we, members of Team USA and role models for hundreds of thousands of young athletes, attend Olympic Trials/the Olympics in good conscience? To do so would fly in the face of all emerging evidence and best practices for social distancing and protecting the health of vulnerable communities.”
It’s Meehan’s stance that it shouldn’t matter whether the virus has cleared enough worldwide to make large gatherings safe by this summer. Meehan doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to hold an Olympics if the timing of the event is forcing athletes to choose between their training and their health.
In his search for pool space for Ledecky, Manuel and his other athletes, Meehan considered relocating to an out-of-state location with fewer restrictions and more available aquatic facilities. In the end, he nixed the idea because he felt like taking a flight would needlessly put his athletes and the general public at risk.
The downside to that decision is that it’s becoming more and more urgent to get his swimmers back in the water. An extended break from training could put them at a disadvantage against their competitors should the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympics take place on time.
“Two or three days is not a huge disruption, but you get to a week and beyond, and it starts to be pretty significant,” Meehan said. “If nothing else, it starts to affect your confidence, knowing what you’re supposed to be doing but not able to do.”
The most frustrating part of Meehan’s search for pool space is that he walks by the aquatic center at Stanford almost every day. He has to gaze out at an empty 50-meter Olympic-sized pool at the same time as he is hunting for any smaller backyard option he can find.
Ledecky, Manuel and the rest of the group will surely make the best of whatever Meehan is able to find, but it’s his hope that the situation doesn’t last long. Meehan firmly believes the Olympics should be postponed — the sooner the better.
“Should we really have to be driving around trying to find pools in the middle of a statewide lockdown?” Meehan said. “I don’t think that sends the right message to the community as a whole, and as high-profile athletes, I think they have responsibility to set an example for the community.”
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