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How COVID made it possible for a group of teenagers to become Olympians

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Shortly after dawn on March 24, 2020, Claire Curzan plunged into a North Carolina pool as a longshot to make the U.S. Olympic team. She was, after all, 15 years old. She’d won medals at junior worlds, and age-group accolades stateside, but she lingered outside the nation’s top five in her best event. And Olympic trials were less than three months away.

Until, that is, Curzan emerged from the pool that morning and learned they weren’t.

Bruce Marchionda, her coach, delivered unprecedented news: The Tokyo Games had been postponed. Trials, of course, would be too. Coaches nationwide shredded training plans. Athletes confronted emptiness and anxiety, their Olympic dreams on hold.

But not here, in Cary, N.C.

“This is a really positive thing for you,” Marchionda told Curzan on the pool deck, and she soon grasped what he meant. “If anybody’s going to benefit from the extra year, it’s swimmers like you.”

Sure enough, over 18 months, Curzan shaved 1.44 seconds off her personal-best time in the 100-meter butterfly. She sped through Olympic trials last month and qualified for Tokyo alongside Torri Huske, an 18-year-old who, likewise, said she “definitely wouldn't have been as fast” in 2020.

By the end of an emotional week of trials, 10 teenage girls had been named to the U.S. Olympic team — more than USA Swimming took to Rio and London combined. Of the 26 American women who’ll compete at the Tokyo Aquatics Center this month, 20 are first-time Olympians.

And if not for the pandemic, would they be in Tokyo?

“No,” 17-year-old breaststroker Lydia Jacoby said. “I don't think I would have been prepared last year at all.”

“This [extra] year definitely helped,” 18-year-old backstroker Phoebe Bacon said.

“I think it did,” 19-year-old Emma Weyant agreed. “I can say that now.” She smiled.

“I feel like COVID,” Huske said, “in a way, was kind of a blessing.”

OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 13: Torri Huske of the United States reacts after setting an American record with Claire Curzan while competing in a semifinal heat for the Women's 100m butterfly during Day One of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 13, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Torri Huske reacts after setting an American record with Claire Curzan while competing in a semifinal heat for the Women's 100m butterfly during Day One of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Bought another 358 days

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to gauge just how much COVID-19 affected the athlete makeup of the Tokyo Olympics. Impossible to know how teens, across 33 different sports, would have performed in 2020. Impossible to know just how much juice remained in veterans’ emptying tanks.

But swimming, unlike many sports, can be measured. And as 2019 gave way to 2020, the most promising teen swimmers in America didn’t quite measure up — yet. Huske and Curzan ranked third and seventh in the 100 fly. (The top two would make the Olympic team.) Bacon ranked eighth in the 200 back. Jacoby ranked 18th in the 100 breast. Katie Grimes, then all of 13 years old, was 24th in the 800 freestyle, and her teammate, then-14-year-old Bella Sims, hadn’t even hit the qualifying standard for trials in the 200 free.

Says Ron Aitken, their coach, without hesitation: “I don't think either one of them would've been able to make this team in 2020.”

Then COVID came along and bought young swimmers 358 extra days. They dedicated themselves to strength programs. They hit growth spurts. They perfected techniques. Huske, in the 100 fly, took 1.82 seconds off her top 2019 time. Bacon trimmed 2.36 seconds off hers in the 200 back. Jacoby dropped 2.84 seconds. Grimes dropped a stunning 17.10.

At the other end of the spectrum, postponement pushed the Tokyo Olympics beyond the primes of national team mainstays. And, as USA Swimming’s managing director Lindsay Mintenko admitted last month, “it definitely affected the [Olympic] team.”

At trials in Omaha, Huske shattered an American record. She and Curzan out-touched 26-year-old Kelsi Dahlia, a Rio gold medalist. In the 400 individual medley, Weyant beat two more Rio champs, 29-year-old Melanie Margalis and 26-year-old Leah Smith. In the 200 IM, 19-year-olds Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass narrowly bettered Margalis and 26-year-old Madisyn Cox.

In the 200 back, Bacon topped Kathleen Baker, 24, yet another Rio medalist, whose foot injury foiled her quest for a second Games.

In the 800 free, Grimes chased down 29-year-old Haley Anderson over the final 50 meters.

In the 200 free, Sims, now 16, pipped Smith for a relay spot. Smith, the nation’s second-best distance freestyler for almost the entirety of the past five years, failed to make the team.

The roster’s inexperience worries some outsiders. Its youth, though, has brought “a different level of energy into the training environment, into the meal room,” head coach Greg Meehan said earlier this month from a pre-Olympic camp in Hawaii. “They've been just a joy to work with. They've kind of helped reenergize myself as well.”

And they aren’t in Tokyo by accident. They’re here to win medals. Weyant’s 4:33.81 at trials was the fastest 400 IM in the world this calendar year. Walsh will be the second-fastest in the 200 IM. Jacoby ranks second to reigning Olympic champ Lilly King in the 100 breast. Regan Smith, the most established of the 19-year-olds, is already a world record-holder. Huske could soon be one as well. She owns the top 2021 time in the 100 fly. Curzan, now 17, wasn’t too far behind at trials, and her coach, Marchionda, says: “There's no doubt in my mind she can go faster at the Olympics — and will.”

Revising plans for Tokyo

If not for COVID, Lydia Jacoby would have boarded a Tokyo-bound plane last summer as a 16-year-old spectator. Her parents had planned a family vacation. After the postponement, they devised a new plan.

Pools were slow to reopen after shutdowns in their hometown of Seward, Alaska, a port city of less than 3,000 people. So Lydia and her mom temporarily moved two hours north to Anchorage. They lived out of a house owned by Lydia’s grandfather, who’d recently passed away, Jacoby said. Once they’d sold the house, they moved into an Airbnb. Swimming came to predominate Jacoby’s existence. Fellow swimmers became her best friends. She trained twice a day for the first time ever. “It became a bigger part of my life than it ever had been before,” she said of her sport.

And results followed. Her swims quickened. At trials, Jacoby became the first Alaskan swimmer to ever make an Olympic team, and just the 10th Summer Olympian from the 49th state in the 125-year history of the Games. Team USA’s pre-Tokyo camp was her first opportunity for extended access to a 50-meter, Olympic-size pool.

Elsewhere across the continent, other teens took similar strides. Bacon, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, used the extra year to extend her backstroke prowess from 100 meters to 200. Huske, a graduating high school senior in Arlington, Va., attacked a dryland training regimen comprising stationary bikes, ergs, weights, plyometrics and hill runs, the goal to build muscle but not bulk. Each 45-minute session, each exercise, each swim in a neighbor’s backyard, chipped away at her age-group-leading time.

Huske accelerated at school as well. She hastened through online coursework to complete her senior year by early March, leaving three months to concentrate exclusively on preparing for trials.

“The [extra] year that we had helped her out tremendously, there's no question about that,” says Evan Stiles, Huske’s coach. “The benefit of COVID, if there was any benefit, was, I definitely think it helped Torri get faster.”

OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 19: Katie Ledecky and Katie Grimes react during the Women’s 800m freestyle medal ceremony during Day Seven of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 19, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky and Katie Grimes react during the Women’s 800m freestyle medal ceremony during Day Seven of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Adolescence unleashed

What several coaches would like to make clear, though, is that the virus itself didn’t create Olympic medal contenders. It, rather, killed 4 million people, and inflicted incalculable pain, and upended lives, and … for some, merely created opportunity. Teenage Tokyo hopefuls still had to snatch that opportunity, embrace a monotonous grind. The process was still arduous — especially so for the American swimmer who arguably benefitted the most.

Katie Grimes was two months removed from her 14th birthday when the country shut down last March. She and the Sandpipers of Nevada, her Las Vegas-area club team, returned to pools as soon as possible. They sometimes trekked to nearby Lake Mead, intent on taking advantage of each of the 358 days that postponement offered. Grimes confronted workouts with eagerness and focus, as always.

For nine months, however, she barely got any faster.

She grew frustrated. She saw her peers, including Sims, improving. “That time period was very depressing for her, to feel like she was losing ground,” Aitken, her coach, says. It stressed parents and others as well. Nobody quite knew why one of the nation’s most talented 14-year-old swimmers had, suddenly, stagnated.

But they had a hypothesis. Last spring, Grimes began to grow, rapidly. Some 4-6 inches in a year, Aitken estimates. Her elongating body had to recalibrate and come to terms with its new size. As it did, her coordination suffered. In practice, teammates who typically trailed her would beat her. Aitken explained the growth spurt theory to her parents, and told young Katie, again and again, to stay patient and “trust the process.”

Finally, in early 2021, adolescence unleashed her.

Strength, both mental and physical, had been congregating beneath the surface throughout those nine months. “It kinda got backed up like a dam,” Aitken says. Then the dam broke, and improvement flooded to the fore. Grimes began slicing full seconds off her times. In 800-meter prelims at trials, she toppled a personal-best by six seconds. At finals, she obliterated that prelim time by 11 more seconds, and qualified in second place, behind only Katie Ledecky, the greatest female swimmer ever.

Ledecky, once upon a time, had also gone to the Olympics as a 15-year-old. After Grimes came out of nowhere to finish third in the 1500 at trials, narrowly missing qualification, Ledecky had told her: “You’re the future.”

Three days later, after the 800, Ledecky squinted at a scoreboard. She turned to Grimes, and beamed, and hopped lane lines to congratulate her. And this time, Ledecky offered a new proclamation:

“You’re the now.”