The gyms were the first to go. Pools soon followed. Then tracks, beaches, even public parks. Last March, as COVID-19 swept the globe, it shuttered thousands of businesses and facilities. Billions of humans receded into shells. CEOs worked from home. Families canceled gatherings. Nobody went out to eat. And Olympians?
Olympians couldn’t recede. So they scrambled. To find weights and stopgap equipment. To find empty basements, old warehouses, backyard pools. Any rule-flouting institution that might let them train. Some were abroad and awoke to frantic calls informing them that America was shutting its borders. “My whole world kind of changed on the turn of a dime,” Kat Holmes, a Team USA fencer, says.
On March 24, the Tokyo Games were postponed. Qualifiers were scrapped, practices canceled, calendars emptied. Athletes wondered how they'd stay in shape; how they'd stay attached to their sport; in some cases, how they'd stay sane.
So, garages, and even living rooms, became weight rooms. Gymnasts built makeshift apparatuses. Synchronized swimmers synchronized themselves via Zoom. Starving competitors simulated high-stakes moments via visualization.
Almost 11,000 of them eventually qualified for the rescheduled Olympics, which begin July 23. Here’s how the most creative among them prepared during a year unlike any other.
April Ross, beach volleyball
April Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist and contender for a third in Tokyo, remembers her final stroll off Hermosa Beach last March, into the uncertainty of a coronavirus-infested world. The next day, she had no access to sand. No access to a gym. No practice.
What she did have, she later realized, was an old volleyball net in her garage. She dug it out. “Nailed some stuff to the roof,” she says. Attached the net to a palm tree in her yard. Within a day, she and her roommate had their own mini court. And if either wanted to train solo?
That's where the plywood board came in. Ross leaned it up against the base of a tree. She slapped two pieces of tape on it to mark the sweet spot. And a new drill was born:
The end product looked flawless. The process, though, required precision. The board, Ross says, "needed to be at a very specific angle to get [the ball] to bounce back over the net properly."
The other major impediment was her dog, Rooney. "You can't play sports around my dog without her needing to be a part of it," Ross says with a laugh. "She will break through a window if she hears a ball outside."
So, Ross lifted a lot. She rallied with herself against a wall. "I was just channeling what I used to do as a teenager in my backyard," she says. She also read, journaled, meditated, did yoga, and plans to adopt some of those habits as permanent ones.
"So as much as I wish it didn't happen, and I feel for everyone who was affected negatively by the pandemic, I think there was some good things for me that came out of it," Ross says.
Fencers found training dummies, both animate and inanimate
Among the many facilities that closed their doors were fencing clubs. Kat Holmes could no longer ride to hers in New York City. So she began with morning lessons in her coach's basement, a room about as wide as her wingspan. Sawdust would rain down from the foam-tiled ceiling every time her épée struck it.
"I think a piece of my soul may have died there," she says.
Back at her second-floor apartment in Princeton, New Jersey, she filled orange Home Depot buckets with sand — the best she could do for weights. She eventually hauled a squat rack into her living room as well. But, "if I missed a squat, or a deadlift, that barbell and me were going through the floor," Holmes says. Her downstairs neighbors told her: "We can literally see the floor [ceiling] bending when you jump." She used old MCAT textbooks as buffers for the weights.
And, "in the real heart of the pandemic, when it felt like it was a sin to leave the apartment," Holmes says, she did what so many other fencers around the world did: She called upon an inexperienced training dummy. Hers was her boyfriend. "He stood there and let me hit him a bunch of times," she says, matter-of-factly. Their cat, Tiger, would watch on.
Out in California, Alex Massialas took lessons with his dad, Greg — who also happens to be Team USA's head coach — on their back porch.
In Jersey City, Dagmara Wozniak stuck a mask on her weight rack and dueled.
Allyson Felix, sprinter
Track and field, on the surface, would seem to be a pandemic-friendly sport. Not a single event requires human-to-human contact.
And yet, at the heart of lockdowns, tracks, like most public spaces, were closed. Even America's most famous sprinter, Allyson Felix, struggled to find one. So she, like so many others, ran on less-than-ideal surfaces.
"We've trained on the street," Felix said. "We've trained on the beach. We've trained on San Vicente. We've been all over the place. ... As long as there's a surface to run on, we're running."
Sandi Morris, pole vault
Some field events, though, don't work on streets. Sandi Morris, a silver-medalist pole vaulter, was fortunate enough to have a spacious backyard. So she and her dad got to work. They sketched out plans like seasoned architects. They drilled and nailed together hundreds of wooden boards. They enlisted a few helpers, and built themselves a whole dang pole vault pit:
And they invited the neighbors over for the closest thing Morris could find to a competition:
Mattie Rogers and Sarah Robles, weightlifting
Weightlifters, as a species, don't exactly require glamorous setups. But they do need barbells and bumper plates, plus space and flat ground.
Mattie Rogers, a world silver medalist, had one but not the other. Her garage was on a bit of a slope. She had to create the flat ground. "So I cut up some carpet," she recalled. Living-room carpet, to be precise. "I think I had some cardboard boxes," she continued. She leveled off the incline and turned it into her quarantine training space.
Olympic bronze medalist Sarah Robles, meanwhile, took her training on the road. She installed a squat rack and rig to her SUV. And she combined workouts with road trips and picnics:
When you don't have a softball field ...
All across the U.S. Olympic landscape, COVID transmission rates and local governments determined how normally athletes could train. Monica Abbott, the softball star, pitched into a net through the door of a fence behind her Salinas, California, home.
Swimmers sought out backyard pools, and 9-by-12-foot "iPools," and even ponds. Katie Ledecky had her private space at a multimillionaire's house. Lilly King, for a bit, was breaststroking alongside frogs and small fish. The Sandpipers of Nevada, a Las Vegas club that produced three 2021 Olympians, regularly trekked to Lake Mead, where they encountered duck mites.
"They're like fleas that sit in duck poop," Erica Sullivan, one of those three Olympians, explains. "So whenever you go in and out of the water, they bite you, and they burrow themselves under your skin. So you get these raised bumps, they look like chicken pox. They were so itchy. It was awful."
Back in California, Maggie Steffens, the women's water polo GOAT, snuck onto a supposedly off-limits Long Beach:
Ginny Fuchs and Richard Torrez Jr., boxing
Some elite athletes used the alone time, and the lack of gym availability, to escape. Ginny Fuchs, a flyweight Team USA boxer, and one-time Olympic teammate Mikaela Mayer trekked up a mountainside. One would shadowbox and hit mitts with a coach while the other would take swings at a rock with a sledgehammer. Then they'd switch.
Richard Torrez Jr., another U.S. boxer, also took a sledgehammer to blocks of cement that had been deposited by Tulare, California, farmers at a local canal. He shoveled sand into buckets and lugged them down a long dirt road.
“My dad always talked about working on my grandpa’s farm and how that helped keep him in shape,” Torrez Jr. said. So he replicated his father's regimen.
Eventually, team training camps resumed. But some facilities, including the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, remained closed, or at least subject to inhibitive restrictions.
So entire teams created their own unique atmospheres. For USA Boxing, the magic happened in an abandoned Macy's. Olympians and Olympic hopefuls gathered, and sweat, and sparred, and prepared for Tokyo amid empty shoe racks and an old checkout counter.
"We had to bring in little heaters for the place," Fuchs said. "It was a little dusty. But during this pandemic, you have to figure it out. You have to make things work. And we did."
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