- The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were supposed to start this week, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the IOC to postpone the games by a full year back in March.
- The world’s top athletes have found creative methods of training and spending their free time.
- Insider spoke with seven Team USA Olympians – USWNT stars Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Kelley O’Hara, swimmers Katie Ledecky and Ryan Murphy, track and field standout Colleen Quigley, and women’s basketball icon Sue Bird – about how they have coped with the delay of the games.
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We should be watching the Olympics right now.
July 24 was meant to mark the start of the 2020 Tokyo games, but the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has derailed even the biggest of plans, including this year’s summer Olympics. Back in March, the International Olympic Committee announced its decision to postpone the world’s biggest sporting event by a full calendar year.
The lives of world-class athletes are typically characterised by structure and routine, but COVID-19 and the ensuing delay of the Olympics forced hopefuls and superstars to improvise in unprecedented ways. From finding creative ways to train and pass the time to coping with uncertainty and evolving circumstances, Olympians are facing some of the toughest tests of their careers.
Insider spoke with seven prominent members of Team USA – USWNT stars Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Kelley O’Hara, swimmers Katie Ledecky and Ryan Murphy, track and field standout Colleen Quigley, and women’s basketball icon Sue Bird – about their reactions to the Olympics delay and what they have been up to since.
Here’s what they had to say:
How did you learn of the IOC’s decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics, and what was your initial response to the IOC’s decision?
Sue Bird (USA Women’s Basketball): For me, because I was in Seattle when COVID started to hit – it was like end of February when the talk of it started and sadly that care centre in Kirkland that got hit the hardest – so it actually gave me this perspective early on of like “Woah, life’s gonna be different.” I had even thought about the Olympics in a conversation with my father. He was like, “Hey, they might not have the Olympics,” and I was like, “What, really?”
So the seed had already been planted, and I would say when the Olympics got delayed versus being cancelled, I was kind of relieved … Now, as a 39-year-old, that relief could go away in a second because so much can happen in a year physically. Not even for myself, but I think for every athlete in every sport to have it delayed versus having it cancelled is a good thing, and we’ll just see what happens come 2021 now. Hopefully, we’re able to pull it off, but again there’s no playbook for this. We’re in unprecedented times with this pandemic. We’ll just have to play it by ear.
Colleen Quigley (USA Track & Field): It’s been a few months now, and it feels like this is just our life now. In January, when we were doing indoor track, and we were like, “It’s an Olympic year!” and I actually had a really good indoor season. I ran a couple 1500s, a couple 3000s, and two of my teammates and I all ran under the previous American record in indoor 3000 and was feeling really good about my momentum going into an Olympic year. I signed two contracts with two new sponsors and was feeling like, “This is what an Olympic year should feel like!” I’m running fast, I have sponsors I’m really excited about, momentum is growing, and then it all sort of just blew up. Obviously, nothing I could’ve done about that but it still felt like, “Aw, dang it!”
It does help knowing that there’s nothing I could’ve done. I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past and a lot of disappointments. Last summer, I dropped out of the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, because of an injury. I had qualified for the team and then hurt my hip about a month before worlds and had to drop out, so I’m no stranger to the disappointment.
Basically, I just feel like it was easier to take the news because I felt that sense of togetherness and that we’re all dealing with the disappointment and the challenge together. It’s not just me dealing with an injury and feeling like I’m missing out on something. It’s that we’re all doing this, we’re all postponing a year, and so I think that makes it a lot easier for me personally.
Katie Ledecky (USA Swimming): When the postponement decision was made, it was a feeling of relief given a bit of stress had built up over the week or two before that decision was made because we didn’t know what was going to happen one way or the other. It was a state of limbo that we were in and we were scrambling to figure out our training situation. So once the decision was made it was some relief and then I was able to start shifting my focus towards next year and trying to use this year as an opportunity and not as a setback to really be more than ready for the Olympics in Tokyo and to try to feel more prepared next year than I would have been this year. I feel like I’m on track and I’m really excited about the work that I’ve already put in the past couple of months and how that’s going to set me up for this next year.
Ryan Murphy (USA Swimming): I was up in Colorado Springs training at the Olympic and Paralympic training centre up there. We got a call on a Tuesday night saying ‘Hey, the Colorado governor is shutting down the training centre so you guys have to get out of there’ so we left on a Wednesday morning. The Olympic decision came down the following Tuesday, so there was a six-day period between us leaving Colorado and the Olympic decision. So we came back and we were obviously keeping up with the news and seeing how this situation was evolving. That was tough.
Every day, it felt like we were losing another resource. So one day it was like “OK, you can’t go in the weight room at Cal anymore” and the next day it was like “OK, you can’t use the pool at Cal anymore.” In my mind, I knew these resources were going away but the Olympics hadn’t been postponed at this point, so my mentality was like “I’m in a really good spot athletically right now and I’m in a good spot mentally, so I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to find a way to be ready in the midst of all this craziness.” That was my mentality, and I was really locked in. I was doing pull-ups on my tree and doing really hard workouts in my house just to make sure I was staying in really good shape.
And then the situation continued to evolve. I got a call from my coach, Dave Durden, who is the head Olympic coach for the now 2021 Olympics. He called me on Monday night and was like “Hey Ryan, we’ve done a really good job over these past couple of days. I’m really proud of how you guys approached it. You’ve stayed on task, you’ve done everything we’ve asked of you, but we’re going to take a step back and take a week off because the Olympics are going to be postponed sometime soon.” So I got a bit of a heads up on that and then Tuesday morning it was about 6 a.m. my time that the Olympics got postponed. I was asleep because the night before Dave said we were taking a week off so I was like “OK, well whatever, I’m sleeping in now.”
How have you been coping mentally with the changes and challenges that have come with a locked-down world?
Tobin Heath (US Women’s National Soccer Team):I’m going through different waves of what this quarantining time has felt like. Originally it felt very confined because we’re so used to living life on the go. I haven’t spent this much time in one place ever in my whole entire life, so at first, I feel like I had this itch to go, to move, to be somewhere different. But once that subsided, I really changed my perspective of this time and I didn’t wish for something that was. I started thinking ‘What can I be doing and how can I be living in the best way possible with a lot of growth and a lot of challenges?’ which is what I’m used to but maybe in a different way. Once I changed my perspective, I really started enjoying and embracing this time. So many hard things have been happening, but understanding that through those hard things there’s so much growth, there’s so much introspection, there’s so much possibility. With that, I’m trying to really lean into those parts.
Christen Press (US Women’s National Soccer Team): This has been an interesting time for everyone to sit with themselves and to have some stillness. If that means not flying all over the world or not being able to do your normal job or live your normal lifestyle. But that force of change is a reminder that everything’s transient and the idea that we know what’s going to happen in the future is an illusion. And I think I needed that reminder. In that, it’s of course emotionally and mentally hard, especially with football not having the next date, like training for something. For me, it’s about being healthy and fit and ready but also not like anxiously overdoing everything. You kind of have to stay in a place where you’re joyous, where you’re enjoying every training, and being comfortable isn’t really a part of my job normally; it’s always about getting past that.
Ledecky (USA Swimming): It’s going to be a big year and we’re still planning out our competition schedule and stuff like that. But I love training. I love the feeling of a hard workout and I love the feeling of building up a lot of great training sessions because that’s what really does give me confidence behind the block. Having a teammate to push me has been super important.
Murphy (USA Swimming): I’m trying to stay flexible and really be able to change my direction really quickly. This is a good time to practice that. There are a lot of things that I’m learning in this time that are applicable to when life goes back to normal. Honestly, I view it as a challenge to stay on top of everything mentally.
Quigley (USA Track & Field): We have a really positive group of people just generally. Not a lot of mopers or woe is me type of people. When we found out the news, there was an initial disappointment and bummed out, but then we pretty quickly picked up again. We just kept practicing – we started meeting in small groups of two or three instead of meeting in a big group of 20+ people. We just kept doing workouts. We kept training. No days off, no time to really mope about it.
Our group is so lucky. It would be a ton harder, I imagine, to keep working and keep training when you don’t have that support system and those training partners to help motivate you every day and just be there to commiserate with. Right now, I train with six other women who have been working out together pretty much every day and just having them there right alongside me, that’s huge just emotionally and mentally. I’m super grateful for that.
How have you gotten creative with your training?
Kelley O’Hara (US Women’s National Soccer Team):I applaud the NWSL for creating this [NWSL Challenge Cup] environment and designing the protocol that they have because since every team has gotten here no one’s tested positive. We’ve been able to run a tournament and be able to play soccer.
I had a little bit of a quad strain before the first game, which was a major bummer, but at the same time, it wasn’t anything serious. I did think about going home just because I was like ‘If I can’t play, why stay here?’ But at the end of the day, it was good to be here… I would have just gone home and tried to figure out rehab at home and I was like I might as well stay here [in Utah] and play because that’s what I want to do.
Ledecky (USA Swimming): [USA Swimming teammate] Simone [Manuel] and I spent three months training in a backyard pool. A very kind family in the Bay Area here allowed us to go to their backyard every day and swim … A couple months it was just Simone and me and we were training hard. It was great to just be able to stay in the water and keep the feel for the water. That’s the most important thing for a swimmer. So we were just able to maintain a level of fitness, keep that feel for the water, and it was just great to have some sense of normalcy during that time by going to swim.
While we were in the backyard pool I was also doing all of my lifting sessions in my apartment. I bought as much equipment as I could online, but it was a period of time when everyone was doing the same thing, so it took a little time for some of the equipment to come. I kept buying more and more stuff as I realised it was going to be a longer period of time that we would be doing that, so I have a pull-up bar still hanging in my doorway to my bedroom. I have lots of bands and dumbbells lying on my floor in my living room right now. I was able to still get my workouts in and really just try to stick to the routine as much as I could.
Murphy (USA Swimming): On the resources side, we don’t have access to a weight room. I’m working out in my garage and getting creative with that. Luckily, I live with five other people so we do have a workout group going on which is fun. We’re just getting creative. We’ve got our boxing bag, we’ve got our ropes, I got a bike the other day, one of my roommates set up a pull-up bar. We’re motivating each other and keeping each other accountable in that. The swimming is a little bit sporadic. We’re operating on a three- to four-day schedule. Sometimes we’ll have access to a pool, sometimes we won’t and that’s ok.
We were like “I don’t really feel like we’ve worked out our legs that much so what could we do?” I looked at my car and I was like “Dude, I guess we could try to push my car and see how far that goes” and he was like “Alright, let’s do it.” … We just popped the car in neutral and were pushing it along the road and seeing if we could keep trying to get it up a hill. We ultimately couldn’t get it up the hill, because I think this car is like 5,000 pounds. The car is very heavy.
I love in this time just getting creative. We’re a very routine-oriented sport, so for the past six or seven years since I’ve been training at Cal, I’ve had the same sort of practice schedule and I’ve had similar weights, so this has been really interesting to experiment with new things and I’m finding things that I want to keep in my training plan, and that’s something I’ve really enjoyed about this time.
Quigley (USA Track & Field): We actually ended up being able to have some intra-squad races at the end of the summer. We’ve had three now. We’re just racing each other – just our teammates.
We did a 1500 and ended the night with an intra-squad mixed-gender 4x400m relay. We got the batons out and we did two dudes and two women on a team. Coach divvied up the teams and tried to make them pretty even and then the teams got to decide the order. So some teams went male, male, female, female; some went female, male, male, female; my team went guy, guy, girl, girl… So you had men running against women and everyone’s just all-out sprinting a 400. You had a couple 10k marathoners trying to sprint and then some 1500m runners running really fast. It was hilarious and also just a super fun team-building thing, too.
How are you keeping yourself motivated for a full extra year of preparation?
Heath (US Women’s National Soccer Team):Hopefully, football will be back in the day we want it to be back in and I know that we’ll be totally ready and prepared for that. In my opinion, that’s the easy part, to continue to do what you love, to focus, to train, there’s no extra motivation that needs to be added to that. Once we have a better understanding of what’s next for that, you can really focus and tune into what you need for that. But not waiting for things to come back to normal, but realising that this is the new normal and the way that you live your life shouldn’t ever be waiting for something else to happen. You should be stepping out and stepping forward and continuing to live in the same beliefs and the same motivations that allow you to be the way you want to be in one way, you can continue to be additive to your life in other ways. For me, there’s even more motivation now than ever, even though it seems like there shouldn’t be.
Press (US Women’s National Soccer Team): It’s a balance. A balance of staying fit, staying healthy, staying ready, staying sharp, but also staying fresh and living today for its fullest, so it’s great that I love what I do. It’s easy to continue to go out to the field, even if I’m by myself or running and lifting and doing what I need to do – it’s actually easy because I love what I do. It’s also [about] what else do I want to do during these days because this isn’t a time to be stagnant. This is a time to be my best self, and I want to bring my best self to my training every day and I want to bring my best self to my company every day and the projects I’m taking on.
I’m really using this time to build a balanced life and to be smart about being prepared. That’s hard to do when you don’t have a date to train for, so just not thinking too far ahead, just being really present in the moment that I’m in and the training that I’m doing and believing that exactly what I’m doing is the only thing I need to worry about. That mindset of coming back to the day, coming back to the touch, to the shot, to the exercise that I need to do, is the best way for me to get through this long stretch of time.
Ledecky (USA Swimming): I’m excited that it’s one year out from the [now 2021] Olympics… I have specific goals for each of my events and the events I’m focused on are the 200, 400, 800, 1500 freestyle and hopefully getting on the 4×200 freestyle relay. What’s really exciting about that to me is that the 1500 free is in the Olympics for the first time. That’s one of my best events and it does add a potential 3000 meters to my racing schedule because there’s prelims and finals, so it’s a pretty big load and it’s something that I have to train really hard for.
The 1500 free actually falls on the same day as the 200 free. So I’ll be potentially competing in my shortest event and longest event on the same day. The finals for those two races are about an hour apart so that’s a big day. That’s the day I always keep in mind when I’m training. Yeah, I’m training for that day when that opportunity comes.
It’s gonna be a challenge and it’s why I love the sport. I love the challenge. I love what I’m working towards and I’m enjoying each day along the journey.
Murphy (USA Swimming): My phone started ringing at 6 a.m. [the morning the Olympics were officially postponed] and it was just a lot of people that wanted to talk. It was a lot of national team teammates, which was really cool. So that whole Tuesday was essentially spent talking on the phone with a lot of my buddies on the national team and we were kind of like talking through our emotions and it was a total mix. We were all supporting each other because we knew everyone was in a good spot. We knew everyone was ready to go and that the US was set up to have a really good Olympics performance.
That was really exciting in the moment that we were ready to go but at the same time the Olympics were postponed and we were like “Even though we don’t know when they’re postponed to yet, we’re going to be ready no matter what. Whenever the Olympics are, we’re going to be ready for it and we’re going to be really good.”
Quigley (USA Track & Field): I have realised that I enjoy what I’m doing way more when I can share it with other people – when it’s not just like I go out, I win a race, and I go back to my training hole. I go to meets, and even if I don’t win, there are kids there with my picture and they’re asking for my autograph and they made a sign with my name on it saying “Go, Colleen!”
This is bigger than just me and just medals. I really have an opportunity to connect with people and inspire people and especially young girls who look up to me and want to do what I do, and so I don’t want to miss that opportunity or let it go by. I definitely want to take advantage of that and lean into that responsibility.
When you aren’t training, how have you been spending your time?
Bird (USA Women’s Basketball): I’m in the Wubble Wubble [the WNBA 2020 season “bubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida] and it’s good. Pretty uneventful, which I think is the biggest compliment I can give. We’re all just out here playing basketball and trying to find ways to entertain ourselves.
It’s great to have [Megan Rapinoe] here. Obviously she’s a support system for me. And to be honest, there’s a lot of downtime, so it’s nice to have your girlfriend here and be able to experience it together.
Heath (US Women’s National Soccer Team): In the beginning we were waiting for things to go back to normal, waiting to see what was going to happen with the Olympics, or something like that. Then I think once you get past the waiting part you realise that it’s simply just life. There’s some things that you can’t control in life and the importance is to not wait, to continue to live and continue to grow… We’re so fortunate because we get to do it through football and it’s something that we love and we’ve dedicated our lives to, but we also have these beautiful other avenues to share and to inspire with.
O’Hara (US Women’s National Soccer Team):Because I play for the team here in Utah, we actually get to stay at our apartments so we’re not at a hotel or housing situation like some of the other teams. It’s actually been a lot easier than I thought it would be. At the end of the day, during the season I’m not really going out undoing much. The only thing I miss is going for a hike or being able to be out in nature, which we’re not allowed to do, which is sad. But it’s actually been fine… I’m just at the facility or I’m at home hanging out, doing podcasts.
I’ve really enjoyed the conversations that we’ve recorded [for the Just Women’s Sports podcast] so far. I leave each one feeling inspired and super thankful. It’s a good, positive energy that I get out of [hosting]… I was hesitant because this is something I’ve never done before, but through some back and forth figuring it out I decided to come on board.
Ledecky (USA Swimming): I was actually taking this Olympic year off from classes in order to train and travel as much as I was. When the postponement was announced, that actually coincided right with the start of spring quarter at Stanford, and by then the classes had moved online … I was actually able to jump back into classes right at the start of spring quarter which was early April for Stanford. So I took four classes in the spring between April and mid-June and then I had about two weeks off from classes before starting the summer quarter. I’m taking four classes right now, again, for the eight-week quarter. I’m about halfway through. I have a paper due tonight and a couple midterms next week.
That’s been great. It’s been keeping me busy and I’ll actually be completing my degree this fall, so I’ll have my degree by December. It’s a silver lining out of all this – I’ll be getting my degree a little bit earlier than I anticipated because of how I was able to jump back into classes.
Quigley (USA Track & Field): Anything I normally do outside of running I feel I’m still able to do from home. I sit in my NormaTec sleeves and check emails or answer interview questions. I’ve been actually Skyping a lot of high school and college teams, especially back when they were finding out that their track seasons were cancelled. They would get together on Zoom or Skype and ask athletes to talk to them and try and bring some motivation and inspiration and stuff.
I have a website that I upkeep and try to create new content for. I have a newsletter that I send out to fans and followers with recipes that I’m cooking, workouts that I’m doing from home, and stuff like that that I’m up to.
- Read more:
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- Stars of US women’s soccer are done waiting for others to help level the playing field and are creating their own opportunities while inspiring others
- We spoke to USWNT star Kelley O’Hara about interviewing iconic female athletes for her new podcast with Just Women’s Sports
- Simone Biles is still set to retire after the Tokyo Olympics but says the worst part of the delay is having to deal with USA Gymnastics for another year