Training for the Olympics in the Middle of a Pandemic
Competitions in 2021 are missing part of what makes track and field amazing
Any other year I would have been on a track in Morocco, in Paris, or maybe even in Switzerland, orchestrating a crowd of fifty thousand people to clap together to watch me do something amazing. But with times as they are, my career has changed in ways I never could have imagined.
*Cue…me 😊* Hi, I’m Tori, Nike sponsored track and field professional athlete. Yes, we exist. Track and field is indeed a pro sport. You’ve seen us in the Olympics, but that’s not the only time we compete. I do triple jump. No, not the one with the pole. Nope, not the hurdles either… that’s called a hurdler. I’m the one in the sand. I jump three times, a hop, a skip, and a jump. I like to think that’s where that “it’s only a hop-skip-and a jump away” phrase came from. Anyways, that’s me… a triple jumper and two-time American Record holder.
Covid-19 has been a real pain in the ass for professional sports. I don’t say that to be insensitive to all that have truly suffered from this virus, I know there are far more important things than playing a game, a match, or a meet. But in March of 2020, our track season was slowly receding. I was training in Paris at the time with a few jumpers from the French National Team. I watched the team’s group chat as Macron, France’s president, addressed the country enforcing the first nationwide lockdown. I messaged my coach, in a panic “what should I do?”
“Get out! Save yourself! Go back to America where they don’t care about your people’s health and safety!”
I packed three weeks’ worth of clothes because this thing couldn’t possibly last much longer, and contacted the USA Track and Field Federation to book me a flight. I was gone the next morning. Training in L. A was okay at first. It was 78 degrees and sunny every day and there were multiple options when it came to finding an outdoor track to train on. Until one by one, I found the gates locked and soon had to resort to grass fields or parks. The weeks went by and meets continued to get canceled. I’d turn up at the park to see them roped off and guarded. Being the rebellious soul that I am, I often ignored the yellow tape and tried to get my workout in anyways. Yes, a lot of my competitions had been canceled but, in my mind, there was still one left, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games in four months, and I was going to do everything I could to continue to get ready for it. I was running a few strides nearly tripping over the dips and mounds in the field when a police officer pulled into the adjacent lot.
“The parks closed,” he yelled from his car window.
“Huh?” I responded, trying to buy myself time to get a few more strides in.
The cop stepped out of his car, which I’m sure he was reluctant to do, and walked over to me, maintaining his six-foot distance.
“You’re really not supposed to be out here. The park is closed,” he said.
“Oh, I know I’m sorry. I just wanted to get a quick workout in. I’m a professional athlete and I’m training for the Olympic games this summer,” I said.
“The Olympic games?!” he asked.
I told him what event I did and some of my accolades. He was excited about my journey and permitted me to stay to finish my workout. He also warned that if another officer came up to me, not to tell them he let me stay. With the parks closed, I was left with only the streets of LA to train on.
It was just a few days later when I woke up to the news that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was postponed until the summer of 2021.
It hurt like hell to read those articles. I had moved to Paris less than six months before in the hopes of meeting my fullest potential so I could prepare for the Olympics and be a podium contender. Now I wasn’t sure what all of it was for. Everything I did was in preparation for these games. My heart ached. I spent the day with the curtains drawn and my head beneath the covers. It was as if my dreams had died. For hours I laid in the same spot until I was forced to eat and get some fresh air.
Training after this was difficult. My coach said I needed to keep training as if I still had a season to prepare for. I couldn’t stop in April and expect to be in good shape the next year. The four months that followed were like the film Groundhog Day. Every day was the same. Wake up, eat, read, find a road or grass field to train, eat, stream shows, sleep. I was losing motivation to keep going with each day and as the case of George Floyd erupted it all just became too much. The protests nearly ripped my heart out. The isolation felt like I had nowhere to turn. My body felt the mental and emotional stress. Technique in my practices suffered and my coach could tell from six thousand miles away. But we had to keep going. I had to stay in shape. I needed to finish. June and July seemed to last years. When August came, my “season” was over, and I went home to Chicago to rest.
Although competitions have resumed and we once again prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, nothing about it is the same. I spent the entirety of my indoor season overseas competing in France, Poland, Germany, and Spain. Now, before you can travel to these countries you need a negative Covid test to even board the flight. In a three-day span of traveling to a country, competing, and flying home, I’ll usually take three or four Covid nasal tests.
It’s stressful to keep up with all the varying travel restrictions, like knowing whether each country requires a PCR test or if just an antigen test will do. After a competition in Madrid, a bus full of athletes headed to the airport. As we all waited in line to check in our luggage, I noticed some athletes having a hard time. The attendant at check-in was informing them that they needed both a PCR and an antigen test to board their flight. They were connecting through Torun, Poland, and needed to have both to enter that country. Something neither the meet directors nor the athletes considered when taking their tests. Luckily, the airport had a testing center across the street for situations like this. Having to drag all their luggage to be tested and wait for results seemed stressful even for me to just think about.
I’ve heard stories of athletes getting stuck in random countries due to potential contact with someone who tested positive. Meaning, the athlete tested negative for Covid, but they MAY HAVE been in contact with someone positive, which forces them to spend the following fourteen days in a hotel room.
I now train in the lovely “Mitten” state of Michigan, where we are required to wear a mask during all of our training. As if sprinting and jumping wasn’t hard enough! (Oxygen? what’s that?) But we all make do and we get the job done.
On top of the new health regulations, competitions in 2021 are missing an essential part of what makes track and field great. The spectators. I miss high-fiving the kids that reach out from the front row. I miss hearing the roar of thousands when a shot putter throws a new world record. I miss the laugh of the jumper lovers who find my dancing entertaining. I miss the energy that used to surge throughout the stadium. Like one heart with one pulse for the love of track and field.
As of right now, the stands will remain empty at competitions. Meet directors will continue to do their very best to add sound bites of crowds clapping and idle chatter to make it sound like it used to. Most meets are now available to stream so fans can still watch their favorite athletes perform. Everyone is doing their part to keep track and field alive.
Athletes repeatedly get asked, “Do you think they’ll cancel the Olympics?” Here’s the thing, we aren’t thinking about that. At this moment, they are having the games. We don’t spend our time worrying about if they won’t. Our focus is training and being the best at whatever our discipline is. Yes, during the thick of quarantine times, there was a lot of uncertainty and I know that brought anxiety to some of us, but with the games only three months away we have one goal. All other worries or thoughts or fears are swept to the side; tunnel vision. We are doing everything in OUR power to stay in shape, stay healthy, and do what we love to do. We jump, we throw, and we run. We keep going because we must. None of us are where we are in our careers because we simply give up or give in. None of us chose to be professional track and field athletes because it’s easy, we do it because we know we have what it takes. Nothing, not even that bitch ‘Rona is going to stop us from putting on a show at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.